A Lifelong Program

September 26, 2014
James Helmsworth
The first Posse class to enter Oberlin graduated in 2011. Photo credit: Jennifer Manna

Oberlin students come from all across the globe—the class of 2018 hails from 40 states and 18 countries. But since 2011, at least 10 students in each first-year class have come from one place: public high schools of Chicago.

Given Oberlin’s diverse student body, it’s rare for incoming students to know their first-year classmates. But since 2007, at least 10 students in each first-year class have proven the exception: Oberlin's Posse Scholars. Prior to arriving at Oberlin, these 10 students, all from public high schools in Chicago, have spent nine months preparing for college and getting to know each other.

The Posse Scholars program was started in 1989 by Deborah Bial, the foundation's president, with the goal of helping traditionally overlooked students get first-rate educations. All Posse Scholars receive four-year, full-tuition scholarships at one of its 52 member institutions. But Posse also provides a support system, which is critical for success in a rigorous liberal arts environment.

The Posse process begins in the junior year of high school when students are nominated by their high school administrators or teachers for the program. After interviewing with both the program and the member school to which they have chosen to apply, 10 students are brought together to form each Posse group. They meet once a week to receive additional precollegiate training from Posse trainers, and also discuss issues such as race, gender, sexuality, and class, and the roles these might play in college. During this time, Posse members also start cohering as a group as the students get to know each other.

Patrick Bourke was a member of Oberlin's first Posse class that came to campus in 2007, and graduated in 2011. Now, Bourke is on the other side of the Posse experience, working as a trainer with the program for a chapter in New York City. Though all of Oberlin's Posse Scholars come from Chicago, Posse also has chapters in Atlanta, Boston, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New Orleans, and Washington, D.C. Bourke attributes much of his success to Posse. “I think Posse was really important for when we first got to campus,” he says. “We entered with that support system when so many college freshmen turn to college without anybody.”

This spring, the first class of students that Bourke trained with Posse will be graduating. “The coolest part is to see the development that happens and the maturity that happens,” he says.

Kathleen Wright also was part of Oberlin's first Posse class. Wright says that the conversations in her Posse training about race and class were particularly suited for Oberlin. “It doesn't hit you as soon as you get to campus,” she says, “but it’s such a great match with the Oberlin community and what Oberlin strives for.”

Like Bourke, Wright has also been involved with service work, having just returned from a stint with the Peace Corps in Ecuador this May. She says that the skills she learned in Posse training not only helped her at Oberlin, but also helped her in her work with the Peace Corps, ensuring that the groups and individuals that the organization was serving truly got the most out of the interaction. Had she not been involved with Posse, Wright says, “I think that I'd definitely be a different person.”

While the direct effect of Posse is providing traditionally overlooked students with a support group at prestigious schools, its long-term implications are much further reaching. Not only does it offer alumni support with graduate school and career training, but the program's structure provides a support group later in life. “Some of my best friends are from Posse and I'm still in contact with them,” says Wright. Bourke echoes this sentiment. “I just saw one of the guys in my posse last week,” he says. “This really is a lifelong program.”

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