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Grads reflect on POSSE

<r some Carleton students, the Posse program is a complete mystery, while for others Posse has been central to their time here.

The Posse program is based in seven U.S. cities– Chicago, New York, Atlanta, Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, D.C.—and seeks to expand the pool from which colleges and universities can recruit students from different backgrounds. According to the Posse Foundation, the program aims to help institutions create a welcoming environment for students of all backgrounds, and ensure that Posse scholars persist and graduate.

Program founder Deborah Bial developed Posse after hearing a college dropout state that he “never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.”  From this comment, Bial launched a nonprofit to send groups—or “posses”—of ten urban students to one of the program’s partner colleges or universities with a full tuition scholarship.

Carleton became a partner with the Chicago Posse Foundation in 2001 and graduated its first Posse class in 2005. Since that time, the College has graduated six Posses.

For her senior integrative exercise in Sociology/Anthropology, Shakita Thomas ’11 sought to better understand the Posse program and its effects on Carleton Posse students. If the program was successful, she wanted to understand how. Thomas asked specifically: Does the Posse program contribute to the academic and occupational success of Posse scholars? If so, how exactly does this program help create success?

To answer this question, Thomas conducted interviews of fourteen alumni who had been part of the Posse program during their time at Carleton.

After obtaining Institutional Review Board approval for her project, Thomas accessed a list of names of Posse Scholars from the Posse website. Because each Posse is a group of ten students (classes ’05, ’06, ’07, ’08, ’09), she had a pool of 50 names. From this list of names, she created a Facebook page and contacted them through Facebook-Message and email to join the group. Out of the twenty who responded, Thomas interviewed fourteen Posse Scholars, with at least two scholars from each of the classes.

In addition to graduating from Carleton—important particularly given the school’s problems with retention of students of color—Thomas also looked at factors leading to the Posse students’ post-graduate outcomes. Two scholars are getting their masters degrees, two others are getting their doctorates and one is getting a law degree. Another two scholars have started their own businesses and two more are teachers.

Thomas discovered that the Posse program was an important factor in the success of Posse students at Carleton and in their post-graduation occupations.

As for support during the time at Carleton Thomas explained, “A lot of students [in Posse] experience culture shock when they get here. The Posse program helps them get through [Carleton].”

Thomas specifically cited the support of official Posse mentors, which are organized through the program, and the closeness of the Posse groups. “Posse scholars meet every week with their Posse and their mentor,” she said. “There are also individual meetings with mentors. Many of the Posse scholars I spoke to felt that their mentors were crucial in getting them to stay [at Carleton] and succeed.”

Thomas said that the Posse scholars were able to use the resources of Posse—their Posse, their mentors—when they felt like they needed it. Thomas addressed the idea of “social capital” in terms of support for students at Carleton. “Relationships matter,” she said. “The outcomes of the Posse students matter, especially to their Posse. If you feel more connected and involved in a particular place, you will be more likely to succeed.”

Some worry that the Posse program fosters self-segregation within the campus, particularly as the groups of students are expressly a “posse” both to themselves and others on campus. But Thomas emphasized the importance of comfort on campus for students in Posse and how after the first year leads to branching out and meeting new people. “Posse provided the space to help them [feel comfortable] when they got to campus,” explained Thomas. “Most of the people interviewed said that after their first year, most of their friends were no longer related to Posse.”

In addition to social supports, Thompson’s interviewees described confidence in their own abilities, thanks to the program. “The great thing about Posse is that it created that infrastructure whereby the students could really feel inspired. I mean that’s the whole goal is to have that support system but to also inspire you, to show you that you could really achieve great things,” said one interviewee. He continued, “Whenever things got hard, the presence of Posse, being linked to Posse reminded me that I am special. I am a leader. I was selected to do this. It was not going to be easy but this is what I was selected to go through.”

In terms of post-graduate success, Thomas noted the role of “bridging social capital” in the lives of Posse scholars from Carleton. Eight of the fourteen Posse scholars that Thomas interviewed had parents who did not attend college. But because of the Posse program, “students can build a network outside of Posse that they then can use within their lives post-Carleton,” she said. For example, Thomas recalled an interviewee with a friend whose parents knew someone at a law firm and led to an employment opportunity for the interviewee.

The Posse program also gave students the skills that made them more able to access jobs outside of Carleton. Thomas found through her research that “Posse scholars did not always use the term networking to describe the skill” and they were learning through talking to people of diverse backgrounds. Yet many “mentioned being able to communicate with different people on different levels,” which Thomas noted as an important networking skill.

One of Thomas’s interviewees, who eventually started her own business, spoke about how important networking was for her. “[Posse was] really helpful in helping me to network and build relations,” she said.

Ultimately, Thomas concluded that the Posse program played a significant role in graduating from Carleton and post-graduate outcomes of students in the program.

Thomas concludes her paper by noting that many of the Posse scholars came from working class or low-income families without the benefits of a college education. But with the resources of the Posse program and the relationships through Posse, students in the program were able to attend a prestigious college, build relationships and achieve their goals.

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