By Keely Savoie
Mount Holyoke College alumna Shani Mensing ’15 wanted to go to college, but didn’t have a clear path out of her native Miami.
“I was prepared to study in Florida like my older sister had, even though that wasn’t what I wanted,” she said. “I had my support system there.”
But Mensing’s college advisor wanted more for her. He suggested she apply to become a Posse scholar, which would give her access to a realm of possibilities previously out of reach—and provide her with a built-in network of support, the keystone of the Posse philosophy.
Each year, the Posse Foundation identifies and selects students with exceptional leadership potential from 10 cities. It sends them, usually in groups of 10 students, to the 53 elite Posse partner universities and colleges across the United States, including Mount Holyoke.
This year, for the first time, the Posse program at Mount Holyoke will be funded by an endowed gift made by Peter and Evelyn Fuss ’60, who wanted to make a lasting change not only at Mount Holyoke, but in the greater world.
The idea for Posse—to connect talented students with institutions to which they might not otherwise apply—bloomed when founder Deborah Bial, an education strategist and 2007 MacArthur Fellow, heard about an urban student who was given a scholarship to his institution of choice. He dropped out before graduating, lamenting, “I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me.”
The Posse exchange is not just a benefit to the students who attend elite institutions tuition-free. It’s also a boon to the institutions that receive students who are eager to take on leadership roles and engage with their communities.
“The Posse Foundation identifies and chooses students who demonstrate leadership qualities and drive,” said Gail Berson, the vice president for enrollment and dean of admission at Mount Holyoke. “They uncover students who not only will benefit from a high quality education, but also who will enrich all the Posse partner institutions they attend and add incredible vibrancy to their campuses.”
By design, Posse scholars also reflect the demographics of the cities from which they are selected—from Boston to San Francisco—giving a truly diverse set of individuals access to education and the pipeline to future power.
“We want Posse scholars—and our future leaders—to reflect the true diversity of this country,” explained Bial, who was MHC’s 2014 Commencement speaker. “That is how real change happens.”
This year, Mount Holyoke College welcomed its sixth Posse class—of 11 new scholars—among its incoming students.
Coming to campus
Before arriving on campus, Posse students undergo an eight-month process of meeting with their mentors and one another, and training in skills they will need when they enroll at an elite college. Weekly group meetings also create and strengthen their bonds with one another—bonds that last beyond their time at college.
“These students are shining stars,” said Carolyn Dietel, director of the Frances Perkins Program, who serves as the Posse liaison for the College. “They come here just poised to fully embrace the transformative power of a Mount Holyoke education.”
Leah Glasser, dean of studies and a lecturer in English at MHC, was mentor to Posse 2, the cohort that graduated in spring 2015. As their mentor, Glasser met weekly with each individual Posse 2 scholar and with the group as a whole during their first two years at Mount Holyoke. Sharing their experiences, challenges, and successes reinforced and deepened their connections over time, she said.
“They become a family,” said Glasser, who connected the students with resources and people so they would have the richest college experience possible.
The combination of the students’ natural inclination toward leadership roles and community engagement, their mentor’s encouragement and advice, and their unique network as a Posse group creates an environment of resiliency and success, program officials note.
Posse scholars from Mount Holyoke have taken on a variety of student leadership positions and won numerous awards and accolades. For recent graduates and students, that includes a Davis Projects for Peace grant, prestigious internships, graduate school research opportunities, and jobs in their fields of choice. A Posse 3 scholar, Courtney Brunson ’16, currently holds the top student leadership position at Mount Holyoke—as president of the Student Government Association.
Brunson credits Posse with giving her the tools to pursue the post.
“My ability to get involved with student government developed because Posse gave me the confidence to recognize what I had to bring to the table,” she said.
In September, Posse 6, like the cohorts before it, arrived on campus ready to take on the new challenges of college. In addition to the network of their own Posse, this cohort will benefit from the reputation for leadership and success established by their Posse predecessors.
“Our community knows Posse students now,” said Aime DeGrenier, manager of community technical support and the Posse 6 mentor. “We know that Posse students are successful. They’re leaders. They’ve already made their mark on Mount Holyoke, and that’s having an incredible effect not only for the new scholars, but for Mount Holyoke itself.”
In true fashion, Posse 6 scholar Valerie Montesino ’19 already has set a high bar for herself. In addition to enrolling in four core courses, an African dance class, and a swim class, she rounded out her fall activities by joining crew and helping plan a public reading on Constitution Day.
“I wouldn’t have had this opportunity without the support of the Posse Foundation,” she said. “And knowing that I have my Posse here on campus means I will always have a network of people. I can always call someone. I will always see a familiar face. This is an amazing opportunity and I can’t wait to see what I will accomplish."
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