December 2011 Features

The Power of Posse x 10

By Elizabeth Mosier ’84

Group photo of Posse 1

YEAR 1: Back row, from left: Jen Rusk, Erin O’Keefe, Fritz-Laure Dubuisson. Middle row, from left: Natalie Inozil, Jackie DaSilva, Karen Pang, Yarimee Gutierrez, Akudo Ejelonu. Front row, from left: Thuy Hoach, Claudine Johnson, Yinnette Sano, Rachel Henderson.

Posse: a small group of people assembled for a common purpose; a band that travels together to support each other. The Posse Foundation’s novel scholarship program helps Bryn Mawr recruit a posse of 10 to 12 exceptional students from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds each year. These students are trained to work as a team before they reach campus. Their mission: to help redefine college access, merit, diversity, and leadership.

The program sounded wonderful when the Posse Foundation presented it to Bryn Mawr more than 10 years ago. But at first, some were cautious. The community’s understanding of diversity hadn’t caught up to its population on campus. And would the faculty embrace the nonacademic advising role that was central to the Posse model? “Even after the College signed on and I became a mentor, I was skeptical,” says former Assistant Director of Institutional Diversity Cynthia Chalker, M.S.S./M.L.S.P. ’98.

That was before she experienced the power of Posse.

Prior to the arrival of the first group of Posse Scholars on campus, Chalker joined several members of Posse 1, Class of 2005—Jen Rusk, Yinnette Sano, Yarimee Gutierrez, and Jacqueline DaSilva—for a training session at a seaside retreat. A group of guys approached the girls. “These preppie boys were somehow insinuating to Jen (who is white) that her friends didn’t belong there,” Chalker says. “And Jen got in their faces so fast they didn’t know what hit them!” The girls had been bonding all year and operated as a team. “That’s when I thought—this is really going to be something.”

photo of Jennifer Rusk

"Posse got me here and kept me here," says Jen Rusk, who felt so alienated at first that she almost transferred out.

Ten years, 114 scholars, and seven graduating classes later, the Posse program at Bryn Mawr is something, indeed. The scholars have earned campus leadership positions and a long list of accolades that includes three McPherson Awards, 12 Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowships, and a Davis Projects for Peace Award. And the Posse model, which involves a major role for faculty as mentors, has been a powerful catalyst for change at the College’s core.

“With Posse, Bryn Mawr began to really examine what it takes to support a student here,” says Chalker, now at New York’s Friends Seminary School. “It allowed us to see how students could benefit if there were structures in place to help us care about the whole person—not just her academic life.”

 Bonding as a Posse

Deborah Bial founded the Posse program in 1989 with a mission “to expand the pool from which top colleges and universities can recruit outstanding young leaders from diverse backgrounds.” Headquartered in New York City, Posse has since expanded its reach with branches in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C., recruiting its scholars from urban public schools.

Posse’s mission is supported by full-tuition merit scholarships from 38 undergraduate institutions, including Bryn Mawr (which partners with Posse Boston). Peer support is cultivated in precollege training sessions that begin when a posse is selected and continue weekly in the scholars’ home city until school begins. Bial’s broad plan is rooted in the particular belief that a posse—a small, diverse group of talented students, carefully selected and trained—can help its members successfully navigate through college and transform the community to make it more welcoming to people from all backgrounds.

Year 2

YEAR 2 Back row, from left: Rochelle Merilien, Lu Mei He, Li Huan Lai, Anka Wilk. Front row, from left: Latoiya LaVita, Audrey Flattes, Joanna Robertson, Jackney Prioly, Ramatu Kallon, Erin George.

 Faculty Mentoring

On campus, a faculty member serves as a mentor to each incoming posse, meeting regularly with the scholars to discuss academic and personal issues that affect their success. “This mentor concept that Posse invented? Thank God!” says Jen Rusk ’05. Now director of investor relations at Karsch Capital Management, she says, “I honestly don’t know what I would have done if it weren’t for Cynthia (Chalker). My mother used to say to me, ‘You make sure you thank her every day!’”

“Jody Cohen (senior lecturer in education) was an amazing mentor,” says Jackney Prioly ’06, now director of external relations for Ayanna Pressley, the first woman of color to serve in the 100-year history of the Boston City Council. “I definitely made friends at Bryn Mawr, but it took some time because I wasn’t comfortable here. I mean, I’m from the city! I’d walk across campus at 10:00 at night and there’d be no one around! Crickets chirping everywhere, cicadas making weird noises in the trees.” She laughs and adds, “And now I’m back at Bryn Mawr. …I’m on the alumnae board!”

