Posse Scholars Enhance Campus, Leave Legacy of Leadership and Service

September 20, 2014

Dana Boone

After the success of the Los Angeles program, this fall the College will shift its recruitment of Posse Scholars from L.A. to New Orleans, while continuing to recruit Posse Scholars from Washington, D.C.

Grinnell College has enjoyed a 12-year partnership with the Posse Foundation, graduating 97 Posse Scholars: 59 from Los Angeles and 38 from Washington, D.C. Posse identifies students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college recruiting methods. Posse Scholars maintain a legacy of achievement and social responsibility long after they leave Grinnell. Many earn professional degrees, hold prestigious postgraduate fellowships, excel in their chosen professions, and serve as community leaders.

Grinnell alumni, faculty, staff, and program mentors lavish deep praise upon the Posse Foundation for improving diversity and building student leaders on college campuses.

“I’m convinced that Posse is one of the most important programs the College has initiated during my 38 years at Grinnell,” says Chris Hunter, professor of sociology and former Posse mentor. “Posse Scholars bring a huge range of life experiences and active leadership to campus; as a result, the scholars have contributed tremendously to our campus culture, in classrooms, and elsewhere on campus, even in town.”

Susan Sanning, director of service learning and civic engagement and mentor for the Grinnell Los Angeles Posse 12, class of 2018, says Posse students bring devotion and professionalism to everything they do.

“They have gone over and above what is required to be a student here,” she says.

“In many ways, the Posse program’s focus on peer support among Posse Scholars, with the Posse mentor helping along the way, fits our long-standing curriculum built on academic advising and individual choice and fits our tradition of self-governance,” Hunter says.

Doug Cutchins ’93, a former assistant dean and director of postgraduate transitions and Posse mentor, says mentoring Posse students was a highlight of his 15 years at the College.

“What I really took away from it — the biggest thing is that everybody needs a posse wherever we go.”

Cutchins promised his mentees that he’d get a tattoo if everyone graduated last spring. They did. So Cutchins and four students were tattooed. His is of a “P” with a superscript 10 and a Koosh ball symbol.

“The Posse program says that your success is intrinsically bound up with the success of the group. That’s incredibly powerful. It makes it better for all of us,” Cutchins says.

Because of their varied experiences as Posse Scholars at Grinnell, including opportunities to study abroad, internships, and the College’s emphasis on social responsibility, many Posse alumni say they have dedicated themselves to serving others.

“I believe it took an entire ‘village’ to raise and build me into the leader I am today,” says Rosal Chavira ’11, site lead at the Leslie Lewis School of Excellence in Chicago. “It was because of Daria ‘Dotty’ Slick [former intercultural affairs assistant overseeing Grinnell’s Posse 5] and my family and friends that I learned the importance of serving others.”

L.A. and D.C. Posse alumni, their mentors, faculty, and staff agree the program is beneficial, transformative, and rewarding.

Here, 10 alumni talk about how Posse shaped their Grinnell experience.

David Opong-Wadee ’12

Major: political science

Position: legislative assistant for Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., Washington, D.C.

Posse city: Washington, D.C.

David Opong-Wadee deftly navigates the world of U.S. politics, thanks to the rigor of his Grinnell education, support of Posse Scholars, and backing from key alumni.

Scholars leaned on each other and made a “tremendous impact” on the campus — with the encouragement of faculty, staff, and alumni, he says.

“We were trained. We were ready,” Opong-Wadee says. “We came equipped to truly embrace the opportunity we were given.”

Those opportunities helped lead Opong-Wadee to his major in political science and his career. When Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, spoke at Grinnell, Opong-Wadee met Rob Barron ’02, Harkin’s state staff director. That led to an internship. And, it led to a meeting with his current mentor, who also worked under Harkin — David Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans.

Opong-Wadee, now legislative assistant for Rep. Alcee Hastings, D-Fla., worked in a variety of roles that bolstered his political resume, including as a field organizer in Dubuque, Iowa, for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign.

He credits Posse with being the catalyst.

“The Posse network is not at its peak,” he says. “We’re on the way up. We have this sense of hope. We’re a family.”

Alexis Castro ’09

Major: anthropology

Position: head foreign teacher, Best Learning, She yang, China

Posse city: Los Angeles

From Los Angeles to Grinnell, New Orleans, Philadelphia, and now China, Alexis Castro uses talents polished by Grinnell College and Posse to teach children across the globe.

