University set to begin partnership with 23-year-old diversity organization

Starting this fall, Syracuse University will be partnered with the Posse Foundation to increase racial diversity on campus.

Since its inception in 1989, the Posse Foundation has sent more than 4,000 students to 40 different universities on four-year, full-tuition leadership scholarships. Starting in the fall of 2012, Syracuse University will be added to the list, after becoming tri-city partners with the Posse Foundation.

The tri-city partnership means that Syracuse will accept a “posse” from Atlanta, Los Angeles and Miami annually. The connection will increase racial diversity on campus and will create a strong network of intelligent and determined Posse scholars.

The foundation places qualified urban-area students in “posses” of 10-12 people. Once the group is carefully selected, they go through a training program in hopes that when they get to their respective campuses, they are ready to be leaders.

SU Chancellor Nancy Cantor brought the diversity initiative to the university after seeing its success at her previous stop, the University of Illinois. Deborah Bial, the president and founder of the Posse Foundation, said the connection between SU and Posse was a natural one.

“At Syracuse, Cantor and her team saw the benefits the Posse program could bring to the campus community, and we at Posse knew that our students would benefit greatly from the first-rate education Syracuse offers,” Bial said. “It was a perfect fit.”

The Posse students aren’t just taking the scholarship and letting time pass by. The Posse Foundation’s alumni report shows 79 percent of its scholars held leadership positions during their collegiate years.

“Posse Scholars have built a reputation over the years for really getting involved on campus. Typically, they go on to found and lead campus clubs, build bridges between different campus organizations and enliven classroom discussions,” Bial said.

To ensure the organization selects the most deserving students, the application process is long and strenuous. In the first stage, which can consist of up to 600 nominated applicants, the students engage in discussion and leadership activities. The field is then whittled down to around 100 students, who proceed to the interview phase.

Twenty-five students are then selected for the final round of the process. They are joined by the dean of admissions from the school they are applying to, as well as respected alumni, who assist in making the final decisions of which students receive the scholarship. The applicants engage with each other and the school representatives in the final phase of the process.

“I thought that was pretty cool, the fact that they actually came and cared about who was getting these scholarships,” said Robert Welch, a current Posse Scholar at the University of Wisconsin.

Once the recruitment and selection process ends, the pre-collegiate training program begins.

On a weekly basis, posses meet to discuss how to help each other in college, study skills, group skills and how to diffuse arguments concerning race, sex and gender, said Welch. He would take the metro after school into Washington D.C. to attend the two-hour meetings, he said.

Ultimately, they are shipped off to college, where they become each other’s support system.

The program started when an overachieving and intelligent inner-city student dropped out of his prestigious university, Bial said. “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me,” Bial recalled the student saying.

After hearing that, Bial, a Harvard graduate, started the nonprofit. The idea seemed to work as 90 percent of its scholars graduated from college.

“When I first heard about the scholarship and how it helped kids have a support group, I was thinking in my head, ‘I don’t really need these people, I’m a sociable guy, I can make friends on my own,’” Welch said. “But, when I came to Wisconsin and saw how big it was, it was really nice walking around campus and seeing the friends I made over the summer and even the older Posse kids.”

The Posse Foundation has found a way to sprout “scholars in every respect,” said Maurice Harris, SU dean of undergraduate admissions. He called the nonprofit the “most significant new diversity initiative” the university has undertaken.

The foundation has given more than 4,000 students the opportunity to attend elite universities for free. Strong academic schools like Vanderbilt University, Boston University, Lafayette College and Rice University are among those aligned with the nonprofit.

These students who, otherwise, may not have even gone to college are now graduating at a high rate, even without family history on their side. Sixty-one percent of Posse Scholars are first-generation college graduates.

The Posse Foundation has found the recipe for developing successful groups of students it seems.

“We’ve found that placing similarly driven, capable young people in diverse teams and offering them mentoring and training in areas such as cross-cultural dialogue, leadership, team building, and academic excellence greatly increases the likelihood of their success,” Bial said.

Dr. James K. Duah-Agyeman, the director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs, said he is anxiously awaiting the arrival of the posses and the results that ensue. He is particularly looking forward to seeing Posse Scholars in leadership positions on campus, he said.

He’s excited, he said, to “encourage and challenge these diverse set of leaders to learn to accept and appreciate diversity, so that when they leave and go into the world of work, they can survive.”

Erica Santiago, a former Posse Scholar at Vanderbilt, has done just that. Now working in women’s health, Santiago has been able to excel, thanks in part to what she learned with Posse, she said.

Santiago says the SU community should expect to see “some pretty dynamic leaders and people that have been huge leaders in their high schools and are ready and willing to continue it in college.”

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