Connecticut College Magazine · Summer 2013

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Portrait of a Posse: How a handful of students from Chicago became campus leaders. Photo by A. Vincent Scarano

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The Trailblazers

The Trailblazers
Posse Mentor Candace Howes, the Ferrin Professor of Economics, surrounded by members of Posse 1 (See 'Portrait of a Posse' below for names). Photo by A. Vincent Scarano

The first Posse Scholars have changed their lives — and the College

by Lisa Brownell


N AUGUST 2009, 12 students from Chicago arrived on campus lugging heavy suitcases and bags of recent purchases from Target. Like all first-year students, they came with their own hopes and dreams for college, as well as the usual anxieties. But, unlike their peers, these students carried another set of expectations and responsibilities — their pioneering roles as Connecticut College's first Posse Scholars.
Posse Scholars are chosen for their academic and leadership potential by the New York-based Posse Foundation and admitted to a select group of private colleges and universities that provide full scholarships along with strong mentoring and support. The program is based on the premise that students from disadvantaged backgrounds who enroll in college with a “posse,” or peer group, of similar students are more likely to persevere and graduate.

Established in 1989, Posse has placed more than 4,800 students from nine urban areas at 45 partner colleges and universities, with an overall graduation and persistence rate of more than 90 percent. In 2010, President Barack Obama recognized Posse's success by designating the foundation to receive a share of his $1.4 million Nobel Peace Prize award.
Posse aims to identify and develop students who will take on leadership roles and change campus culture. “Posse can inject a kind of dynamic diversity that a college might not have enjoyed in the past,” says former Dean of the College Armando Bengochea, now a program officer overseeing diversity initiatives at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Connecticut College selected the 12 “Posse 1” students in December 2008, halfway through their senior year of high school. For the next eight months, they met weekly with Posse leaders for workshops on leadership development, team building and communication, diversity and academic preparation, as well as service days, career development events and a final three-day retreat in Michigan.

Within the group, there were significant differences in background and life experience. Some students came from homes in which modest financial means were offset by extraordinary support and inspiration; others grew up in families affected by gang violence, drugs and crime. They had graduated from 11 different Chicago public high schools, ranging from highly competitive magnet schools to resource-poor inner city schools. Six were African-American, five were Hispanic, and one was Asian-American. Only two had a parent who was a college graduate; two were the children of immigrants.

“It took us quite a while to form true bonds of friendship,” says Milan Saunders '13.

Their first reactions to college were mixed.

The physically safe environment was a welcome change for Ashton Evans '14, who had often been told as a child that neighborhood gunfire was just fireworks. “For the first time, I was able to look up and make eye contact when I was walking,” he says. “I began to say 'hi' and to smile at strangers. It felt quite awesome.”

At the same time, some of the students felt a certain scrutiny on a campus where American students of color were only 15 percent of the student population. Socioeconomic differences were less visible but equally important: About 85 percent of Connecticut College students have at least one parent with a college degree; more than half do not qualify for need-based financial aid.
“We stuck out like a sore thumb,” says Marline Johnson '13. “You had a small group of kids coming from inner city Chicago entering a predominantly white school. We had a mini-magnifying glass on us.”
Over the next four years, many of the students struggled academically; others had trouble finding their niche outside the classroom. One student left in the first year and two in the second, for personal and academic reasons. (A fourth, Evans, took a semester off and will graduate next year.)

The departures shocked and saddened the other students. “We were a posse,” says Wynndee Reese '13. “We're supposed to be here for each other.”

The remaining nine students overcame their obstacles and took advantage of the College's signature experiences, including study away, funded internships, interdisciplinary certificates and faculty-student research. By the time they graduated last month, they had won their share of honors and taken on leadership roles such as admission fellows, floor governors, housefellows, club officers and more.

For the first two years, their official mentor, Candace Howes, the Ferrin Professor of Economics, met with the students weekly as a group and every other week individually.
“Candace is the backbone of our posse,” says Johnson. “She played mentor, parent, therapist and professor all at the same time. Every one of us confided in her; she was, and still is, one of our biggest supporters and fans.”