“In high school, I dreamed of traveling the world, helping people, and impacting lives,” says Castro. “Posse put me on my first plane ride to Prospie Weekend at Grinnell, and now all I do is fly.”

Castro’s ascent from introvert to head foreign teacher at Best Learning in Shenyang, China, began with a nudge from a high school peer to consider Posse.

Though her high school lacked money for books, its teachers were “overworked and overwhelmed,” and the threat of gang violence loomed, Castro exemplified the drive, leadership, and determination Posse recruiters seek.

After graduating from Grinnell in 2009, Castro worked with youth in Iowa, conducted research in Louisiana, developed a passion for nonprofits and health and wellness, and worked on President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.

These days, she teaches English to 36 students in China and manages 10 teachers from the United States and Canada.

“Posse has afforded me with the opportunity to live the full life I’ve always wanted, and for that I’m forever grateful and humble to have been given such a prestigious award,” she says.

Steven Johnson ’08

Major: sociology

Position: team lead, Medicare Demonstrations Group, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Baltimore

Posse city: Los Angeles

Grinnell’s life-changing coursework — along with the Posse program, and opportunities for internships, and travel abroad — transformed Steven Johnson in ways he never imagined.

An analyst at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Maryland, Johnson went outside his comfort zone in selecting Grinnell — some 1,700 miles away from his home in Los Angeles.

“Posse was a great gateway to go to a school that I’d never heard of,” Johnson says.

It became a gateway to a new life. While at Grinnell, Johnson performed a capella and trained in martial arts. He mentored children with mental disabilities.

“I really enjoyed the camaraderie and the close-knit community of Grinnell,” Johnson says.

He earned a master’s in urban public policy analysis and management in 2010 from Milano School of International Affairs and Urban Policy. He plans to become a city manager. Grinnell taught him to give back, he says.

“The entire team-building aspect of Grinnell and of Posse definitely prepared me for my career now,” he says.

Rosal Chavira ’11

Major: Spanish and sociology

Position: site lead, Leslie Lewis School of Excellence, Chicago

Posse city: Los Angeles

With five brothers and five sisters, Rosal Chavira says college might not have been affordable for her family. After her high school English teacher suggested Posse, she knew college was a part of her future.

Grinnell’s intimate campus and academic rigor — plus the group dynamics of Posse — appealed to Chavira, now site lead at the Leslie Lewis School of Excellence in Chicago.

“Grinnell has a reputation for creating critical thinkers and creating educators who go back and serve,” says the first-generation college student.

She loves what her coursework at Grinnell has afforded her — the flexibility to teach, mentor, and engage in social work. Chavira mentored sixth through ninth graders in reading, math, social studies, and history. She has mentored children who have an incarcerated parent. She also tutored third, fourth, and fifth graders in math.

“Being a mentor and teacher is both rewarding and grueling work, but I wake up every morning to serve my students — because they too deserve to see and rise above their circumstance into the greatness they have the potential to become,” Chavira says.

Lester Alemán ’07

Major: sociology and education

Position: program director, Posse Los Angeles

Posse city: Los Angeles

When Lester Alemán attended high school, his college plans were underdeveloped.

“I was thinking very vocationally,” says Alemán, a first-generation college student. “The purpose was to go off and find a career that pays well.”

Fortunately, being nominated for Posse expanded his college possibilities — and it led him to Grinnell.

“I can’t imagine having gone to college without a Posse,” Alemán says.

Posse became an even bigger part of his life after graduation in 2007. Now, he works on behalf of the program to help exceptional students have their own Posse experience. Alemán worked as a trainer for Posse Los Angeles and is now its program director. His academic background as a sociology and education major fit well with building a career at Posse and helping students. He is also national chair of the young adults initiatives of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.

At Grinnell, he experienced “an amazing” Posse mentor, lasting friendships with Posse Scholars, and encouragement to excel academically.

“Posse is a transformational experience,” he says.

Javon Garcia ’14

Major: gender, women’s, and sexuality studies

Position: HIV/AIDS counselor and educator, AIDS United Chicago

Posse city: Washington, D.C.

A wealth of support from Grinnell and Posse helped Javon Garcia hone his passion for helping others. He credits the College with paving the way for him to conduct HIV/AIDS outreach in New York and study abroad at the University of Amsterdam.

“I would not be where I am right now without Posse and Grinnell,” Garcia says. “It has given me so many opportunities.”

Garcia counsels and educates Illinois residents through AIDS United Chicago, a group consisting of AmeriCorps volunteers.

