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In Good Company
An innovative program designed to encourage more urban youth to finish college graduates its first group from Carleton.
Ivette Feliciano ’05 remembers those confident days as a high school senior. She had her next four years all figured out: She would attend a large university in a big city, a diverse, exciting place like the Chicago neighborhood in which she grew up. Then Posse rode into her life, and somehow she landed in rural Minnesota.
“After my time here, I realize that this is exactly what I needed,” says Feliciano, the daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants. She will graduate from Carleton this spring with a major in political science and international relations. “I love the small classes. I love my relationships with professors. I even like living in Northfield sometimes.”
Changing perceptions, expanding opportunities for multicultural urban students, and connecting big-city students with liberal arts colleges—all of these are at the root of Posse, a New York–based program that targets high-ability students from inner-city schools and places them in colleges in groups, or posses. Carleton joined the 16-year-old program four years ago because administrators were impressed by its record of selecting students with the intellectual rigor and leadership abilities needed to succeed at a top-notch school. As Carleton’s first Posse class prepares to graduate, some of its members reflect on how Carleton has changed them and how they hope Posse might change Carleton.
Although Posse brings many students of color to campus, it is not specifically a diversity initiative, says Carleton mathematics professor Stephen Kennedy, who advises the third Posse group. “It’s primarily a leadership initiative. The students are not picked because they are diverse—though they are—they are picked because they have a certain set of skills. They have shown personal qualities that are going to make the world better,” says Kennedy.
The experiences of Posse students at Carleton (all of whom are from Chicago) resemble in some ways those of any college student: the crushing realization that everybody is as smart as they are, the strangeness of going home at Thanksgiving after being on their own for 10 weeks, the heady excitement of finding an academic passion, and the sad sense as seniors that it has gone by too quickly. But in other ways, Posse students experience Carleton more intensely than their peers. Some have less academic preparation; others are used to having heavy responsibilities in their families and feel acute loneliness.
As a first-year student, Feliciano was stunned as she heard about the resources her classmates had used at their high schools: science labs, computer equipment, music rehearsal rooms. “Andrew Williams [director of multicultural affairs at Carleton] and the other Posse trainers prepared us for what we were getting into: the culture shock. But I was intimidated at first. It took me a while to learn how to speak up in class,” Feliciano says.
Mokerah Bradley ’05, a political science major, remembers feeling that her “radar was up” when she and a group of friends walked in downtown Northfield. “The people were different,” she says. “Minnesota Nice. I’m not sure it’s real.”
Still, coming in as a group with developed friendships helped the students during their first tough weeks on campus. Posse selects students for each college months in advance. Each group meets weekly to do trust-building exercises and learn about college culture as well as to work on their leadership, writing, and critical thinking skills, says Williams, who taught anthropology at DePauw University, then worked at the Posse Foundation before joining the Carleton staff. The training helped students become good friends, thus allowing them to depend on each other for understanding and support once school started. “The coolest people I know are in Posse,” says Bradley. “You create bonds. The friendships keep you here.”
In the first year, especially, the students grew socially, personally, and academically, they say. “I was well prepared for Carleton—not necessarily academically, but in that I had a love of learning,” says Bradley, who grew up in northeast Chicago. But high school had not prepared her for the time management challenges she’d face at Carleton. “I learned to ask for help and use the resources I needed,” she says. “I found people I could rely on.” For instance, Bradley sought help from the Write Place and connections through the Office of Multicultural Affairs. She says of Hudlin Wagner, associate dean of students, “Whatever drama is going on in my life, she brings calm.”
Posse students also have found new passions academically. Andrew Shen, another political science/international relations major, was among the Carleton students traveling in Asia during the 2003 SARS epidemic, a life-changing experience for him. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed most about Carleton is being able to have long conversations with people and really get a better grasp of something from them," says Shen.
Though she grew up in a largely African American community, Bradley had not studied African American history before coming to Carleton. Now, she says, “I am in love with W. E. B. DuBois.” She traveled to Ghana on a study-abroad program led by history professor Harry Williams. Before leaving, Williams warned Bradley that many African Americans incorrectly think they will feel at home in Africa. “He was so right. I was fine as long as I didn’t open my mouth. But once I did, I was so American, and that’s how all the Ghanians treated me,” Bradley says. Studying in Africa taught Bradley new ways to think about herself and her identity as an American. “Carleton really allows you to learn about yourself,” she says.
Posse members are encouraged to find a niche outside of class too. Dancing with the Ebony troupe kept Bradley happy and active. For Feliciano, who lives in the Latino interest house La Casa del Sol, that meant participating in gospel and hip-hop music groups, and working with the Latino American Students Organization. She also spent a term on a program with French professor Chérif Keïta in Mali, where she connected with her host family through simple things like food, music, and dance.