In 2011, as the two-year mentoring process officially ended, Howes invited the group to her 1765 farmhouse in New Hampshire for an informal celebration. Many had never seen anything like the rustic home in the woods or spent time in a rural environment.

Working with Posse has been eye-opening for Howes as well. “It expanded my world,” she says. “I'm really close to them. It was a real privilege to see their world in a way that would never have been possible for me. It made me understand what is going on under the surface of all our students, not just Posse.”

This past year, with the arrival of Posse 4, 42 Posse students were enrolled across four years. (Thanks to Posse publicity, the College has also seen an uptick in applications from Chicago overall.) While many on campus may not even know which students are Posse, faculty and administrators say the students' diverse perspectives are changing campus conversations, inside and outside the classroom.
“Posse students have an extraordinary effect on all other students,” says Jefferson Singer, the Faulk Foundation Professor of Psychology and mentor to Posse 2.

For students from disadvantaged backgrounds, the impact is particularly significant. “It didn't take me long to see how involved the Posse students were here and how they made it much easier for students who do not necessarily come from private schools or suburban neighborhoods,” says Elena Rosario '14.

Asia Calcagno '14, a member of Posse 2, agrees. The Posse 1 students “would not let us fail,” she says. “We were strong because they showed us how to be strong.”


RONALD ARTICA
THE TEST OF FIRE


Ronald Artica was a high school senior when a school counselor recommended him for a Posse scholarship. “I just didn't take it seriously at first,” he says.

The son of Honduran immigrants, Artica had already faced challenges, such as being teased for his accent and riding the bus home after dark through gang-ridden neighborhoods. To avoid hassles, the high-achieving student kept a low profile outside the classroom.

The counselor persisted, and Artica agreed, joining 2,500 candidates from across the city. Multiple rounds of interviews and assessments winnowed the group to 250 finalists, who were matched with one of Posse Chicago's 10 partner colleges and universities. The final phase occurred in December: a group session with 25 other finalists and a Connecticut College selection committee.
“It was the test of fire,” Artica says.

The quiet young man, who liked playing soccer, cooking carne molida and talking politics with his father, put aside his shyness and jumped into the discussion. His effort paid off with an offer of admission from Connecticut College.

Artica arrived planning to major in math, but struggled in his first college-level math course. His goal changed in his second semester, when he enrolled in “Introduction to Latin American History” with Associate Professor of History Leo Garofalo.

“Ronald was engaged in the study and debate of ideas and politics from the first class,” says Garofalo, director of the Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity (CCSRE). Inspired in part by his own heritage, Artica began to research African populations in the Americas and resistance to slavery by runaways in the Caribbean.

“I don't think I would've stuck it out if it hadn't been for that history class,” says Artica, who was subsequently awarded a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship.
“Professor Garofalo has given me faith that I can do bigger things,” he says.

Along with his newly minted degree, Artica has a new ambition: to pursue a doctorate in history and become a social activist.


WYNNDEE REESE
INDEPENDENT THINKER


Wynndee Reese's older sister was a Posse Scholar at another liberal arts college. Wynndee wanted to follow her sister's example — but in her own way.

She brought her independent spirit to Connecticut College as a member of Posse 1. “Not a week goes by that someone doesn't say to me, 'I never would have expected that of you,' after I've expressed an idea,” Reese says.

An introductory course in anthropology led her to major in anthropology while also fulfilling pre-med requirements. Working with Professor of Anthropology Catherine Benoit, Reese self-designed an academic minor in traditional medicine and biomedicine in Africa. As a scholar in the Goodwin-Niering Center for the Environment, she did her center internship at World Camp, Inc., in Malawi.

“I'm proud of myself for not limiting myself, for picking a major that was outside the box and blazing my own trail,” she says.

Each year, she has taken on some new leadership role, including working as an admission fellow and a housefellow. Shortly before graduation she was a panelist for a discussion on redesigning General Education. She plans to attend medical school and become a forensic scientist.

