Posse Scholars at Bard
Clockwise from bottom left: Tess Whitney ’14, Ahmaad Lott ’16,
Miriam Huppert ’13, Kimberly Sargeant ’14, Brandon LaBord ’13
Photo by Don Hamerman
by William Stavru ’87In the Bardian
Attending a residential college is a difficult transition for most teenagers, as they leave behind friends, family, and familiar terrain to start over in a new place with few, if any, connections. Low-income, minority students are particularly vulnerable to dropping out in the first year. This decision carries long-term implications not only for themselves but for the nation’s workforce. One organization that’s been remarkably effective at improving the college graduation rates of at-risk populations is the Posse Foundation, launched in 1989 by education strategist Deborah Bial.
Bial was listening when one student said, “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.” This comment sparked her innovative yet simple approach to helping people obtain a college degree—send a small group of students to college together so they can support one another in a challenging new environment. The Posse Foundation has a threefold mission: to increase the diversity of applicants to the nation’s top college and universities, to create campus environments that welcome people of all backgrounds, and to ensure that Posse Scholars graduate. Posse has established programs in many major U.S. cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, Houston, and Miami. Each recruitment city has a partnership with at least two institutions, which provide full scholarships to Posse members. The foundation’s partner institutions have distributed more than $486 million in scholarships to date.
Bard’s first Posse arrived in fall 2009 from Atlanta and they will graduate next month. Without the foundation’s support, students such as Miriam Huppert ’13 would have had limited opportunities. She says, “I couldn’t have come to Bard without Posse.” Huppert, an American studies major, is writing a Senior Project about media influence on law-breaking during Prohibition, working with Professor of History Myra Young Armstead. Huppert entered Bard interested in vocal performance, and she still sings for fun, working with Bard’s jazz specialists and singing with the College’s gospel choir. She’d like to work for the Posse Foundation after graduating.
Says Bard Vice President and Dean of the College Michèle D. Dominy, “We’re now in our fourth year with the foundation and we have 50 Posse scholars on campus, a diverse group of white, Latino, and African American students, many of whom are low-income and first-generation college attendees. Bard is a highly individuating institution and the presence of a cohesive group with a defined mission and identity was at first slightly anomalous. However, as the students grow in number, they have moved the College in a positive direction in terms of increased regional, ethnic, and socioeconomic diversity on campus.”
Since it began, Posse has helped more than 4,200 students nationwide earn a bachelor’s degree. The Posse Scholar graduation rate is 90 percent, which is significantly above the national average. In addition, 27 Posse students have won Fulbright scholarships since 2007. Statistics aside, the students are impressive—they are at Bard not only to learn, but also to be involved in campus and community life, an effect of Posse’s culture of leadership and participation.
Brandon LaBord ’13 is working on a sociology Senior Project about managerial practices in business structures. He runs Bard’s Black Student Organization and is codirector of Building Up Hudson, a mentoring organization for students in the city of Hudson, New York. LaBord plans on being an entrepreneur after he completes his schooling. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time,” he says. “In high school I had my own business, with a friend, called Flyest Society—we distributed flyers for events in Atlanta.” LaBord is applying to graduate business programs at Harvard, Wake Forest, and Yale. He’s also applied to the Peace Corps and has been speaking with an Air Force recruiter. He’d eventually like to start a foundation that supports students in obtaining education.
Posse’s recruiting process is extensive. It allows students to demonstrate skills and intelligence that may not be apparent through a standard college application process. The initial assessment is through a recruitment event that includes large-group and individual interviews and team-building work. Beforehand, students have selected which college they hope to attend. Once the recruiting sessions are complete, the college’s admissions team and Posse staff decide together who receives a scholarship. Ten students are chosen as a Posse for each partner school.
Once accepted, Posse scholars attend a weekly two-hour workshop during the senior year of high school in which they participate in team-building activities, learn leadership and communication skills, and are coached on how to succeed academically in college. When they arrive on campus, scholars attend biweekly individual and group meetings with the faculty members who are their Posse mentors. The meetings continue during the first two years of college. The senior-year workshops and campus support sessions provide the critical program infrastructure through which Posse students connect with one another. Tess Whitney ’14, a junior in Bard’s second Atlanta Posse, says, “In my freshman year it was very helpful to have the other Posse students in my life.” LaBord says, “When we see each other, it’s an invisible hand of support.”
Kimberly Sargeant ’14, from Stone Mountain, Georgia (about 20 miles outside Atlanta), attended a magnet high school in DeKalb County. Both of her parents attended university in Guyana, South America, and came to the United States in 1980. A math major who may also decide to study German, Sargeant—also in the second Atlanta Posse—says, “Without Posse I would probably still be scared to leave Georgia, but now that I’m here I know Bard is the right place.” She is a peer counselor and works as a tour guide for the Admission Office. Sargent also has spent two summers as a counselor and workshop leader at Yale University’s Exploration Senior Program, an academic camp for high school students. After graduating, she says, “My plan is to go for a Fulbright Scholarship or Watson Fellowship, or Teach for America. I want to spend time exploring and working to gain personal experience.”
Whitney, from Decatur, Georgia, is a literature major concentrating in Latin American and Iberian studies. She is a peer counselor, the speaking captain of the women’s rugby team, and vice president of the rugby club (both men’s and women’s teams). Whitney says, “Posse was such a good opportunity for me. The only other school I applied to was the University of Georgia but I’m much more suited to Bard. Posse gave me the connections I needed to do well. I met several of the deans before I got here, so I had a solid support network.” Whitney says her Posse was especially helpful during the first year. “We still have get-togethers but we’re all so busy,” she says. “It's hard to figure out times.” She plans on applying for a prestigious national Watson Fellowship so she can travel after graduating and teach in Spain or Latin America.
In fall 2012, Bard became a founding partner institution (along with Tulane) for the new Posse program in New Orleans. Ahmaad Lott ’16 is one of the 10 students in Bard’s first New Orleans Posse. He hails from the Algiers neighborhood, or 15th Ward. Lott, who aims to become a film and electronic arts major, says, “If I hadn’t gotten a Posse scholarship, I’d be in New Orleans, working nights and living at home.” In addition to being an avid lover of film, Lott is a big music fan; he’s joined the Bard Gospel Choir and is planning to learn to play an instrument. After graduating from Bard, he wants to travel and make films, focusing on personal stories that have universal appeal. He says, “I moved from a small town in Missouri to New Orleans, but I didn’t experience any culture shock—I realized people are actually very similar.”
It is clear that Bard has made a permanent and positive imprint on its Posse scholars, and that Posse scholars have made an equally positive impact on the College. Says Dominy, “I am thrilled with the transformative student leadership they provide, and we look forward to the selection of two new cohorts of scholars from Atlanta and New Orleans for the class of 2017.”Read the spring 2013 issue of the Bardian: