Lehigh University’s Inaugural “Posse” of Students Graduates
August 04, 2022

This May, the first cohort of students graduated from ACE member Lehigh University through its partnership with the Posse Foundation. Posse, which aims to provide talented students from a diversity of backgrounds with access to higher education and a support network, selected 10 students from California Bay Area public schools to receive full scholarships and become a “posse” during their time at Lehigh.

Lehigh announced its partnership with Posse in 2017, linking it to an initiative to make the university more affordable for and inclusive of lower-income students. John Simon, Lehigh’s then-president, also praised Posse’s success in developing future leaders, adding, “Our community—and our society—can only benefit from expanding opportunity.”

The first cohort, also known as Posse One  Lehigh, arrived on campus in fall 2018. With a new posse enrolling each fall since then, Lehigh now has 40 Posse scholars among its student body.

The Posse Foundation began in 1989, when founder Deborah Bial encountered a recent college dropout, who remarked, “I never would’ve dropped out of college if I’d had my posse with me.” Taking his words—and his expression—to heart, Bial figured that social ties would help ground students with strong academic potential who were learning in unfamiliar environments and didn’t see many people who looked like them around their campuses.

So far, this has proven true: 90 percent of Posse scholars graduate college, compared with a 16 percent national graduation rate for students from similar backgrounds.

The foundation recruits ambitious students with exceptional leadership skills who are nonetheless likely to be overlooked in a traditional admissions process. Posse conducts series of interviews to identify such students, then arranges the most promising candidates into groups of 10 based on their preferred colleges. Starting in January of their high school senior year, posses meet weekly for training in academics, leadership, communication, and team building.

Joseph Swenson, a member of Posse One, was grateful for both the training and relationships he formed with his posse during those workshops.

“My posse met six months before coming to campus and started pre-collegiate training and talking about topics and issues, so coming to Lehigh I knew at least nine other students. I was glad I was able to come to school with nine other students that I had relationships with, so that I had some support starting college,” Swenson told The Brown and White, Lehigh’s student newspaper.

A sprawling, picturesque campus of roughly 5,000 students in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Lehigh is a significant departure from the dense, urban Bay Area environment where the Posse One scholars grew up. Facing this culture shock, in addition to having each other to lean on, members of the posse were assigned a faculty mentor, who they met with as a group each week and individually every other week until the end of their sophomore year. Posse also provided individualized career coaching, and staff from the foundation visited Lehigh four times a year to meet with the cohort.

Posse One member Kendall O’Farrell praised Lehigh and Posse’s support services.

“One of the best parts of Posse has been the supportive force offered by the scholarship group: help acclimating to a different culture, one-on-one meetings with a Lehigh faculty mentor, and the career network and resources of the Posse Foundation.”

Heather Johnson, the cohort’s faculty mentor, was likewise complimentary of her experience advising Posse One, telling The Brown and White that it “has been a highlight of my career.”

Days after the 2022 undergraduate commencement ceremony, Lehigh held a separate ceremony to celebrate the graduation of its inaugural Posse cohort. For two hours, members of Posse One listened as speakers commended their accomplishments and their resilience. Damali Burton, the director of Posse’s Bay Area chapter, led the event, which featured remarks from Johnson, parents of Posse One members, and Jennifer Jensen, Lehigh’s Posse campus liaison.

Recognizing Posse One’s immediate impact on the university, Jensen said, “I literally can’t think of Lehigh in its fullness without thinking of this cohort. You have made such an impact on Lehigh. Classroom discussions. Multicultural organizations. Athletic teams. Greek life. Study abroad. Independent research. Campus protest. I see you everywhere I look.”

While members of the posse’s leadership left an impression on Lehigh, so did their support for their fellow scholars. Reflecting on his college experience after the ceremony, Swenson said of his posse: “We knew we had each other’s back for whatever reason. We are a posse!”​

Posse Foundation Partners

A number of ACE members partner with the Posse Foundation to provide Posse Scholars with full-tuition scholarships, weekly faculty mentoring, and other support.

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