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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

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Marie Jo Felix found her initial adjustment easier. "When I came here, I was like, wow, there's hardly any [other] Haitians or other minorities, but it really doesn't make me uncomfortable," she says. "It didn't hit me hard, because my floormates are really chill.... The thing is, people are so friendly," she continues, tacking on her trademark exclamation, "Oh gosh!"

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Marie Jo wasn't afraid to show Bowdoin her flamboyant side by wearing a pink boa to her admissions interview, and she offers the same openness as she meets new people. She assures them she won't view their curiosity as a racial offense. "I have different hair types all the time. I use weave, or my hair's always braided ... so people ask about that and I explain," she says. "That's one of the key things we were brought here to do, to bring knowledge about our diversity."

The diversity that Lauren brings to Bowdoin stems not from race (she's white, along with about 82 percent of the first-year class), but from her urban high school experience and her family's modest income. She feels these differences every time she's bent over a book studying and her roommates urge her to come out and socialize. Often, she can't afford to spend the money, or to give up the extra study time that they don't seem to need to get by.

"Her world is totally different from mine," she says about one of her two roommates, who complained because her mother wanted to have Thanksgiving at a country club rather than cook at home. "Oh, that's too bad," Lauren responded sarcastically, "because my mom's working at the country club [on Thanksgiving]."

Of course, the learning happens in both directions. Even though she gets frustrated at times, Lauren says her roommates and others on campus are openminded and she gains new perspectives from them, too. Kency Theork, another posse student, says he didn't realize how much he absorbed every day at Bowdoin until he was back in Boston over winter break. "[Bowdoin students] are educated people, they have good manners, they know how to talk to people, and I learn from them," he says. "I'm happy being in college; it's just a time to open my mind to anything that I want."

A range of responses on campus

At the beginning, there were stereotypes to be confronted. Ginette says people asked her if she plays sports, or if she is super smart, "just kind of wondering why I got the scholarship."

"We had to do away with some misconceptions about posse early on," Lenz says. "One was whether we'd be academically qualified. I had to break that down to people, how intelligent posse students are. People probably think of it as affirmative action but won't say it straight up. We've canceled that by showing it's not based on race or economic status."

Some students misunderstood the group's bond or felt excluded when they didn't get the inside jokes. Danielle says she realized in retrospect that it didn't help to bound onto campus exclaiming to new acquaintances that they could be part of "posse plus" (a phrase that comes from the community-building Posse-Plus Retreat that they will organize for 50-100 student and faculty guests each year).

"The first thing I thought was, 'What makes them so special?' " says Kijan Bloomfield, a black freshman who now counts several posse members among her friends. She was recruited to Bowdoin from a New York City public school through the Chamberlain Leadership Scholarship, which includes summer internships but doesn't share the posse's close-knit structure.

Kijan spent much of the first semester struggling through culture shock. She'd had contact with white people in New York, "but it's different when you have to be in an intimate setting with them," she says. Now, she's gotten over a lot of biases, she adds. And she sees the posse students as fellow pioneers. "It's the first time since the '70s that there's been a real effort at diversity [at Bowdoin]."

"A lot of times, people overplay the color factor," says Shanique Brown, a first-year African-American student. But she and several friends agree the posse scholarship is a good step for Bowdoin.

Overall, Bowdoin students have responded positively to the diversity efforts, says Margaret Hazlett, dean of the first-year class. Orientation includes a program called "The Campus of Difference," as well as talks in dorms about everything from religion to learning disabilities.