illustration by Alice Pattullo

Power to the Posse

Serving as both a lifeline and a launching pad, the Posse STEM program promotes persistence among multicultural college students.

For Bryn Mawr College sophomore Fransheska Clara, going to college wasn’t just a personal goal: it was a family one. Neither her father, who hails from El Salvador, nor her mother, a native of Puerto Rico, had gone to college. And they had come to America—to Worcester, Massachusetts, an hour outside Boston—in the hope that their two kids could get a college education and fulfill a dream that they hadn’t been able to achieve themselves.

Clara was driven to succeed in high school. She got good grades. She was president of her school’s STEM club, a group focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. And she spent a summer and a full semester doing internships through the biology and biotechnology departments of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

So when she first heard about the Posse STEM program—which would send 10-person “Posses” of the very best students to top-notch colleges across the country to focus on science—Clara was eager to learn more. The program is designed to identify high-achieving student leaders in urban high schools and send them to college as a group so they can lean on one another for support. The Posse members are also paired with mentors at the colleges and receive significant access to science research opportunities. It is a program tailored to help these students, who often come from disadvantaged backgrounds, succeed.

A teacher nominated Clara for the program, and she spent months going through demanding leadership exercises, interviews, and problem-solving projects alongside some 100 other similarly talented students. “Everyone was so impressive,” she recalls. “I always felt like I wouldn’t get through to the next round.”

But on December 3, 2012—three days before her 18th birthday—after a final, exhausting three-hour interview, she got the news: she had been selected for Bryn Mawr’s first STEM Posse. “I really remember that call,” she says. “My dad was crying. My mom was crying. It was a really big thing for us.”

For students like Clara, the Posse STEM program represents both a lifeline and a launching pad. The four-year, full-tuition scholarship helps students whose families might not otherwise be able to afford a college education. And the wide-ranging support network of faculty, staff, and nine other high-achieving students, all aiming at similar goals, helps students focus on achieving their dreams, often faster than they ever thought possible.

With the help of Brandeis University chemistry professor Irv Epstein, who was supported with a grant as an HHMI professor, the first STEM Posse arrived at Brandeis in 2008. Since then, nine other schools have adopted the program, and each will support 50 new STEM Posse students over the next five years—a $70-million investment in 500 students who will help shape the future of science. The investment is significant. But the long-term payoff—for students’ individual careers and for diversity in the sciences—could be even bigger.

Model of Success

The overarching Posse program, the brainchild of founder Deborah Bial, has been around since 1989. Bial was inspired to start the initiative when she heard a student who had dropped out of college say, “I never would have dropped out if I’d had my posse with me.” She knew that kids from big—and often underfunded—urban public school systems often struggled and then dropped out of elite colleges, even though they were just as talented as their peers. The Posse program aimed to reduce these dropout rates by recruiting groups of students from specific cities around the country who would attend the same college, support one another along the journey, and help make the campus more welcoming to students from all backgrounds.

Each student received a four-year scholarship, on-campus mentors, and the camaraderie of fellow Posse members who had all graduated from high schools in the same city. “If you grew up in the Bronx, for example, but you ended up in Middlebury, Vermont, you’d be a little less likely to turn around and go home if you felt culture shock,” explains Bial. The results have been nothing short of exceptional: there are more than 2,600 alumni of the program, and the graduation rate for Posse Scholars is 90 percent. The program does not explicitly seek students who have high need or who are minorities. However, because of the demographics of the schools the program draws from, 80 percent of Posse Scholars come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and are African American or Latino. The program is extraordinarily competitive: this academic year alone, the Posse program received more than 15,000 nominations for 700 slots.

We know there are extraordinary numbers of talented students who fail to attend colleges that fit with their high school achievements.

Dan Porterfield

Brandeis’ Epstein has seen the value of the program firsthand. He was involved in Brandeis’ traditional Posse program when he was the school’s provost, and he knew students thrived in it.

When he stepped down as provost and returned to teaching, he became frustrated by the lack of diversity in his science classrooms—and concerned that some of the dynamics of the Posse program might be pushing smart kids away from the sciences. “When a [Posse student] got a 40 on her first chemistry test, she might say, ‘I can’t do it,’ and the other Posse students might say ‘You’re smarter than we are, and we’re doing just fine in our classes; maybe you should switch out of that class,’ ” Epstein says.

