WSW: Overcoming Campus 'Culture Shock' With 'A Posse'

Jun 9, 2018

Deborah Bial, founder of The Posse Foundation, is Kalamazoo College's commencement speaker on Sunday, June 17.
Credit Courtesy photo | Kalamazoo College

Imagine you're alone in a new country, don't speak the language, nor understand the customs. For some urban students, they experience "culture shock" at college, says Deborah Bial, founder of The Posse Foundation. Over the last 29 years, her New York City-based program has recruited more than 8,000 promising inner-city students to attend the nation's top colleges in groups, or "posses." A four-year-long support program awaits them once there. Bial speaks Sunday, June 17, at Kalamazoo College's commencement.

In a phone interview in advance of her visit, Bial talked to WestSouthwest, WMUK's news and public affairs show, in a segment airing on Monday, June 11. She discussed how the initiative came about, its growth and future plans. Piloted first at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., 56 colleges now participate, including Kalamazoo College, which has had the program for a decade.

It's not easy to get into the Posse Program.

This year alone, more than 17,000 high-school seniors were nominated nationwide for the 750 slots, Bial said. Those who make it into the program had to pass a series of hands-on leadership and problem-solving exercises with as many as 100 applicants in the same room at a time, according to Bial.

"I think a lot times people see Posse Scholars as poor kids who need help, but really they're extraordinarily talented kids who bring much to the institution as well," Bial said.

She said this non-traditional, intensive screening process allows for the identification of young leaders that might get overlooked through the usual methods used for college admissions, like SAT scores and college essays. 

Participants are recruited from 10 cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Houston, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, and the Bay Area.

Called "Posse Scholars," they each receive full tuition scholarships from their partner colleges. To date, $1.2 billion in scholarships have been earned since the program launched in 1989, Bial said. And she added that students are graduating at a rate of more than 90 percent, oftentimes equal or better than their other classmates on their campuses.

"A lot of people think of Posse as a college success story, but that's only half of the story," Bial said.

"With our partner colleges, like Kalamazoo (College), we are very deliberately working to build a new kind of leadership network for the United States, one that reflects the diversity of the population in a way that's very exciting."