How the Posse Foundation helps students get into and thrive in college
By Nicole Gildea
Just relax. Yuying Guo tells herself as she steps into the interview room. Her stomach is full of nerves but she takes a deep breath and puts a smile on her face. This is not the time to be nervous. She has to give it everything. Her eyes scan the room and she notices about 24 other students. They all made it to the final interview but only 10 will be selected. Less than half of them. Guo hopes more than anything she will be selected because then she will win the ultimate prize—a full-tuition scholarship to college.
The interview lasts nearly four hours. It is a group interview where candidates answer questions about themselves and participate in interactive workshops. The selection committee already received her grades and test scores. Now they are evaluating her on her ability to communicate well, to work in a team, and to demonstrate leadership.
Guo leaves the building by the end of the night and steps into the December air. She feels a sense of relief knowing that she finished the third and final interview. She feels proud of herself for making it this far. Now all she has to do is wait for the decisions to be made.
Tiny flakes of snow flutter onto her jacket as she walks down the streets of Boston. She ducks into the subway and rides the train back home. She arrives home around 9:00 p.m. and settles into her bedroom. It is a school night. Homework will be due tomorrow. However, Guo is too distracted by the recent interview to do any homework.
Suddenly the phone rings. That’s weird. She thinks. Why is someone calling me this late? She answers the phone. A moment later a huge smile spreads across her face. It is the Posse Foundation on the other line. They are calling to tell her that she has been admitted into Bryn Mawr College on a full-ride.
Founded in 1989, the Posse Foundation is a national organization devoted to college access and youth development. Each year it identifies public high school students from the same urban communities who have demonstrated strong academic and leadership talent. The founder of the organization is Deborah Bial, an alumna of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. According to the organization’s website, Bial got the idea to create the foundation when she heard a student say, “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.”
The Posse Foundation places students in diverse groups of 10, known as Posses, in prestigious colleges and universities throughout the United States. The idea is that by being in a Posse, students will receive the support of the fellow students their Posse to help them graduate.
Each Posse scholar is awarded a four-year, full-tuition scholarship from the foundation’s partner colleges and universities. There are currently 57 partner institutions, including Cornell University, the University of Notre Dame, and the George Washington University. Posses come from 11 cities throughout the country, among which are Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City.
The Posse Foundation strives to help all students receive the opportunity to excel. By recruiting students from urban public schools, many come from poor, minority communities. Many will be the first in their families to graduate from college, including Guo. Thus, the organization aims to recruit high achieving students who may be traditionally overlooked by college admissions committees and who may otherwise not be able to attend four-year private colleges and universities.
The organization has gained national recognition. According to its newsletter, President
Obama supported the foundation in 2010 after donating part of his Nobel Peace Prize money to it.
Guo, 20, lived in Guangzhou, a province in southern China, up until the age of four. Her family then immigrated to America in search of better opportunity.
“Living in America was difficult at first,” Guo said. “I only spoke Cantonese but was put into an English speaking school.”
Out of immersion or perhaps necessity, Guo learned English fairly quickly and adapted to life in America. However, her parents could not speak English fluently and she often had to translate for them.
By the time she was a senior in high school she was thinking about what college she would attend.
“I always thought I would stay close to home,” she said.
Coming from a working-class, immigrant family, she did not know a lot about the college admissions process. Nevertheless, she was a hardworking student and knew she wanted to attend a good school. When her teacher told her about the Posse Scholarship, she thought it was a great opportunity and decided to apply.
Students from Boston can attend one of six Posse partner schools: Bryn Mawr College, Bucknell University, Centre College, Denison University, Hamilton College, or Union College.
“I decided on Bryn Mawr because of its STEM program,” Guo said.
This year the first STEM Posse will graduate from Bryn Mawr. Until recently, the
foundation focused on developing liberal arts students at its partner schools. However, rapid advances in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics have highlighted the importance of making those studies accessible to students from all backgrounds.
“The dropout rate among all students in the sciences is very high,’’ said Irv Epstein, a chemistry professor at Brandeis University who helped launch the first STEM Posse at Brandeis. “It’s something on the order of 50 percent who enter college professing an interest in the sciences and ultimately leaving for another field. That rate is even greater for students from less-privileged backgrounds.’’
As a result, the Posse Foundation has developed a STEM Program to recruit, train, and support Posse scholars in science, technology, engineering, and math. The program aims to support the performance of underrepresented students majoring in STEM fields while also helping to develop campus communities that are more welcoming to students from diverse backgrounds.
Posse partner institutions will provide 500 students a total of $70 million in full-tuition, four-year scholarships, helping them to complete STEM degrees, according to the organization’s website. Bryn Mawr is one of those institutions. Others include Middlebury College in Vermont and Pomona College in Southern California. The website says the STEM expansion is possible thanks to a $5 million commitment from Posse Board Chair Jeff Ubben, the founder and managing director of ValueAct Capital, and from the Tortora Sillcox Family Foundation. Each STEM partner institution will receive $500,000 over the next five years to help support the program on their campuses.
