A Posse for Veterans: A Foundation Makes Elite Colleges Accessible to Those Who Served

By Charles, Nick | Diverse Issues in Higher Education, March 10, 2016 | Go to article overview

A Posse for Veterans: A Foundation Makes Elite Colleges Accessible to Those Who Served


Charles, Nick, Diverse Issues in Higher Education


COLLEGE, FAR LESS SOME LEAFY, ivy-festooned campus, was almost the last thing on Michael Smith's mind during his time in the military. The South Side Chicago native joined the Marines in January 2001, nine months before 9/11, and in subsequent years was deployed twice to Iraq.

"It did cross my mind," said Smith, 36, who attained the rank of E-5 Sergeant. "But I never took any steps to actualize it. Most veterans don't consider going to competitive institutions. Most don't think these are available to them, and no one in my family went to an elite university. In my circle of friends, in my church community, there were no examples."

Yet a little over a decade after serving his country, Smith is a sophomore at the prestigious Wesleyan University in Connecticut thanks to a hypercompetitive placement program for veterans established by The Posse Foundation. The foundation began in 1989, to identify, recruit, place, retain and nurture urban youth who exhibited academic and leadership potential, but who might otherwise be missed by the traditional recruitment practices of elite colleges and universities.

"It all started because someone overheard a kid say, T would never have dropped out if I had my posse with me,'" said Deborah Bial, the organization's founder and president.

Bial found a way to give each student "a posse" at college. The foundation puts its scholars in diverse teams of 10 attending the same college. They provide a support network for each other throughout their college experience. Mentors meet with them as a team and individually. The program boasts a 90 percent graduation rate.

Much applauded and decorated, Bial herself was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007; and in 2010, President Barack Obama named Posse one of 10 nonprofits with which he would share his Nobel Peace Prize money. As of 2016, close to 7,000 students have won $930 million in scholarships from Posse partner colleges and universities.

Catharine Bond Hill, president of one of the Posse partner institutions, Vassar College, came to Bial several years ago and asked: "Could you apply the concept to post-9/11 veterans?"

"She felt they were not getting enough veterans on campus," said Bial. "They (veterans) were not thinking of these elite colleges for many reasons; going to school with younger people; staying local or going away to college; and of course, the prohibitive cost."

While Vassar was the first to admit veterans under the Posse initiative program in 2013, it has been expanded to Dartmouth College and Wesleyan University. "I'm a big fan of the program," said Michael Roth, president of Wesleyan University. "It gives us as an institution the opportunity to give opportunities to people who have served their country. Veterans who come to us don't fit any stereotypes, and they come to us from all over the country. They haven't gone to fancy high schools like some of our students, but their experiences prepare them for the rigorous academia. Remember, most of the learning on a liberal arts campus takes place outside the classroom."

Roth also emphasizes the benefit that accrues to the other students who found their way to Wesleyan through traditional avenues. "They (veterans) can contribute to topics like politics, economics, everything under the sun," he said. "They come with a lot of smarts and they come with a lot more experience than the typical 18-year-old. Having someone next to you who was deployed to Afghanistan... they have a different lens to look at the world. Some may be more conservative but not all of them. …

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