“Posse got me here and kept me here,” says Rusk, who “left Bryn Mawr happy” but felt so alienated at first that she almost transferred out. “I just felt like I couldn’t relate to a lot of the girls on campus. I looked like everybody else, that was pretty apparent, but I didn’t fit in.”

Beyond Race and Class

photo of Jackney Prioloy

"I'm from the city! I'd walk across campus at 10:00 at night and there'd be no one around! Crickets chirping everywhere, cicadas making weird noises in the trees." —Jackney Prioly

Rusk’s experience points to one of Bryn Mawr’s ongoing challenges: to expand the notion of diversity beyond race and ethnicity. The other members of Rusk’s posse had support organizations aimed specifically at them: Mujeres (for Latin American students), BACaSO (for African and Caribbean students), Sisterhood (for African-American students) and Asian Students’ Association. Rusk “would just tag along,” she recalls. “I went to every Sisterhood event! Those are my girls, but it wasn’t easy for me to look around and identify with any club.”

Over the years, Posse’s presence has sparked productive conversations on difficult topics of class and race in forums held on campus and online. But the program has also inspired resentment among some students, serving as a lightning rod for stereotypical attitudes and revealing a lingering misperception of what Posse is and who the scholars are.

The Posse program is need blind and includes white students, though this highly-visible group is sometimes labeled generically as needy and minority. At Plenary (the twice-yearly meeting where students can make amendments to the Self-Government Association’s constitution), Prioly recalls joining a group of students calling for reform to make SGA less alienating for “students who felt they weren’t being heard.” In the heated dialogue that followed, Posse’s identity was misappropriated to link the protest to minority groups defined by race and class. Prioly was particularly sensitive to the conversation’s subtext: that scholarship students shouldn’t protest because their education is a gift. As she says, “Everyone who gets this education should be grateful. Yes, we get scholarships, but we’re here to change things.”

Year 8

YEAR 8 Back row, from left: Winnie Hien, Paoli Roman, Julia Ryan, Liana Donahue, Allegra Fletcher, Valerie Pierre. Front row, from left: Jessica Wong, Gabrielle Farrell, Adeline Rutkowski-Ansell, Praise Agu.

Making a Difference

These students defy stereotypes—including those based on assumptions about the preparation they receive at urban public schools. “Intentionally and unintentionally,” says Prioly, “we challenge those misconceptions every day.” Posse doesn’t define itself in terms of need or disadvantage. It’s all about opening eyes and doors for promising students with leadership potential.

Posse Scholars model engagement. Spend five minutes with one of them, and you’ll feel energized and positive about Bryn Mawr’s future and the world’s.

Laila Abdul Nabi ’14 was raised in Pakistan after the Taliban killed her father in Kabul. Relocated to Boston by UNICEF, she started school at 13, an experience she describes as “like living in a dream.” In six months, she went from using hand signals with her ESL teacher to taking honors classes, completing in six years what usually takes twelve. At Bryn Mawr, she shares her culture and exchanges ideas with non-Muslims in the Muslim Students’ Association, and tutors ninth-graders in English and math at Overbrook High School. “That’s a way to make a real change in a kid’s life,” Abdul Nabi says. “Show them what studying in school can bring.”

Liana Donahue

Liana Donahue ’12

Jomaira Salas ’13 felt empowered by Posse’s Dynamic Assessment Process, which winnows a group of about 1,100 applicants to 100 semifinalists, then to 20 to 25 finalists after a round of interviews. “You have to be yourself because you don’t know what the goal is,” she says. “Posse’s not about appearances. It’s about what you can bring.” And Salas brings it everywhere: to an international conference on women’s rights and education in Bangladesh, “blogging as President McAuliffe’s eyes and ears”; to her collaboration with professors Jody Cohen and Anne Dalke in a project exploring how class shapes educational opportunities and outcomes; to France next semester for Mellon Mays-funded research on how immigrants navigate educational systems in that country and in the U.S.

Liana Donahue ’12 has served twice as president of her class. She’s a tour guide for prospective students who are visiting Bryn Mawr and a Hall Advisor in Pembroke West. She also examines the world through a philosophical lens. Her Mellon-Mays Fellowship funded summer research in South Africa, where she studied the Cape Coloured gang population to understand their culture and how they define and practice morality. At Bryn Mawr, Donahue’s biggest challenge has been embracing solitude. “There is no one ‘type’ of Bryn Mawr student,” she says. “I’ve felt alone on this campus, but I’ve also felt that I can make my own space with my own interests here, too.”

