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Standing Out Blending In

A pioneer group of college scholarship students reflect on adjustment and success during their first year away

By Stacy A. Teicher Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 2001



BRUNSWICK, MAINE

In so many ways, their ride on the first-semester-of-college roller coaster was just like everyone else's: The struggles to understand "professor speak." The sweet taste of freedom mixed with a bitter tinge at the thought of missing the Sunday family dinner back home. The negotiations with roommates. The all-nighters.

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But the 10 students in Bowdoin College's first "posse" scholarship group last fall were taking the dips and twists together - and that meant the difference between settling for an F and finishing the paper, the difference between flipping out and starting a constructive dialogue when someone on campus made an ignorant remark.

The first goal was to get adjusted to an environment that, for most of them, stood in stark contrast to their high schools in Boston. But they had another layer of responsibility to think about: How would they fulfill the leadership mission that came in tandem with their four years of free tuition?

After all, this multicultural group, selected from among several hundred nominees, had been meeting weekly for months, and they were well aware of the ways schools like Vanderbilt and DePauw had been changed by hosting posse scholars. These groups are formed not only to support one another's academic endeavors, but also to act as strong threads in a school's efforts to weave a more-diverse campus.

Some of the students' leadership roles at Bowdoin were immediately obvious. A few weeks into the semester, posse member Lenz Balan beat out six other candidates for first-year class president. Lauren Flinn joined the rugby team and now sets up all its games as "match secretary." But more subtle things - the everyday interactions with friends and professors - are starting to add up to a noticeable difference. As a result of the posse's presence, and other new recruitment approaches and scholarships at Bowdoin, students and faculty alike say education is enhanced and the campus is more vibrant - "louder," as one professor puts it with a smile of approval.

Loud is a fair description as the weekly posse meeting is about to get under way a few weeks into the second semester. Lounging on chairs in a rough semicircle, they tease one another about love interests, moan about how much homework they have, and ponder hypothetical punishments for the woman who's late.

A year ago, they were just getting to know one another at similar meetings with the Boston Posse staff. Now they are veterans, running the meetings themselves and beginning to plan outreach activities. Over winter break, they literally passed the torch at a candle-lighting ceremony for Boston posse scholars who will start college next year. One group will join them at Bowdoin. The others will be the first posses at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., and Bryn Mawr in Pennsylvania.

The setting for posse meetings at Bowdoin - the Russwurm African-American Center - highlights a piece of the school's history. In 1826, John Russwurm was the first African-American to graduate from Bowdoin. He helped start Freedom's Journal, the first black newspaper in the US.

On this night, the living room is an assembly spot for candygrams, which the African-American Society is selling to raise money for earthquake relief. Before they head to their meeting, a few women help tie ribbons while they chat with a Muslim classmate about the rules of her religion.

This home near the center of campus, with a big kitchen, a library, and an Afrocentric decor, is "a comfortable place for us to be, because we are stepping outside of our comfort zone every day," says Ginette Saimprevil, one of the black students in the posse.

Adjusting to a new environment

Despite all their training in fostering cross-cultural understanding, the posse students' first few weeks of college served up some surprising challenges.

Danielle Sommer, who is part white and part black, knew she'd be in the minority on this idyllic campus in Brunswick, Maine, dotted with banners and sculptures of the school mascot, the polar bear. But the interaction with people of different backgrounds didn't happen as quickly as she'd hoped.

"We'd be at dinner and I would start a conversation with somebody, and they would literally turn to the person next to me and continue my conversation with them.... I never felt so black in my life," she says. "It was hard, cause you feel like you are on display."