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Riding Into College With Your Posse

For many high-school seniors, receiving the long-awaited letter of acceptance into a college or a university is conquering half the battle. Once settling in on campus, incoming students can feel as if they are in “The Twilight Zone.” University life is challenging and often frightening, but like taking a road trip with friends, the journey is less daunting with one’s posse, so to speak, by your side.

That is exactly the idea behind the Posse Foundation. Since it’s founding in 1989, the foundation has worked to support students in their college endeavors with a network of similarly motivated peers already in place. Posse partners with colleges and universities to award students four-year, full-tuition scholarships “to ensure that Posse Scholars persist in their academic studies and graduate so they can take on leadership positions in the workforce,” its mission states.

The foundation aims “to extend to these students the opportunity to pursue personal and academic excellence by placing them in supportive, multicultural teams (‘Posses’)…,” reads the organization’s 2006 annual report.

“Posse is among the most comprehensive and unique programs of its kind,” says Rassan Salandy, the national director of university recruitment and public relations for the Posse Foundation. “Posse Scholars graduate at a rate of ninety percent, which is well above the national average,” he says. “Since the majority — something like 85 percent — of Posse Scholars are either Hispanic or African American, it is reasonable to infer that their success rate mirrors that of the Posse scholars in general.”

In today’s increasingly competitive and multicultural society, many colleges and universities welcome innovative programs that lend a hand in recruiting and retaining minority students. One of Posse’s goals is to help colleges enroll students from diverse backgrounds that the school might not have otherwise attracted.

“Many scholars are first-generation students. Some are from less than affluent families,” Salandy says. “But whatever their individual circumstances, their team, or Posse, is a powerful support system that facilitates Scholars’ academic and personal success.”

Jessica Flores, a Posse Scholar and native of Pasadena, Calif., is a freshman at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., where she is majoring in international business and management and learning Italian as a third language. Flores says she did not realize the impact Posse would have on her life.

“When I look back one generation and compare my life to my mother’s life, the decisions we have made are similar, but the circumstances are different,” says Flores. “My mother left her home in Mexico to come to the U.S. to work for her family and help herself. But she had no support and no guidance. I, on the other hand, have had that guidance and support from Posse that my mother lacked, but I did not move to the other side of the country to work, but to receive an education.”

The Posse Foundation originated from the principle that no student should make the college trip on his or her own. Deborah Bial started the program 13 years ago as “a response to a student who said that he never would have dropped out of college if he’d had his posse with him.”

Today, Posse chapters are set up in six cities across the country — Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C. — all with the mission to identify high-school students with academic and leadership potential and offer them the opportunity to pursue college ambitions. The foundation places them in supportive teams of ten and partners those teams with 28 colleges and universities, which include Brandies University, Oberlin College and Vanderbilt University. 

In 2007, Bial received a MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grant for the work of the Posse Foundation, and, as mentioned in the Posse newsletter, the $500,000 grant will help to support and further the organization’s goals over the next five years.

Elena M. Bernal, the co-liaison for the Posse Foundation at Grinnell College, in Iowa, says its Posse Scholars “are selected because they demonstrate extraordinary ability to overcome obstacles, to access resources, to negotiate conflict, to work in teams, and to contribute to cross-cultural communication through leadership.” Bernal is also special assistant to the president for diversity and achievement and interim vice president for student affairs.

“They [students] come to the college with the resilience and group support to bump up against hidden campus cultural norms that unintentionally shape policies, programs and services in ways that produce struggles when working to serve the increasing diversity of our entire student body,” Bernal said. “Partnering with Posse facilitates institutional self-discovery and learning required to advance a culture of diversity on our campus as we strive to connect access and selectivity in new ways.”

To get into the program, Salandy says, “Students take part in a rigorous, three-stage screening process, which we refer to as our Dynamic Assessment Process (DAP).”

He says students are asked to identify their top three desired schools among the partner colleges and universities. In addition to traditional measures of academic ability, Salandy adds that DAP looks at “non-cognitive traits such as communication skills, ability to work well in a team, level of motivation, etc.”

“Through this process we are able to identify not only academically capable students, but also gifted student leaders,” he says.

Once students have settled at a school, their posse is assigned to a faculty mentor who meets with the group and conducts one-on-one meetings with each student during his or her first two years.

At Dickinson, Flores says, “Throughout the Posse process, I have been joined by eleven other students from the Los Angeles area that have been with me in this journey. We have grown together from naive high-school seniors to first years at Dickinson.

Flores says her posse has “become my family at college who understand me the best because we are all going through the same process.”

“I cannot say that my transition to college was easy,” she adds. “The workload and what was expected of me truly challenged me, and there were times when I thought I was not capable. But my Posse and my mentor believed in me and helped me stand on my own two feet.”

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