Shen helped start a new mock trial team and participated in Model UN. He says that as they spent more time on campus, he and the other Posse students focused their commitments. “I think that Posse students feel that, because they got this scholarship, they need to get involved in every activity on campus that they can be,” says Shen.
The first Posse students found unity and purpose as a group,meeting weekly for their first five terms at Carleton with their adviser, English professor Bob Tisdale. At some meetings they discussed common challenges, such as how to balance professors’ competing demands; at others they simply relaxed and had fun at a bowling alley or restaurant.
“All of the Posse students are socially poised. They are all strong individuals, but when they first came here this was a pretty strange place to them,” says Tisdale. Students were surprised, for example, to find themselves in a town so white and on a campus where most students’ parents are doctors and lawyers rather than factory workers and mail carriers. “They’ve gained confidence as they’ve been here,” says Tisdale, adding that a number of the students have become campus leaders, serving as residence assistants, peer mentors, or heads of organizations.
The group also planned and held annual three-day retreats to which they invited faculty members and other students for discussions, usually of issues related to diversity or identity. The Posse students, says Williams, understand that cross-cultural communication is not just an intellectual exercise. “Learning how to work with diverse people involves some emotional work, too,” says Williams. “This first Posse and the ones following them have done a lot to raise the level and depth of conversation [on this campus] about diversity.” While retreats are sometimes intense, they "build this community of people, like a little Posse family," says Feliciano. "They are people who become passionate about the program."
As three other Posse groups have come in after them, the students from the first Posse have offered help and advice whenever they're asked. While the first Posse students are now worrying about comps, jobs, and graduate school, regular contact with the subsequent Posses has kept them grounded, says Shen. "Hearing about how someone is going through the same things right now that you did last year is a reality check for us," he says. "It's a reminder not to get too wrapped up in our own thing."
"I tell them, You'll learn to adapt," says Feliciano. Figure out which professors you like, which combination of classes works for you. Hang in there. And I tell them, Don't take it lightly. This is a huge deal."
Posse defies easy categorization: It’s a diversity initiative, a leadership scholarship, a group experience. For Carleton, it’s also a great recruiting tool.
Posse began in New York City in 1989. Founder Deborah Bial, who worked with a nonprofit agency helping urban youth, noticed that many high-potential students left college after a semester or two. One young African American man told Bial he would have stayed in school if he’d had his posse with him.
Based on that concept and with significant contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals, Bial established the Posse Foundation. Currently the program serves youth in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, and Washington, D.C. The program’s 22 partner colleges and universities agree to accept roughly 10 students each per year, providing a full scholarship for each of them. During their first two years at Carleton, Posse members work with the same faculty mentor, who provides academic advice as well as acting as a sounding board for individuals and the group. The program is enjoying overwhelming success: The four-year graduation rate of Posse students nationally is 90 percent, which is way above national averages for any racial or ethnic group, and even higher than Carleton’s already stellar 85 percent.
Because Posse works with urban high schools to identify promising students, it provides Carleton with direct outreach to urban school systems that have traditionally been hard for liberal arts colleges to crack, says Paul Thiboutot, dean of admissions: “Posse represents a chance for these students to look at small colleges, get exposure to what we have to offer, and consider that option.”
It’s working, too. Not only are there now more than three dozen Posse students on campus, but the College also receives more applications from other inner-city students than it did in the past. “There’s been a ripple effect in some high schools,” says Andrew Williams, Carleton’s director of multicultural affairs. Posse students have helped recruit urban students by hosting prospective students on campus, making calls, and talking about Carleton at their former high schools.
Posse students also have helped the College assess its services for students who are less prepared for university work. Says English professor Bob Tisdale, adviser to the first Posse group, “The students came here knowing they were expected to give something back. They’ve done that by giving honest, direct, and thoughtful assessments of ways the College should change.”
Moreover, the students provide a visible model of cross-cultural collaboration, says Williams. Posse students represent many ethnicities, religions, and classes. “As individuals and as a group they have exploded myths about what it means to be an ‘urban youth,’ ” says Williams. “They have changed stereotypes about how they talk, about intellectual capacity, about cultural behavior.
“Posse adds to the critical mass of students of color at Carleton, which makes it easier to recruit other students as well as faculty members and administrators,” Williams continues. “Having the Posse program on campus makes a statement—both symbolic and real—about Carleton’s commitment to diversity.
Ivette Feliciano ’05
Major: Political science and international relations
Chicago high school: Lane Technical High School
What I’ve learned at Carleton:
Why the Posse program works:
Mokerah Bradley ’05
Major: Political science
Chicago high school: Best Practice High School
What I’ve learned at Carleton:
Why the Posse program works:
Andrew Shen ’05
Major: International relations and political science
Chicago high school: Lincoln Park High School
What I’ve learned at Carleton:
Why the Posse program works:
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