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Leaders with Posse-bility

USC's first Posse scholars — half of the dozen from USC Dornsife — together navigate the sometimes difficult transition from high school to college.

By Ambrosia Viramontes-Brody
October 4, 2011

Twelve Posse scholars from New York City are navigating USC as a group. Half are pursuing majors in USC Dornsife. Photo courtesy of George Sanchez, Posse students’ mentor, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history, and vice dean for diversity in USC Dornsife.

Twelve Posse scholars from New York City are navigating USC as a group. Half are pursuing majors in USC Dornsife. Photo courtesy of George Sanchez, Posse students’ mentor, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history, and vice dean for diversity in USC Dornsife.

A few thousand miles from home, a dozen freshmen from New York City can’t picture themselves at USC without their posse.

“You don’t realize how vital it is to have a support system until you’re here,” said Jheanelle Garriques, a USC Posse scholar majoring in gender studies in USC Dornsife. “These are people I can really rely on.”

This posse is not exactly what you may expect. The students are members of the Posse Foundation, founded in 1989 by education strategist Deborah Bial after a student told her, “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.” The foundation offers opportunities to public high school students from less advantaged, urban backgrounds who display extraordinary academic and leadership potential.

This Fall, USC became partners with the Posse Foundation, accepting 12 Posse scholars from New York public schools. Half are pursuing majors in USC Dornsife.

Through the partnership with Posse, USC is strengthening its mission to serve first-generation students, underrepresented minorities and build on programs such as the USC Norman Topping Student Aid Fund and USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative, said the Posse students’ mentor George Sanchez.

“This incredibly interesting and diverse set of students not only come here as individuals but as a close-knit group who will help each other through rough times,” said Sanchez, professor of American studies and ethnicity, and history, and vice dean for diversity in USC Dornsife. “This is a whole generation of new leaders who are going to have an impact.”

The Posse Foundation supports students from their senior year of high school, throughout college and into the workforce. It identifies and fosters talent of underrepresented students and gives them opportunities to pursue higher education. Traditional admission metrics such as grade point average, class rank, and entrance exam scores are often considered inadequate predictors of success for some undergraduates, Bial said.

“This really is a leadership merit award allowing students as a group to come to USC and further that leadership in the classrooms and organizations on campus,” Bial said. “They bond together, but are diverse in race, gender and interests.”

The most promising students are invited to join a “posse,” a small group that participates in an eight-month, pre-collegiate training program that builds individual and team skills and serves as an essential social support system once students arrive at college. They are awarded four-year, full-tuition scholarships to attend one of 38 universities or colleges partnered with the foundation.

Students consider their Posse cohorts as family; a community to rely on for comfort and support.

“If I was alone I would feel very overwhelmed,” said Jorge Calderon, an undeclared major in USC Dornsife. “But with a posse you come with an established group of friends. You can branch off and meet other people but if you need anything they’re there.”

The group gets together for everything from all-night cramming sessions and midterm reviews to birthday celebrations.

“I didn’t realize how good of an idea Posse was until I got here,” said Vidal Woods, an international relations major in USC Dornsife. “Moving this far away from home and having 11 other people from where you’re from who know you and understand you is priceless.”

Their presence will be noticed on campus. In high school, their leadership responsibilities ran the gamut of co-founding community service clubs, counseling teens, to serving as a model city council representative.

At USC, they are signing up to become mentors through USC Dornsife’s Joint Educational Project’s (JEP), working with Trojan Vision — USC’s television station — assisting businesses as student consultants through the Los Angeles Community Impact (LACI) program, and pursing leadership roles in the Freshman Advocacy Board (FAB).

Posse scholars are selected in part for their ability to lead.

Each year, thousands of junior and senior high school students who have demonstrated leadership in their schools, families or communities are nominated by their high school or a community-based organization. Candidates undergo a three-part selection process consisting of group and individual interviews and the foundation’s Dynamic Assessment Process (DAP) — a method that assesses leadership and teamwork skills.

Without the aid of writing coaches, test preparation booklets or guidance, students must rely on their personal traits and characteristics. Calderon excelled when candidates where required to work together under unusual circumstances — namely constructing towers from Legos each with one hand tied behind his or her back.

 “I was able to show my ability to work in a team, to listen to others and lead,” he said. “Posse was my opportunity to broaden my horizon and get an excellent education.”

As the first group of USC Posse scholars, members aim to make an impact on campus.

“We definitely want to pave the way for future Posse scholars by doing great academically and taking on leadership roles,” said Rachel Jones, a double major in environmental studies and international relations in USC Dornsife. “All the other posses can then come forward and try to do better.”

They arrived together and will leave USC with lifelong friends — no matter where they carve their niches in the world.