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Northwestern celebrates first group of graduating Posse Scholars

Group dynamic helps students with difficult college transitions and challenges

Family is everything.

They know you best; they love you in spite of differences and disagreements. And, when life beats you down, families provide needed support.

These are also tenets of the Posse Scholars program, a college access and leadership development program founded on the idea that a close-knit group of students -- a “posse” -- can help each other through even the toughest college transitions and challenges.

When the graduating class of 2017 participates in the University’s 159th Commencement next month, seven of the 10 original Northwestern Posse Scholars will receive their college degrees, with the three remaining scholars graduating shortly thereafter.

“The biggest culture shock I experienced when I came to Northwestern was being away from my family in Los Angeles,” said Jourdan Dorrell, a graduating senior and member of “Posse 1,” the University’s first group of Posse Scholars. “But I have come to see my fellow Posse Scholars as family. And, like a family, they helped me through the most difficult time of my life.”

The Posse Foundation selects talented, energetic and academically promising public high school students from the same urban area, gives them eight months to bond, and sends the group to college together as a posse, with on-campus mentoring, annual retreats, career services and other supports. 

Jourdan Dorrell
Jourdan Dorrell

The Department of Campus Inclusion and Community oversees the program on campus, and the executive director, Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, serves as the campus liaison.

“Northwestern’s commitment to the Posse program not only speaks to our values as an institution, but also highlights our commitment to continuously improve our campus climate and work to ensure that our students from marginalized backgrounds experience our University as one that is inclusive and just,” said Brown-Henderson. 

Through networks in nine U.S. cities, including Chicago, the Posse Foundation has identified, recruited and trained 7,728 public high school students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential to become Posse Scholars since 1998. More than 90 percent of Posse Scholars graduate from college, many with honors.

Northwestern partnered with the Posse Foundation in 2012 to bring in diverse scholars from urban public high schools in Los Angeles. In 2013, Dorrell enrolled on a full academic scholarship -- tuition is covered by Northwestern as part of the Posse program -- intending to study premed and one day become an oncologist.

“Cancer runs in my family; that motivated me to go into medicine,” she explained.

Perseverance in the face of a devastating loss

Halfway through her freshman year, Dorrell’s father succumbed to cancer.

“On the night my father passed away, I remember falling asleep and waking up to nine concerned faces in my doorway. My posse wanted to be there for me,” said Dorrell, who initially responded to the loss by channeling all of her heartache into her studies.

But by sophomore year, Dorrell’s grief had caught up to her, and she was struggling with mental health issues. Again, it was her Posse program network that provided the support Dorrell needed.

She ultimately switched her major to sociology with a minor in global health. Now Dorrell has a job lined up at Google where she will be working on AdWords and marketing after graduation.

“Northwestern Posse 1 demonstrated the courage, tenacity and perseverance it takes to enter an unfamiliar place, utilize a support system to navigate it and succeed despite institutional and personal challenges,” Brown-Henderson said.

What makes the Posse program so successful

Northwestern has provided scholarships to 41 Posse Scholars since partnering with the program in 2012.

Once they arrive on Northwestern’s campus, the students meet weekly for two hours as a group with their campus mentor, attend retreats and receive a variety of support services.

The biggest culture shock I experienced ... was being away from my family in Los Angeles. But I have come to see my fellow Posse Scholars as family.

Jourdan Dorrell
Posse Scholar

“It’s all about fostering the group dynamic, so that when the students are in need of support -- and inevitably they all do need support -- they can lean on each other,” said Nitasha Tamar Sharma, associate professor of African American studies, Asian American studies and performance studies, and Northwestern’s first Posse mentor.

Sharma’s official role as mentor for Posse 1 concluded in 2015 at the end of the students’ sophomore year, but she remains actively involved with many of them to this day.

“This has been the most difficult and rewarding experience I have had as a mentor,” Sharma said. “The posses are more like family than a friend group, and for many of us, I suspect the commitment will last a lifetime.”

She and the first Posse Scholars blazed a trail for future Posse Scholars and made Northwestern a better place in the process.

“Posse 1 has had a profound impact on Northwestern,” Sharma said. “The Posse Scholars have used their leadership and networking skills to better our campus community for all students through active engagement. Upon graduating, they will bring what they’ve learned at Northwestern into their professional and personal pursuits.”

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