Above: Students and coordinators with the Crossing the Cistern program gathered for an end-of-year celebration on April 30, 2021.

It only takes a spark to light a fire. And, when that fire burns bright – that’s when it really takes off.

And the College of Charleston Crossing the Cistern (CTC) program has done just that.

The Office of Institutional Diversity (OID) first launched the momentum program in 2017 to provide not just financial support, but encouragement, academic support, mentoring, internships and volunteer experiences to sophomores and juniors with GPAs between 2.0 and 2.5.

Renard Harris at CTC Celebration

Rénard Harris, vice president of access and inclusion in the Office of Institutional Diversity and the College’s chief diversity officer, speaks at the Crossing the Cistern End-of-Year Celebration. (Photos by Heather Moran)

“The idea is that, by engaging students’ well-being and giving them these good experiences in college, we can take them from surviving to thriving,” says Rénard Harris, vice president of access and inclusion in the OID and the College’s chief diversity officer.

Harris says that one of the goals of the program is to improve retention rates by reengaging and reenergizing students.

“We want to get them excited, give them a lot of positive energy so that they will graduate and then go into the workforce with that same energy,” he says.

And the pilot program worked: Over three years, it boosted the academic and overall well-being of nearly 40 students, igniting a sense of confidence in them and setting them up for professional success and bright futures.

Now it has sparked something bigger: new pilot programs in each of the College’s six academic schools.

“This has significantly increased the program’s impact,” says Harris, explaining that, for the first time this academic year, the CTC program was facilitated not by OID, but by coordinators in each of the schools – allowing the program to support 50–70 students a year rather than just 12–13.

The OID continues to provide financial assistance, advise the coordinators, collect data and meet with representatives – but the schools’ coordinators are leading their respective programs on their own, with guest speakers, one-on-one advising and other experiences.

“The coordinators know much more than I know about what needs to happen in each specific school,” says Harris. “The core remains well-being, experience, support, mentorship, but the coordinators have full control of how they might drive the program.”

And they’ve learned a lot over their first year in the role.

“When this program was handed over to me, I really had no idea what was needed,” says Amanda Ruth-McSwain, associate professor of communication and the CTC coordinator for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. “At the start, I required volunteer hours, community projects, tutoring sessions – and we do some of that still. But, what I realized over the past year is that it’s about relationships – now our one-on-one mentor meetings are the most rich and meaningful part of the experience.”

The student participants agree.

daniel garcia

Daniel Garcia ’21, a international business major, credits the Crossing the Cistern program for his recent acceptance into a dual degree program through Cornell University.

“The part of the program that had the most impact on everyone, I think, was the one-on-one mentoring that we had with our directors,” says recent CTC graduate Daniel Garcia ’21, an international business major and French business language minor who gives his CTC coordinator, Associate Dean of the School of Business Jocelyn Evans, credit for his acceptance into Cornell University’s Master of Industrial and Labor Relations/Master of International Management dual-degree graduate program at University College Dublin. “Dr. Evans has been amazing at tutoring and making connections for me.”

And that is what it’s all about, says CTC coordinator Anthony James, director of minority education and outreach in the School of Education, Health, and Human Performance (EHHP).

“As I said many times, this program was about much more than the scholarship,” James said in an address to the students at the CTC End-of-Year Celebration last month. “It was about building connections and relationships with each other and other institutions, such as MUSC (the Medical University of South Carolina), to put you in the best position to succeed. Many of you took advantage of the opportunities presented to you.”

jasmine bess

The Crossing the Cistern program connected Jasmine Bess, a rising senior majoring in public health, with a post-baccalaureate program.

Jasmine Bess was one of those students. When JacKetta Cobbs, admissions coordinator for the Department of Public Health Sciences at MUSC, spoke to the CTC students in the EHHP program, Bess jumped at the opportunity to connect with Cobbs, who introduced her to Alexis Bailey, the manager of recruitment and diversity education at MUSC.

“From there it really took off,” says Bess, a rising senior who started out as a biology major before making the move to the public health program. “I gave her my whole spiel about how I wanted to be an OBGYN, but felt like I was pushing my dream farther and farther down the road.

“She gave me some super strong words of encouragement and said not to lose sight of my goals,” continues Bess, adding that Bailey connected her to a contact in the premedical and pre-dental post-baccalaureate program at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who encouraged her to apply to the program. “That was a game changer. Ms. Alexis showed me another way to reach my career goals.”

Nicole Chica Chacha found some direction through the CTC program, too.

nicole chica

Nicole Chica Chacha, a rising senior majoring in international business, says the Crossing the Cistern program helped her grades and confidence.

“When you are in college, it’s easy to feel lost. Then, when you have someone there that is like, ‘You’re doing it right. This is how you do it,’ it can give you the push that you need,” says the rising senior majoring in international business. “For me, the program was a place to grow as a person, as a professional. It has improved my grades and improved my confidence, and now I feel more prepared to go out into the workforce.”

“And that’s the point: The College has shared responsibility for a healthy workforce,” says Harris. “We’re going to do whatever we can to support you – as a student and after graduation. As long as you’re a Cougar, we’ve got your back.”

And that support is getting even stronger every year.

“Moving into this next season of CTC, we understand how to better support our students and what resources and commitment is needed to make a difference,” says Ruth-McSwain. “And we all get a great deal out of that work in return.”

“The fact is, this is going to be part of the culture at CofC,” says Harris, noting that he hopes a pilot program for CTC will start in professional studies next. “We want to make sure it’s spread throughout and across campus fully.”