Reese jokes that she majored in “people-watching,” and she is a keen observer of her fellow Posse Scholars. “We all have an innate ability to adapt and adapt quickly,” she says. “You may get knocked down, but you get right back up.”

Although Reese describes herself as “fiercely independent,” she has learned to value the group's support. “Posse has taught me the benefit of a team working together,” she says. “I rely on the other members.”


MARLINE JOHNSON
HEALING THROUGH ART


For her senior art project, Marline Johnson created black-and-white photographic portraits of several friends using a technique that suggests transparent layers. “As humans we're so complex — there are many different layers to us,” she explains.

In her first year, Johnson shared her personal story at the Black History Month Convocation. In a powerful speech, she related the death of her father shortly after her first birthday in a gang-related shooting, her mother's drug addiction and her early upbringing by her grandmother. “Even to this day, I've yet to see a picture of my father, the man who gave me life,” she said.
After her grandmother became ill, a lawyer who had become a family friend was named legal guardian to Marline and her brother and raised them.

With her empathetic personality and analytical mind, Johnson may have been destined to major in psychology. But as she did with her portraits, she layered on additional dimensions, including a minor in studio art and a deep commitment to community service.

Her activities included mentoring on campus and in the New London schools, and she led creativity workshops in the ENRICH after-school program. (See story on page 9.) During a semester at Rhodes University in South Africa, she volunteered in a local organization for high school students affected by HIV/AIDS. At Commencement, she was awarded the Anna Lord Strauss Medal, the College's highest student honor for public or community service.

In the summer after her junior year, Johnson did a College-funded internship at the Institute for Therapy through the Arts in Evanston, Ill., and found a career goal that combines her interests: This fall, she starts a master's degree in art therapy at the Art Institute of Chicago.


TENZIN PALMO
OUTSIDE HER COMFORT ZONE


Born in India to Tibetan parents who had been resettled there, Tenzin Palmo was 2 when her family moved to Chicago. For a while, their home was a studio apartment not much bigger than her first dorm room in Burdick House.

A high-achieving student who attended one of the best public high schools in Illinois, she knew how to earn top grades. Mastering life outside the classroom was not as easy.
In her second year, Palmo, an economics major, challenged herself “to go outside her comfort zone, and even outside the Posse.”
After joining one sports team where she felt out of place as the only non-white student, she eventually found her niche in the women's rugby club. “I became part of the campus community after that,” she says. “I'd found the confidence to do other things.”

Soon, she was business manager for the student-run Coffee Grounds café as well as a member of the Peggotty Investment Club and Students for a Free Tibet.

During junior year, she spent a semester with the College's study away program at Vietnam National University. In Hanoi, she discovered another hidden strength — she was less squeamish than her classmates.
“My friends from more privileged backgrounds had never seen a rat before, so seeing rats the size of cats running around the street did not go over well with them,” she says.

As a first-year student, she says, she viewed the College as a collection of opportunities and resources. Now she sees it differently — “as a great college with dedicated professors who are truly invested in the higher learning of their students.”


RASHEED MITCHELL
A QUIET LEADER


Growing up in Englewood, a gritty neighborhood with the highest murder rate in Chicago, Rasheed Mitchell's role models were “gangsters and athletes.” He played football at three different high schools, suffering torn ligaments in both shoulders; the school he eventually graduated from had a 40-percent dropout rate.

Initially, he couldn't imagine attending a small college without a football team. Then he had a series of conversations about his future with a Posse alumnus and former director of Posse Chicago. Ultimately, Mitchell decided: “Education would come first.”

Tall and soft-spoken, Mitchell has the presence of a natural leader; other Posse students say they often turn to him for advice. His high school experience, however, had left some gaps in his academic preparation.

Professor of Government Wendell John Coats Jr. met Mitchell in his introductory political theory course that first semester. Mitchell was having trouble with a paper on Alexis de Tocqueville. “He was straightforward in explaining his difficulties and asking for help,” Coats says. “I encouraged him not to worry about deadlines and grades so much and just concentrate on the ?subject matter.”