In a first floor laboratory at Bryn Mawr’s Park Science Building, Guo moves her stool across the smooth tiled floor and pushes it closer to her lab partner. In her developmental biology lab she is studying observations and experiments on living embryos. The professor walks around the room and checks in with each of the groups.
Guo had a passion for science ever since she was a child. At Bryn Mawr she is majoring in biology and on a prehealth track.
“I like that Bryn Mawr is a women’s college because I can receive so much more support and so many more resources and opportunities than I would if I went to another school,” she said.
The transition into college can be difficult for many students, especially if they are the first person in their families to go. In order to make this transition smoother, the Posse Foundation provides eight months of pre-collegiate training to its scholars. They meet once a week during the second half of their senior year of high school and into the summer. They use this time to engage in discussions and workshops focused on team building, cross-cultural communication, academic achievement, and leadership.
Each Posse is also paired with a mentor, a faculty of staff member, from their college. Mentors travel to the students’ home city in the summer for a retreat. They spend the weekend meeting their group of students and helping them prepare for their move into college.
Furthermore, STEM Posses participate in a special STEM immersion program during the summer. It is a program designed to give students the opportunity to enhance their STEM
knowledge through lectures, labs, and field trips.
“It’s a packed two weeks of academics and advising, which allows the scholars to explore STEM and college life at Bryn Mawr,” said Peter Brodfeuhrer, a professor of biology. “It also provides the faculty and staff with a glimpse of their potential to learn and lead.”
This past summer, Bryn Mawr’s third STEM posse came to campus for their STEM immersion program. They received molecular biology and neuroscience lectures and labs as well as a workshop with President Kim Cassidy. Students additionally took a field trip to nearby Philadelphia, where they were given a tour of the city’s premiere science museum, the Franklin Institute.
“The STEM immersion showed me how the Bryn Mawr science program is set up,” said Yeidaly Mejia, a sophomore. “The classes are rigorous and I learned that faculty are extremely supportive. Honestly, I just feel like Posse’s really prepared me.”
It is a Thursday night and Guo is finished with all her classes. But she does not rest. Instead she straps her backpack over her shoulders and heads out to the Parkway West High School.
Guo is a volunteer at Ardmore Community Tutoring, a federally funded work-study program in partnership with Bryn Mawr’s Civic Engagement office. As a tutor, she dedicates four hours a week to helping elementary school and middle school students from the Lower Merion and Haverford Township School Districts improve their reading and math skills.
“You don’t hear about ACT throughout the campus much,” said Guo. “But it’s a super rewarding program because these children have great potential but just need some guidance or
some confidence in themselves. So, you get to help them become the great students that they are.”
As a Posse scholar, Guo knows the importance of demonstrating leadership on campus. In addition to being a tutor, she is also involved in the Asian American Students Association and performs research in Professor Shapiro’s biology lab.
Other STEM Posse students are involved in science research as well. Shakhari Badgett, a senior, has worked with Professor Marenco in his geology lab. In addition, Fransheska Clara, a senior, is a biology major who spent the summer working in Haverford’s biology department studying the interactions between bacteria.
“Because Bryn Mawr is such a small school, it’s really easy to get involved with research,” said Clara.
Bryn Mawr has been a partner institution with the Posse Foundation since 2000, according to Vanessa Christman, the Bryn Mawr Posse liaison. With the development of the first STEM program at Brandeis, the college enrolled its first STEM Posse in the fall of 2013. That year it also started recruiting traditional Posses from Huston. Today there are 80 Posse students from both Boston and Huston on campus. Half of those students are in the STEM program.
Bryn Mawr is in the top 10 among liberal-arts colleges in terms of the percentage of female graduates pursuing doctorates in the STEM fields, according to the college’s website. Additionally, Bryn Mawr students are five times more likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry than undergraduate college students nationwide and eight times more likely to do so in math.
Bryn Mawr’s STEM partnership with the Posse Foundation supports one of the initiatives
the White House highlighted in connection with the White House Science Fair. President Barack Obama outlined in 2012 key steps that his administration and its partners were taking to help more students excel in math and science and earn degrees in these subjects. Having STEM Posses is one of them.
Guo discovered her interest in biology research after working in Professor Shapiro’s lab. She wanted to continue doing research over the summer but be closer to home. So, she reached out to a Swarthmore alumnus who now works at Boston University. This past summer she worked at the National Emerging Infectious Diseases Laboratories, which are affiliated with Boston University. Her project was about the host response to viral infections. She even had the opportunity to present her project at a research symposium at the end of the summer.
Guo hopes that her passion for biology and her research experience will help her achieve her dream of getting into dental school.
“I never thought I would go to Bryn Mawr, let alone do actual research with professors,” she said. “Being selected as a STEM Posse scholar has helped me grow so much academically. It has also given me more confidence—now I feel like I can do anything.”