The solution, he believed, wasn’t to put more pressure on those individual students pursuing the sciences—it was to create Posses in which science was the focus. “I thought if they were all doing science and all committed to it, then the pressure would be inward, toward science, rather than outward, away from it,” he says. Working together with Bial and Brandeis administrators, and with the support of his HHMI professorship, Epstein helped bring the first STEM Posse to Brandeis’ campus in 2008.

Many components of the Posse STEM program at Brandeis were nearly identical to those of the traditional Posse models: a rigorous, months-long recruiting process to identify great students who were potential leaders; pre-college meetings for students to get to know other Posse members; and weekly meetings with staff and faculty mentors and their Posse during the school year. But the Posse STEM model layered on two additional pieces. One was a two-week immersion program before students’ freshman year that introduced them to their campus, to science at an elite college, and to important support services such as tutoring centers. The second was a mentor for Posse STEM students who had a background in the sciences.

Initial results from the Brandeis program have been promising: 29 of the 30 students in the first three Posses have graduated. Of those, 22 earned degrees in the “hard sciences” of biology, chemistry, physics, math, or neuroscience; the other seven earned degrees in psychology or science policy.

Encouraged by Brandeis’ pioneering work, four other schools—the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Bryn Mawr College, Franklin & Marshall College (F&M), and Texas A&M University—adopted the Posse STEM program between 2008 and 2013. According to F&M President Dan Porterfield, his school’s investment in the program makes perfect sense. “We know there are extraordinary numbers of talented students who fail to attend colleges that fit with their high school achievements,” he says. “We invest in programs, including Posse, to provide students access to higher education that’s commensurate with their talent. And we believe they will go on to make a disproportionate difference in the world.”

Go inside the Brandeis University STEM Posse program and hear from some of its graduates.

In 2015, with encouragement from President Obama at a White House Summit on higher education, five more schools—Davidson College, Georgetown University, Smith College, Middlebury College, and Pomona College—will begin making that investment by adding STEM Posses to their student bodies. Bial believes the impact could be transformative. “We hope that we’ll see similar success rates at all of these schools,” she says. “It will prove to the nation that there’s a pool of young people out there who are not only capable of being, but who will be, superstars. And they will help these institutions bring diversity into their STEM majors in a way that hasn’t happened before.”

Practical, and Moral, Support

STEM Posses are designed to help students with whatever problems they’re facing.

Fransheska Clara, for example, says she leaned on her Posse for support when she missed her family and friends from home. “The others were also struggling with homesickness and transitioning into a new environment,” she says. “It really helped to have them around and to talk about things. I related to them. I knew they felt the exact same way.”

For University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore Caroline Rozado, her Posse was there to help prevent small problems from spiraling into big ones. Rozado had been an accomplished student at her New York City high school, and her extracurricular activities included three years of internships focused on ecogenetic and environmental research. But even so, she was worried about her introductory chemistry class at Wisconsin. “My high school had low funding, so they couldn’t find a chemistry teacher,” she says. “Instead, they had a biology teacher teach chemistry, but even our biology teacher couldn’t get us the information we needed.”

It wasn’t just the course material at Wisconsin that seemed daunting: she’d never been in a classroom with 300 students before. “It was nerve wracking,” she says. “Was I supposed to sit in the front? The middle? The back?”

The first couple of weeks of her chemistry class were tough. But her Posse—and her mentor, Emilie Hofacker—had her back. Hofacker, who is assistant director for STEM initiatives at Wisconsin, gave her a pep talk, and an older Posse student gave her tips on how to read the textbook and what problems to focus on. Soon, she and a Posse member from her cohort worked up their courage to go together to office hours with the course’s professor. By the end of the first month, Rozado was on track.

The help she needed was simple, but the impact has been profound. “I’m not afraid to ask professors questions anymore, even if they seem really basic,” she says. “Professors actually want to know what we don’t understand, and I just needed to have those first experiences to get to the point where I felt it was okay to talk to them.”

For Hofacker, helping students have epiphanies like these are central to her work. “Sometimes, students just want to know that it’s going to be okay,” she says. “There will be days when they want to give up, but we’ll help them work through it.”

