Posse potential

United by a scholarship and a multicultural mission, 10 Boston students head off to Bowdoin College

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." But after meetings with Posse staff and other Posse partner schools, the college decided to forge ahead.

Bowdoin, whose minority enrollment hovers around 13 percent, was searching for student-leaders who would help improve the multicultural climate on campus. Having tried the traditional paths, school officials were looking "to do something innovative and different," Steele says.

That came in the form of the Dynamic Assessment Process. Posse brings together students nominated by their schools and community groups who might otherwise be overlooked by elite colleges, and gets them into activities where their leadership skills and character can be observed. Posse staff then conduct one- on-one interviews, and narrow down the pool of hundreds to about 25 finalists. Finally, a team of Bowdoin officials gets to know them through interactions ranging from a "human scavenger hunt" (finding people in the group with certain talents or tastes) to frank discussions on topics like race and relationships. The process can help students as much as admissions staff. Posse student Eliztaicha Marrero, for instance, was stunned when Steele - a white man about 40 years her senior - did a funky dance during the human scavenger hunt.

Laughing uproariously about it several months later, a number of posse members said it was reassuring to see that one of the leaders at the school was willing to throw off his inhibitions. "My man got up and did a funny dance," Eliztaicha exclaims, "and I said, 'I can hang with him!' "

Steele speaks of the dance more as an awkward moment he's glad to have survived. But he's sold on Posse's approach. "You began to discover the real core of people's souls, in a way. And some of the hardships these students had overcome, it just was tremendously impressive," he says. The finalists shared things so private that he won't repeat them, but he adds that the Bowdoin team was "moved by the heroic struggles."

Posse and Bowdoin officials closely review student transcripts and recommendations, but Steele believes this "dynamic" method taps into a new pool of students who have socioeconomic or racial backgrounds that are rare on campus. "So many of the students we've reached in the past have been the same group that Wellesley is looking at, and Swarthmore, and so forth," he says. Posse is changing that.

In early January, joyful screams burst out of the speaker phone and bounced off the walls of the small office that houses The Boston Posse Program. Director Nora Levine and trainer Shani Jackson were calling the six young women and four young men who would be the city's first group of posse scholars.

Arriving at that celebratory moment hadn't been any easier for the students than it had been for Bowdoin.

The long path to a college education had taken Kency Theork through patches of hunger. At 15, he moved away from his family on a small Haitian island to the mainland to pursue his education. He lived with cousins just a few years older who could barely take care of themselves, let alone him. But he used the time well, learning that with no one to tell him when to do his homework, go to bed, and be careful with girls, he'd have to be responsible for his own actions. About two years later, in December 1997, Kency came with his mother and four younger siblings to Boston to join his father, who had already been here for a decade. Adjusting to the cold winter was difficult, and Kency was in the hospital for several weeks before he could start school.

Then more-subtle frustrations began to set in. He had difficulty expressing himself in English and making friends. For a time, he dreamed of returning to Haiti. But with his trips to the library to read children's books and his involvement in a new church where other immigrants helped him, he was soon back on track.

"When we came, my father told not only me, but also the rest of the kids, that he might be poor, but the only reason ... he brought us out of Haiti was to have a good education, and no matter what, we have to go to college," Kency says, sitting in his neat bedroom after school on a rainy spring day. "With that, I [didn't] know how to go to college, but at least I had an idea that I want to go to college, because of my father."

He thrived in his junior and senior years at West Roxbury High School, joining the National Honor Society and heading the soccer team. He found help navigating the college application process from a group called The Bottom Line, which nominated him for the posse scholarship. "I had no money to go to college. I had two choices. I got a scholarship, or I went to the Army." Kency's T-shirt reads "Courage Under Fire." On his bureau, there's a small motivational poster he made for himself on the computer: "Who do you want to be? What do you want to be? When are you going to start? Why don't you start today?"

When he got the call that he would be part of the Bowdoin Posse, he let out a scream. Then his family pressed him in their arms and celebrated over dinner. "This is really a miracle for me," he says, alternating as he talks between the sweet grins of a boy and the solemn poise of a man.

Omega Roberts has an immigrant's story, too. She came from Jamaica to live with her aunt in 1994, partly because of the educational opportunities she'd find here, and also because her parents "were having a rough time."

Dressed in blue jeans and a crisp, white V-neck T-shirt, she recalls that she used to have to wear a uniform to school. And dress isn't the only aspect of teen life she finds "looser" here.

"There are different codes of conduct," she says one afternoon at the Boston Public Library, where the initial Posse screenings took place.

Omega was unhappy to find the halls of Dorchester High School filled with smoke and fights. But in her sophomore year, she took refuge in the school's Academy of Public Service. There she found better classes with motivated students, mentoring, community service outlets, and a favorite English teacher who "sees stuff in the students that no one else can see."

Omega was worried about her college prospects because she lacked permanent- resident status in the US. But a summer program director put her in touch with lawyers.

Nominated for posse through involvement in the Mayor's Youth Council, she was convinced the other kids were "way brilliant" and she wouldn't be chosen. Months later, she would find herself standing in a circle with nine of those brilliant people, sharing secrets.

There's a prop that goes with sharing secrets. It's a soft spool of string, and for the "closing" of a weekly meeting in April, Posse members toss it back and forth across the circle, each time telling something about themselves they have never told. When they finish and invite the reporter back into the room, they've created a web that represents the foundation of trust they've been building.

The training that bolsters this stretches from January to mid-August and addresses four areas: team building and group support, cross-cultural communication, leadership and how to become an agent of change, and academic excellence.

Early on, each posse sets its "norms," debating issues until there is a consensus. For the Boston group, it was easy to agree that there shouldn't be cliques within the posse and that everyone should be punctual (something they were still struggling to achieve in late July).