Before the semester ended, Mitchell was on a par with the rest of the class.

“His most impressive quality is the solidity of his character and his direct and tenacious approach to learning and problem solving,” Coats says.

In his junior year, Mitchell spent a semester at Rhodes University in South Africa, where he focused on contemporary African political theory. The following summer, he interned at the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization on Chicago's South Side. He later headed downtown for his first corporate experience — an internship with a philanthropic management consulting firm.

By senior year, Mitchell was elected president of the Black student group Umoja and was finishing a double major in government and American studies with a concentration in comparative race and ethnicity. But he was also living with an old football injury so severe that he would dislocate his shoulder by turning over in his sleep. For the second time, he underwent surgery.

In February, his arm still in a sling, he approached the microphone at the Black History Convocation and quoted Maya Angelou: “No man can know where he is going unless he knows exactly where he has been and exactly how he arrived at his present place.”

Then he reflected on a “dark period” in his life, his teenage years in Englewood. “In addition to understanding that life is short, I learned to listen to people and their experiences,” he said. “My friends all had different experiences at home … but the streets were our commonality and the only way to accept that our existence depended on each other. We had to gain a sense of trust and respect for each other.”
He applied the same lessons on campus. “Of all the students in his Posse, Rasheed has changed the most in four years,” says Dean of Multicultural Affairs Elizabeth Garcia. “He's a quiet leader … thoughtful and caring.”

He also has a sense of humor, even about his abandoned football career; he enjoys wearing a shirt that proclaims: Connecticut College Football, Undefeated Since 1911.
He's serious about expressing gratitude, though. “The educational experience that I've been afforded through Connecticut College and Posse has raised my chances of being happy and successful in life to a point that is exponentially higher than it was four years ago,” he says.


FRONT ROW L-R:

Tenzin Palmo '13 Economics major; studied in Vietnam; interned at PricewaterhouseCoopers. Next step: Working at PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Wynndee Reese '13 Anthropology major and pre-med student; self-designed minor in traditional medicine and biomedicine in Africa; interned in Malawi. Next step: Applying to medical school.

Ronald Artica '13 History and Latin American studies major; awarded Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. Next step: Working in Chicago while applying to doctoral programs
in history.

Milan Saunders '13 Environmental studies major and member of the College's Science Leaders program; conducted summer research in the Arboretum as part of its long-running vegetation studies; ALANA volunteer. Next step: Tutoring and mentoring with City Year Chicago.

Andrea Lewis '13 Human development major with K-6 teaching certification; Teaching Scholar for the Golden Apple Foundation, Chicago; numerous volunteer roles on and off campus, including ALANA coordinator, volunteer/teacher's assistant in the Children's Program and volunteer at the Regional Multicultural Magnet School. Next step: Applying for middle school teaching jobs in Chicago.

BACK ROW L-R:

Rasheed Mitchell '13 Government and American studies major with a concentration in comparative race and ethnicity; studied in South Africa. Next step: A marketing internship at OluKai Footwear
in California.

Garrett Brown '13 Theater and sociology-based human relations major; interned as a teaching assistant and housemaster at the Summer Institute for the Gifted at Yale University; involved in multiple campus theater productions; also was floor governor, housefellow and co-chair of 2013 Senior Giving program. Next step: Tutoring math and English with City Year Chicago.

Marline Johnson '13 Psychology major and art minor; winner of the College's Anna Lord Strauss Medal for community service. Next step: A master's degree in art therapy from the Art Institute of Chicago.

Ashton Evans '14 Film studies and economics major; took a semester off and plans to graduate next year; currently doing a College-funded internship at a film and television casting agency in New York City.


Scholarship support for Posse Scholars has been provided through the generosity of Virginia Slaughter '48; James Doran '59; Richard Zannino P'09; Michael and Martha Brown P'11; The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation; William Randolph Hearst Foundation; the Class of 1959 Scholarship Fund; and the SJS Charitable Trust.


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