 Changing the College

Year 9

YEAR 9 Back row, from left: Tiffany Egbuonu, Obi Nwachukwu, Elizabeth Centeio, Jomaira Salas, Cristhel Santillan. Front row, from left: Stephanie Tran, Sharaai Marrero, Zoe Guastella, Lisha Andrew, Sarah Jenness.

As lecturer Jody Cohen puts it: “I try to connect with and care for all my students. But the explicit guidelines given to Posse mentors to ask our students about their home lives and peer relationships as well as their academics involves you in their ongoing stories over a four-year period.” Posse’s model of mentoring and peer support has moved Bryn Mawr toward more relationship-based advising. Just last fall, the College began piloting a program in which 90 first-year students (of entering classes that average 365) are paired with faculty advisors in addition to their deans. They’ll meet periodically over the students’ first three semesters to discuss their educational paths and classroom experiences.

Professor of French Pim Higginson, mentor to Salas and the rest of Posse 9, says he’s learned from Posse how meaningful, long-term bonds with professors can affect a student in a positive way. “I’ve come to believe in the importance of a certain intimacy with students, even in an academic context—especially in an academic context—as a key idea,” he says. As chair of the Committee on Academic Priorities, he drew on his experience with Posse to frame a yearlong conversation with faculty about reinterpreting workload to allow time and credit for the work of mentoring. In May, the faculty voted to explore a new plan that would change the standard 3/2 (or five courses per year) teaching load to 2/2+ to recognize and reward professors for the “plus” part of their work that deepens engagement with their students.

photo of Jomaira Salas

Jomaira Salas ’13

These professors are part of a growing “Posse posse” of mentors and campus liaisons to the Posse Foundation who can attest to the program’s role in changing Bryn Mawr where it counts: at the intersection of scholarly work and community engagement inherent in the phrase, “intellectual community.”

“Having these powerhouse Posse women in my classes talking about ideas in the context of their experiences really helped to deepen and complicate the conversation and the learning for all of us,” says Cohen. “That may not seem as dramatic now, since Bryn Mawr is more diverse than it was 10 years ago. But those women helped all of us mine our experiences as part of our learning.”

“Posse has impacted our overall admissions process,” says Jenny Rickard, Bryn Mawr’s chief enrollment and communications officer. “Certainly a student’s academic record remains paramount. But Posse shines a light on personal characteristics that are harder to measure from a quantitative perspective, but that provide good indicators of a student’s success: persistence, resourcefulness, teamwork, leadership, initiative, the ability to overcome adversity. Posse has liberated us to think in terms of what a student can gain from the Bryn Mawr experience as well as what she can contribute.”

For more information about the Posse Foundation, visit the Posse Foundation website.

Close Connections

photo of Elizabeth MosierTo me, Posse is personal. When Jen Rusk ’05 first arrived at Bryn Mawr in fall 2001, I was acting director of admissions; I met Jackney Prioly ’06 in December of that year, when I traveled to Boston to help select 10 scholars from among 25 amazing finalists.

We came together this fall at the alumnae volunteer summit to talk about Posse for this article. I wasn’t surprised by their accomplishments—though I had a little trouble reconciling the Jen and Jackney I first met when they were teenagers with these stunning women in power suits, now leaders in their fields of finance and government.

As we talked, I flipped through a decade of Posse memories: smart, savvy, vibrant scholars who found their voices in my creative writing classes, babysat my daughters, introduced me to proud parents, shared a mismatched meal of “comfort foods” at a party I hosted in my home, and impressed me with their “No-Talent Talents”—headstands, singing, napkin poetry—performed at the annual PossePlus retreat.

The Posse Scholars I’ve known have energized my life and work, and continually renew my faith in my alma mater.

  — Elizabeth Mosier ’84

Comments on “The Power of Posse x 10”

  1. I don’t remember any earlier communication about Posse at Bryn Mawr — what took you so long? One question, which I recently asked in another context. Has Bryn Mawr ever accepted and/or graduated someone from a First Nation? (This is the Canadian version of Native American.) Probably if the College’s link is through Boston, there won’t be many from this group, but it is now the most disadvantaged in North America. I clearly remember how at Bryn Mawr both faculty members and students studied First Nations cultures, but never heard of any outreach to include at least some women from these groups among those to receive the kind of Bryn Mawr advantage given to just about any identifiable ethnicity and culture from all over the world — except here.

  2. Is this the same program which sponsors students in high school? I know that the Wellesley high school has several Posse students, thanks to Eunice Groark Clark, daughter of Eunice Strong Groark, ’56 …