Bridge Program honors newest class of college-bound seniors at 38th annual Cigna Saturday Academy Awards Ceremony

by | Feb 26, 2024

More than 300 area high school students completed the precollegiate program this year. Among them were 81 seniors, who've been accepted into more than 120 colleges and universities.
The 2024 graduating class of the UMSL Bridge Program Cigna Saturday Academy on stage at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center

Members of the 2024 senior class of students in the UMSL Bridge Program Cigna Saturday Academy gathered on stage at the conclusion of the 38th annual award ceremony on Sunday at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center. (Photos by Steve Walentik)

Sunday marked a homecoming for the University of Missouri–St. Louis Bridge Program as it celebrated its 38th annual Cigna Saturday Academy Award Ceremony at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center after years of holding the event off campus.

Parents, family members, friends, school officials and members of the UMSL and surrounding communities turned out in formal dress to honor the accomplishments of more than 300 area high school students who completed the program this year.

UMSL Bridge Program Executive Director Channon Peoples drapes a graduation cord around a senior completed the UMSL Bridge Program Cigna Saturday Academy

Bridge Program Excecutive Director Channon Peoples draped graduation cords around members of the senior class completing the Cigna Saturday Academy during an awards ceremony Sunday afternoon.

“Students, today – this day – is all about you,” Executive Director Channon Peoples said as she welcomed the audience to the Touhill. “We want you to know that we see you. We applaud you, and we will continue to believe in you.”

She also had a word of gratitude for the way the program has continued to grow and thrive over decades, with this year’s 81 seniors providing the latest evidence of its success.

“It’s all because of your belief in what we do,” Peoples said. “It has too many testimonials and success stories to name, but each of you have become a part of that.”

Bridge students gather two Saturday each month on the UMSL campus for extra instruction in mathematics, science and written and oral communication and also personal and professional development.

Since 2003, 100% of graduates from the Saturday Academy have matriculated to college.

Members of this year’s senior class have been accepted to more than 120 colleges and universities and been offered nearly $9 million in scholarships, a record in the history of the Bridge Program.

STEAM Academy sophomore Malachi Miller performs the song "Believer" on piano during the 38th annual Cigna Saturday Academy Awards Ceremony.

Bridge Program student Malachi Miller, a sophomore at STEAM Academy at McCluer South-Berkeley, performs the song “Believer” on piano during the 38th annual Cigna Saturday Academy Awards Ceremony.

Those in attendance had the chance to hear from two of this year’s seniors – Jaidon Evans of STEAM Academy at McCluer South-Berkeley, who served as the master of ceremonies, and Ismail Botchway of Collegiate School of Medicine and Bioscience, who was chosen to share his reflections on the program – along with junior Katia Guerrero of O’Fallon Township High School, who served as the mistress of ceremonies.

“The UMSL Bridge Program has been instrumental in my development as a leader and scholar throughout high school,” said Botchway, who plans to study political science and pursue a career as an attorney. “A bridge is defined as a structure that allows people to cross over obstacles that would otherwise be difficult or impossible. This program has allowed us to succeed in high school and cross from freshman year to senior year and now to our post-secondary education and goals. I’ve been a member of the UMSL Bridge Program since freshman year, and for the past four years, I’ve been supported by staff, students and mentors. I have truly benefited from the wonderful curriculum.”

Evans, who plans to study journalism and political science and pursue a career in broadcast media, said the experiences he’s had in the program have given him confidence to step into a college environment.

Deepshikha Banerjee performs an Indian dance during the Cigna Saturday Academy Awards Ceremony at the Touhill.

Bridge Program student Deepshikha Banerjee, a sophomore at Parkway Central High School, performs an Indian dance during the Cigna Saturday Academy Awards Ceremony at the Touhill.

“The Bridge Program has helped me understand the randomness and spontaneity of life as a college student, and that it’s really important to prepare yourself for all that will come your way,” Evans said. “Throughout the program, we’ve done various exercises to help us simulate what hurdles and obstacles we will encounter upon our college journeys. The Bridge Program has done a great job of preparing us for those challenges and understanding how to deal with that in the real world. For that, I’m truly grateful.”

In some ways, Botchway, Evans and their Bridge Program classmates are too close to fully appreciate the impact the program can have.

That’s why it was so valuable for them and the rest of the audience to hear from Khyree Plair, who completed the Saturday Academy in 2020.

“Just so you all know, I never really wanted to go to college,” Plair said. “It just didn’t seem exciting. But the thing is, when you sign up for Bridge, you’re kind of summoned to the statement they tell you every year: 100% of their participants do go to college.”

Plair talked about the anxiety she felt each year that she might be the statistic who does not.

Ian Buchanan, CEO of Nia Education Group, delivers the keynote address during the 38th annual Cigna Saturday Academy Award Ceremony.

Ian Buchanan, CEO of Nia Education Group, delivers the keynote address during the 38th annual Cigna Saturday Academy Award Ceremony.

“But then you blink,” Plair said, “and you are into four years of your education. You’re in the process of graduating debt-free with a bachelor’s in management with an emphasis in human resources and a minor in film production. By the time you walk across the stage, you would have studied abroad three times. At this point, you’ve been recognized for at least three leadership awards, and you’re preparing for your first big girl job at Edward Jones after graduation.”

To the students, she added: “I ask that you continue to push forward in a positive direction so that you can get where you didn’t know you needed to be and sometimes – most of the time – where you want to be eventually.”

The students also received words of encouragement from keynote speaker Ian Buchanan, the CEO of Nia Education Group and the former chief academic officer for the School District of University City.

“Part of your challenge, young people, is to figure out what role you will play in this world and what your future will be,” Buchanan told them. “Part of your challenge is to figure out what your purpose is. But by virtue of you being in this audience, you are already winning. You’re already on your way. So I congratulate and I salute you for what you’ve done, what you will do, but most importantly, I salute you for the human beings that you are.”

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Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik

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