A longer discussion ensued before they decided dating would be acceptable within the group, as long as people checked their "baggage" at the door.

At one of the cross-cultural communication workshops in early March, they begin by brainstorming on the question, "What is community?" Lounging on the floor in a loose circle, they speak when Nora tosses them a Koosh ball, and Shani records the ideas with a marker on a flip chart.

When they begin discussing their own communities within the context of America's blend of cultures, the complexity that lies behind the word "diversity" begins to emerge. Eliztaicha, for instance, calls herself Domini-rican, because one of her parents is from the Dominican Republic and the other is Puerto Rican - two groups that don't always get along, she says. On top of that, she lives in "Eastie," a mostly Italian neighborhood of Boston. It took her a long time to feel like she could fit in there, she says.

Danielle Sommer, who grew up mostly with her white mother and has a black father, says she doesn't fit in completely with either the black or white communities, and has even sensed racism within her own family.

Lenz Balan mentions that as one of few black kids at Boston College High School (which he describes as 95 percent white and "very conservative") he found himself raising issues that no one wanted to hear.

Danielle sees their role at Bowdoin as bringing their perspectives to bear on their daily experience. It's about one-on-one interactions rather than, "Here we are, a clan of multicultural kids out to change the campus."

Eider Gordillo agrees. One key friendship with a white person helped him see that white people aren't all bad, despite racial oppression he felt in his largely white neighborhood. So he hopes they can spark similar transformations in Maine.

They lean forward as they listen to one another, a few staying fairly quiet and taking it all in. Their confrontations and disagreements are respectful. And they weave in plenty of humor to help propel their journey.

In April, it was time for a road trip to Bowdoin for a minority-recruitment weekend. The students they met had heard of the posse and were excited about their arrival. And the visit held some surprises, reinforcing the sense that they were walking through a door to a new world.

For instance, there were the living arrangements. Eider had a start when he was clad in a towel, flexing in the bathroom mirror, and a woman walked into the co- ed facility.

Danielle had been to the campus in November, so for her, the spring visit was about having fun. She rattles off some of the highlights: seeing a DJ who used to work with the Beastie Boys; a party at the African-American House for its 30th anniversary; meeting Geoffrey Canada, a Bowdoin graduate and author of "Fist, Stick, Knife, Gun," which all freshmen are supposed to read for this year's orientation.

But there were tensions. One person got upset at another for branching off and meeting new people. "That's what we're going to do here," Omega says matter-of- factly. Nora reassured them that such experiences were part of their "storming" stage, where they learn how to deal with conflict so they can move on to "performing" as a cohesive unit.

The posse also learned about campus life from current or former students who have lived some aspect of a "minority" experience at Bowdoin. One had posse members in tears as he told of his initial adjustment and the self-questioning he went through. And Omega recalls that when they asked about dating, "they said, 'Don't even ask that question.' Minority guys said it's hard to get involved in good relationships."

But social life is only part of the game. To help with academics, each student has met with a tutor for several months.

Danielle, for example, is concentrating on improving her writing skills, having her tutor go over assignments she did at the John D. O'Bryant School in Roxbury. Her senior year included four regular classes, community service, and a Latin American studies class at the University of Massachusetts. She's thinking about studying environmental science/sociology or art/theater. Academic support is something Bowdoin takes seriously as well, for all students. The school offers intensive help in writing and quantitative skills, and has people "in the wings to give students the extra attention they need," Dean Steele says.

Danielle knows the Posse approach may elicit critical comments from peers. "I'm sure there'll be some people who feel like it's a minority scholarship, even though Lauren [the one white student in the posse] is in it. Or it's not fair and we don't deserve it because their grades are better.... We'll address it. Even though it's a leadership scholarship, our grades were also important. They looked at each one of us as a whole package."

By late July, it's getting real. Before a meeting, some of the Posse members compare notes on where their soon-to-be roommates are from and how their parents reacted to the bill for their portion of the roughly $6,000 it costs for room and board (the scholarship covers the yearly $24,000 tuition).

Eider says he plans to go out for crew, although people say he's too short to make first string. "I'm excited because I know it's not what people expect me to do," he says, tipping back in his chair. Lauren Flinn jokes that when she starts a seminar on race, she'll see the whole posse sitting there.

Their meeting this week has them practicing how to create and run their own workshops, something that their campus mentor will help with, too. They no longer need the Koosh ball to indicate who can speak. Breaking into three groups, they scurry to plan mini-presentations on topics they've just brainstormed: gender roles, classism, and confronting stereotypes. After each one, they do a quick critique.

The posse's come a long way since the get-to-know you meetings in January. There are just a few weeks left, and a retreat during which they'll navigate a ropes course to test their teamwork.

A month before she leaves for college, Danielle sits in her godmother's kitchen, holding one of a gaggle of rescued cats and reflecting on how much she's grown with her posse. "I've learned that I can really work well with others, I guess. I really like to do things by myself... Like, I run track 'cause if I mess up I know whose fault it is. I've learned ... I can trust somebody else to help me out or to understand where I'm coming from...." Danielle doesn't give details, but says she and two other students have recently been through some "tragedies" (characterized by Nora, the Posse director, as "family situations").

"For some people, it's been really hard," Danielle says. "And the fact that they're still really committed and still optimistic and excited about going to school, it's just really amazing."

Whether they're facing serious obstacles or putting in long hours at summer jobs, seeing everyone pull together as they prepare to step onto Bowdoin's campus makes Danielle realize how glad she is to have her posse, "how important they are in your life."

The Monitor plans to follow up on how posse members are doing as they negotiate their first year at Bowdoin - and how they influence campus life. E-mail comments to teichers@csps.com

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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