Posse Potential ; United by a Scholarship and a Multicultural Mission, 10 Boston Students Head off to Bowdoin College

By Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, August 29, 2000 | Go to article overview

Posse Potential ; United by a Scholarship and a Multicultural Mission, 10 Boston Students Head off to Bowdoin College


Stacy A. Teicher writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Marie Jo Felix arrived at her first-year students' dorm last weekend and began unpacking the tokens of home: a stuffed Eeyore, pictures of friends, Afrocentric gifts from her sister.

Bowdoin College is only a few hours' drive from Boston. But its base in sleepy Brunswick, Maine, makes it another world altogether. So, too, does its largely white student body, replete with elite prep school grads, standing in sharp contrast to the throngs of urban, minority teens who inhabit South Boston High School.

Marie Jo, though, exudes confidence. After all, she was the one who dared to wear a pink boa to her Bowdoin interview. But her assurance has a source beyond individual boldness. If culture shock does set in - whether because of race, geography, money, social life, or academics - she knows she can always turn to her "posse."

Marie Jo and nine other students have come to Bowdoin through the school's new partnership with The Boston Posse Program, an expansion of the Posse Foundation in New York. Each year, a handful of schools give merit scholarships to these groups of urban students, and they come with a mission - to open up the lines of cross-cultural communication on campus and to help one another succeed.

The members of Bowdoin Posse 1 are a whirl of energy and colors, of Haitian and Colombian and "Bahstan" accents, tattoos and teen fashions, political consciousness and poetry. They count among them a soccer player and a pianist, a Guardian Angel and a dancer.

This is the story of how 10 strangers became a family, drawn together by their own academic aspirations and spirit of service - and by a college's desire to let diversity get both feet in the door.

The backdrop is the increasing concern among selective colleges in the United States that the traditional admissions approach, with its heavy weight on transcripts and standardized-test scores, overlooks too much potential - especially that of underrepresented minorities or low-income students who often attend substandard schools.

But schools are realizing that simply opening the door may not be enough. So far, nine colleges and universities have decided that hosting Posses can move them toward an equally important goal: helping these students, who often hail from areas where "minorities" are in the majority, excel and graduate. The support network they form can mean the difference between thriving in college and dropping out.

That's what dawned on Posse founder Deborah Bial when she was working with high school leadership programs in New York City. "It was frustrating to see these students [who had left New York City for selective colleges] drop out, because I knew they were smart and capable," she says. In 1989, one of those students put a name to Ms. Bial's idea when he said he wouldn't have left school if he'd had his "posse," at the time a hip word for a group of friends.

A study by the US Department of Education found that about 28 percent of black and Hispanic students who started four-year colleges in 1989 had left school without a degree by 1994. For white, non-Hispanics the rate was 24 percent, and for Asians, 14 percent.

By contrast, Bial says, more than 90 percent of Posse's students have graduated. The new Boston posse members are well aware of that precedent. And after meeting once a week for the past eight months, guiding one another through leadership training and ropes courses and the conflicts that come with any family terrain, they think they are ready. They just hope Bowdoin is, too.

When Richard Steele, Bowdoin's dean of admissions, first caught wind of the Posse program in the spring of 1999, he was hesitant. With a strong tradition of need-based financial aid at the college, would it be appropriate to award these merit scholarships? "While there's no question that the vast majority of students attracted to this program have significant need," he says, "it's not restricted to them. …

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