Leaders at DePauw University had been striving for a decade to diversify the campus by attracting more students of color as well as well as students from cities and states not well represented on campus.
“It was not rocket science to understand that we couldn’t equip our students to live in a world in which they would be working if they didn’t have exposure to people from different races and different backgrounds,” said former President Robert Bottoms, who ignited the diversity initiative soon after taking office in 1986.
So when DePauw alumnus Timothy Collins ’78, an investment banker, introduced Bottoms to a new foundation that sought to connect colleges with top New York City students overlooked by traditional recruitment – and even agreed to pay the $10,000 membership fee – Bottoms signed DePauw up. Twenty-five years ago this fall, the university welcomed the first cohort of New York students, who joined the Class of 2001 and received full-ride scholarships. They had been recruited via the Posse Foundation and, as a group, were intended to support one another as fellow members of their posse.
Those students, and the nearly 400 who have followed since, endured a stringent application process to be offered admission at DePauw and, during their senior year of high school, were coached for months on study skills, conflict resolution and other issues to ease their transition to college. They also become acquainted with the peers who would be joining them at DePauw. When they arrived on campus, they met regularly as a group and individually with their mentor, a faculty or staff member who remained with the group all four years.
DePauw was one of the first schools to sign on with Posse; 64 institutions now participate. The late Timothy Ubben ’58 was so impressed by Posse’s early success at DePauw that he rounded up friends to finance a program in Chicago and fund scholarships for the 2001-02 academic year. Since then, DePauw has accepted about 10 students each from New York and Chicago every year and has graduated about 83% of its Posse students, a smidge off Posse’s overall rate of 90%.
“It's a leadership organization,” Ubben said in an interview shortly before his death Dec. 13. Students “are selected based on what leadership they’ve shown,” he said. “The purpose of Posse is to produce leaders in the country, whether they're a firefighter or whether they’re a board member at Goldman Sachs. Doesn’t matter. We’re producing leaders.”
That sentiment is echoed by Posse’s founder, Deborah Bial, who was inspired to create the program in 1989 while working for a youth organization in New York City. An advisee told her he would not have quit the prestigious university he was attending had he had his “posse” with him.
“Posse is a national diversity, college success and leadership program. It’s a merit-based program,” not a program “that’s based on any kind of deficit,” Bial said. That’s a critical distinction, she said; if programs for at-risk and underprivileged students – as important as they are – are the only programs created to address diversity and inclusion, “then we underscore a stereotype.”
Bial said that “people who think of us as a college success program are only getting half the story. Really, our goal is to build a national leadership network for the United States of America, one that reflects the demographics of the American population. … If we can get those Posse graduates into leadership positions, so that they become CEOs, senators, college presidents, then we’re going to begin to see a different kind of decision-making happen – one that’s more inclusive, one that believes that we need to consider all voices when we make decisions.”
Those involved with Posse at DePauw hail it for its effect on not only its graduates – who have gone on to success in business, medicine, science, the arts, journalism and more – but also the university. Posse taught DePauw how to assess untraditional students who apply for admission, Bottoms said. DePauw emulated Posse’s pre-college training when the university created its first-year mentor program, which lasts an entire year and delves into deeper topics than orientation sessions at many other schools, said Cindy Babington, former vice president for student services and for admission and financial aid.
Meanwhile, Posse students “bring their unique traits and skills and academic drive to DePauw,” said JC Lopez who, as dean of student success, oversees the Posse program. Babington recalled that Posse students were “the impetus for social justice, social change on our campus. They brought up a lot of different issues. The first one I can remember was LGBTQ rights.”
Hillary Kelleher, an assistant English professor who has been the faculty mentor to three cohorts, including New York City students who just completed their first year at DePauw, said “the program is transformational, and not only to the Posse scholars” but to “the DePauw community, students, faculty, staff and administrators.”
Mentoring the Chicago Posse members in the Class of 2017 was “transformative for my teaching and advising,” said Dana Dudle, the Winona H. Welch professor of biology. “The scholars made me re-examine my relationship with students. For me, much of the joy of the mentor-student relationship was that I got to work closely with these talented, driven students whom I didn’t have to grade, so we could just focus on their individual and collective pathways.”
And Jeanette Johnson-Licon, who has been a Posse mentor for two cohorts, including the Class of ’22 New York City posse, said that being a mentor “has been life-changing for me.” She is associate dean of experiential learning and has been involved with Posse students in several previous roles, an experience that has “frustrated, challenged and delighted me. It wasn’t always easy, but I feel very lucky to have been part of their lives at DePauw.”
The university likewise has had a few challenging moments. Early on, “we had to have a conversation with the Posse office because our students from New York were coming and then withdrawing at too high of a rate,” Babington said. “It wasn't good for them, and it wasn't good for DePauw. And so we needed them to find students who were really OK with being in the middle of Indiana.”
Posse “worked to better portray what DePauw was all about, what Greencastle was all about, and found students who were coming in with their eyes more wide open,” she said. The university brought students to campus for admitted student open houses, enabling them to experience campus and meet people connected to the university.
Since then, Posse students have been more likely to persist through graduation, enjoying the benefits of an education offered to any DePauw student and earning a degree from a prestigious university.
“We did the same thing for Posse students that we did for all of our students, and that is provide a quality liberal arts education, provide internships, chances to be involved in international study,” Bottoms said. “These were opportunities that a lot of students didn’t have, and the students wouldn’t have had if (DePauw) hadn’t been part of the Posse program.”
Photo: Posse members from the Class of 2022 celebrated their graduation in May.
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