In New York, Garcia served as a public health intern for Harlem United and conducted street outreach for the Audre Lorde Project, which provides services for clients with HIV/AIDS.

“Posse for me is not just for four years,” says Garcia. “We are lifelong friends. It’s just a commitment we have made for life.”

Posse Scholars pushed each other to excel academically, and Posse mentors provided support. Both have factored into Garcia’s success.

“Our mentor, Doug Cutchins, would do anything for us,” Garcia says. “He truly cared for us. He took the time to know us personally.”

Molly McArdle ’09

Major: English

Position: writer, novelist, editor, book reviewer, and freelance book critic, Amherst, Mass.

Posse city: Washington, D.C.

A member of the first Posse at Grinnell from Washington, D.C., Molly McArdle says Posse Scholars helped students, faculty, and staff explore their own understanding of diversity and improved their appreciation of differing perspectives.

“I think it opened up some people’s eyes,” she says.

At first, the Washington, D.C., native thought Grinnell was “impossibly far away.” But, an aunt told her she’d be “crazy” not to consider Grinnell as her Posse choice — especially given the College’s generous financial support.

“It’s an offer you can’t really refuse,” McArdle says.

Her English degree from Grinnell has proved to be a plus in the publishing world she now inhabits.

“I’m so grateful for the education I received,” she says. McArdle is working on a master of fine arts for poets and writers at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. She’s also writing a work of fiction about a family saga set in the 1990s Washington, D.C. McArdle has earned several writing awards and is also a freelancer for a variety of publications, including The Rumblr, Route Nine, and The Rumpus. Her work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and elsewhere.

Jasmine Brewer ’07

Major: sociology

Position: data quality coordinator, Institute for Evidence-Based Change, Encinitas, Calif.

Posse city: Los Angeles

Posse changed Jasmine Brewer’s life and marital status. It helped her form lasting bonds, including with her now-husband Ramiro Carrillo ’07, another Posse Scholar.

“It’s truly a network and a lifelong partnership,” she says. “It keeps me connected to Grinnell.”

Brewer earned a master’s degree in educational psychology and has spent her time improving schools as an analyst and data quality coordinator at the Institute for Evidence-Based Change. She also served on the Posse National Alumni Advisory Council.

Grinnell’s welcoming campus allowed Brewer to make deep connections with the people around her — from friends in Posse who lived on her floor in her dorm; the late Howard Burkle, her mentor and professor emeritus of religious studies and philosophy; and those she interned with at Grinnell Regional Hospice.

“It was really just wraparound support,” Brewer says.

Zac Ellington ’10

Major: psychology

Position: international program director, World Scholar’s Cup Foundation, Los Angeles

Posse city: Los Angeles

Zac Ellington’s definition of diversity expanded as a Posse student at Grinnell.

Ellington, international program director of the World Scholar’s Cup Foundation, became excited by social psychology and group dynamics while in Posse.

“The power of any posse is greater than the sum of its parts, and I was and still am fascinated by the way students of different backgrounds who don’t necessarily share interests come together to be a force for dialogue and change,” Ellington says. “Even though I am African-American, I don’t think I truly understood the benefits and importance of diversity — not just racial, but socioeconomic, geographic, and experiential — until arriving on Grinnell’s campus with my Posse.”

Diversity is a core mission of the College, and Posse helps make the campus more inclusive. Posse students, who aren’t recruited using test scores, but with other measures such as leadership potential, play a noteworthy role in student groups, leadership positions, and campus dialogues, he says.

“It helped me understand why colleges, especially liberal arts institutions like Grinnell, strive to look past just test scores when admitting an incoming class,” Ellington says.

Frank, meaningful conversations during Posse Plus Retreats helped inform the entire campus.

“Some of the conversations that started during the retreats became recurring themes in campus dialogues, and I really feel that the retreats helped participating students find their voices,” he says.

The Posse Scholars Program at a Glance

Founded in 1989, the Posse Foundation recruits from nine urban cities and boasts a 90 percent national graduation rate. 

Each Posse consists of about 10 students who attend college together as a group. Posse Scholars receive a four-year, full-tuition scholarship to one of 51 participating colleges and universities.

Before joining their respective campuses, Posse Scholars receive eight months of intensive precollegiate training on team-building and group support, cross-cultural communication, leadership, and becoming an active agent of change on campus. Scholars meet regularly with faculty or staff mentors. 

In 2013, Posse received more than 15,000 nominations for 660 scholarships. 

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