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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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.

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?

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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."

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!"

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.

Older students offer a variety of reactions to the recent changes in the makeup of the 1,600 students. (The freshman class of nearly 18 percent minorities is up from about 13 percent in previous years.) Junior Krista Thomas, a white Maine native, spent a semester at Amherst College in Massachusetts and was impressed that "there are a lot more different types of people there ... When you look around here, you just see preppy white kids." She's glad Bowdoin is trying to be socioeconomically diverse, instead of just recruiting minorities from elite private schools.

Her friend and fellow junior Rebecca Dawson comments that the school's approach seems a bit like "forced diversity," but over time she thinks it will build on itself and become more natural.

Tackling academic challenges

Something became immediately apparent to most of the posse students as classes started up last semester: The warning that they would have to work hard was an understatement, but so was the assurance that they would get all the support they needed.

"We were all kind of struggling toward the middle [of the first semester]," Lauren says. Some even worried about failing.

Danielle trudged her way through a classic all-night writing session after the posse entourage (along with her boyfriend) persuaded her not to give up on a particularly difficult sociology assignment. "I finished at 7:00 the next morning for an 8:30 class. I went to breakfast and I went to class in the same clothes as I had worn the day before," she says with a laugh.

Wil Smith, their mentor and the coordinator of multicultural student programs, made sure they visited all the support offices at the outset. "I used all of the resources," Omega Roberts declares.

Facing a demand for different kinds of writing, and more of it, than they were used to in high school, they flocked to the writing-support office. Academic services even began to feel a strain as posse students talked them up to their friends. "The posse members kind of took the stigma away, and the mystery," Mr. Smith says.

They also took the concept of "office hours" to heart, checking in with professors regularly. Marie Jo got her first anthropology paper back with the comment that she had wonderful ideas, but needed to put them in an anthropology format. "And I'm like, what is that?" she says. Writing has always been difficult, she adds, but posse gave her the mind-set to seek help, "so in a way, I wasn't scared by the fact that there's a 10-page paper due."

Kency, who moved to Boston from Haiti and started to learn English just three years ago, says some of his professors were so nice that he felt at home. "Even when I don't have any problems, I just call them to say hi to them. I felt like they were people that really care about me being successful in the classes."

But his computer-science class didn't click. After talks with his professor and Smith, he decided to drop the class.

Danielle describes the stages she went through academically this way: "I didn't really understand what I was doing [in sociology] while I did it, but after, towards the end of the class, I finally understood everything I was supposed to get, and I ended up doing pretty well."

They all did, says Shani Jackson in the Boston Posse office. After the first term, several of the students' grade-point averages topped 3.0, and one made the honor roll.

Smith says the posse has earned accolades from the faculty. But he's like a parent, pushing them to an ever higher level. Indeed, a number of them have signed up for classes with Prof. Eddie Glaude, who has a reputation for exacting standards.

Danielle, Ginette, Omega, and Lauren are all in his Introduction to Religion class this semester. They sit up near the front of the large lecture hall and say they're among the majority who often stare blankly as they struggle to keep up with his rapid-fire pace.

Professor Glaude throws his whole body into his lectures, at times bringing his voice down to a whisper. He offers an occasional "You following me?" Only a few people nod. But there are discussion sections, reading assignments, and lots of paper-writing to make the ideas jell.

"I set the bar pretty high," Glaude says after class. "They know that's what's going to happen." He teaches Africana studies and philosophy as well. Even students who got Cs last semester have come back for more, he says. That's largely because he helps them clarify their thoughts at the rewriting stage. "I try to model my excitement about ideas," he explains.

Glaude recently became one of two tenured African-American professors at Bowdoin, and he says Bowdoin's partnership with the Posse Foundation "shows a really amazing commitment at a time when there just seems to be a backlash against these sorts of efforts."

A tangible difference in class

One benefit for Bowdoin is that the posse students help change the tenor of discussion in many of their classes. "Some of them are refreshingly willing to ask kinds of questions and say kinds of things that typically aren't asked or said," says David Collings, an English professor who had two posse students in his poetry course last semester. Mr. Collings has taught at Bowdoin since 1987 and says it has not been uncommon to have all-white classes. But that's changing.

"If we are talking about questions around race or class or poverty or other types of concerns that have come up ..., it does make a difference to have a diverse student body," he says. "Academically, people are more responsible, more attentive, more willing to grasp certain realities if students in the classroom have experienced [some of what's being discussed]."

"The biggest impact that we have is in our classes," Lauren confirms. "People come up to us all the time and are like, 'Oh, that was a really interesting point that you made.' " Out of 12 students in her freshman seminar on racism, four were posse members. Their peers from small towns listened more than they talked because they didn't have first-hand knowledge of the issues, she says, and "we've seen how people's views have changed from the beginning of the semester."

Several of the black posse students notice, at times, that they are the only person of color in a class. Usually, people don't expect them to speak for an entire race, they say. But it can be awkward, Danielle adds, if she feels called on to explain things from a black perspective - during a discussion about racial slurs, for instance.

Administrators and faculty hope that as more minority students come to campus, that sense of isolation will fade. "Students [of color] who may not even need financial aid might consider coming to Bowdoin now, because we're hitting a critical mass," Collings says. The number of prospective students who came for minority-recruitment weekends doubled last year to 160.

Programs like posse garner faculty support partly because they emphasize preparation and mentoring. In the past, Collings says, "there were occasions in which we would have middle-class African-American students whose parents could afford to send them, but [who] were slightly less prepared than we would hope for.... There was no structure to get them up to speed, so they would struggle [at first]."

Normal college freshmen

The 10 students in the posse family always have one another's welfare in mind. But most of the time, the posse label is in the background. Their status as normal college freshmen occupies the foreground.

For a study break, Lenz maneuvers for goals on his roommate's PlayStation 2 video hockey game. Their room is littered with snack-food packages, and someone has tacked up the obligatory poster of a "Baywatch" babe. Lysol is kept handy so they can clean up when "the girls" come down a floor to watch "Survivor."

Over in another freshman dorm, Ginette and her roommate work on computers side by side, but don't get much done as a series of friends wander by.

Meanwhile, Omega stops in to see Smith about a paper she has to do for Glaude's class, and then makes a quick dash past waist-high banks of snow to the library's subterranean computer lab.

Between dinner and the posse meeting at 8 p.m., Eider Gordillo heads to Gibson Hall for practice with a world-music group. He plays guitar and helps translate Spanish lyrics for a Cuban song. Then he switches to the gun-gon drum as the group practices some complex African rhythms.

It's a scene that testifies to Bowdoin students' embrace of multiculturalism. Even the cardboard cut-out polar bear, watching over them from atop a cabinet, is splashed with a medley of bright colors.

This year, Bowdoin College hosted its first 'posse' - a diverse group of students who support each other as they negotiate a radically new life. This follow-up to an Aug. 29 story looks at how they're faring.

E-mail teichers@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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