STEM Posses are helpful to navigate some of the subtler aspects of the social adjustment as well. Bryn Mawr sophomore Carol Bowe says that despite an overwhelmingly positive experience in college, she has had to deal with students who make condescending remarks to her because she’s in a STEM Posse. “Sometimes there’s a stigma,” she says. “There’s an idea of, ‘You’re on a scholarship, and had you not been on a scholarship, you wouldn’t be here.’ People say so many things about money.”

She says her Posse discussed how to handle such issues during their first meetings in Boston, before they arrived on campus. “It’s easy to say, ‘Oh, I’ll just educate them,’ ” Bowe says. “But when you’re standing in front of a person who said something ignorant and you feel really hurt, you might not actually know how to do that.” She says she was relieved to be able to talk to other Posse members to figure out how to navigate the nuances of such conversations.

As Posse STEM students focus on their science studies, they also benefit from two other Posse perks: research opportunities and lab time. Posse STEM students often hear about research opportunities before other students on campus, and some on-campus researchers specifically request to work with Posse STEM students. Even if students don’t pursue research from the outset, they still often rub shoulders with researchers in campus jobs scrubbing beakers in a lab instead of pots and pans in the cafeteria.

Sometimes, students just want to know that it’s going to be okay. There will be days when they want to give up, but we’ll help them work through it.

Emile Hofracker

For students coming from disadvantaged backgrounds, that tiny distinction can be critical. “So many students have a notion that science is something where a lone scientist works in the dead of night with no human contact,” says Brandeis’ Epstein. “But these kinds of work experiences help them see that research groups are tight-knit, multi-generational, multi-ethnic communities that support each other. If you wash dishes in a lab, eventually you’ll probably end up doing research in a lab.”

Such was the case for Rozado, who was able to parlay her experience cleaning glassware in the school’s research demonstration lab into work with genetics professor Jerry Yin. She’s helping Yin with a research project studying protein signaling and protein levels in people who have neurodegenerative diseases. “It’s so great to know that researchers are open to students working in their lab with them. They’re patient enough to teach us these protocols, and even if we make mistakes, they’ll help us fix them,” she says. “It’s amazing. It feels like an honor.”

Metrics of Success

The four most recent Posse STEM programs are too new to have significant data come out of them, but the schools’ administrators are already thrilled. F&M’s Porterfield, for example, says that from the three Posse STEM groups currently on campus, not one of the students has dropped out. The oldest cohort, now juniors, has an average GPA that is higher than their non-Posse STEM classmates in a science-heavy curriculum. Meanwhile, Bryn Mawr reports that all but one member of its first STEM Posse have continued on to their second year, with the 10th likely to return for the spring semester. Wisconsin’s Hofacker reports that not only are her school’s Posse STEM students persevering in the sciences, but half are on track to graduate with STEM majors in four years, even though the typical trajectory at the school for such majors can demand an extra semester or two.

Epstein adds that, in some ways, these students are defying expectations. The average math and verbal SAT score for an incoming Brandeis student is 1353; for a Posse STEM student it’s in the mid-1100s. Yet despite that 200-point gap, STEM Posse students, so far, have a four-year graduation rate of 97 percent, compared to the school’s overall average of 86 percent. To Epstein, it’s an indicator that the Posse STEM program is focusing on the right things. “I think we’ve picked people whose abilities are higher than their test scores alone might suggest,” he explains. With the right support, they’re not just persisting in school—they’re succeeding at the highest levels.

STEM Posse students aren’t the only ones benefiting from the program: faculty discussions about the Posse STEM program and teaching science more effectively have spilled over in ways that benefit all students. At Bryn Mawr, for example, the Posse STEM program opened up a larger conversation at the school about supporting students in the STEM fields; the college is currently piloting a course called “Fundamentals of Mathematics for Science and Social Science Students,” which gives students the quantitative skills they’ll need to succeed in introductory science courses. At F&M, administrators have been so pleased with the cohort-mentoring model that they've expanded it to six groups of first-generation college students who meet regularly with faculty mentors to bolster their chances of success.

And F&M chemistry professor Ken Hess, who served as a mentor to the first group of Posse STEM students when they arrived on campus in 2012, says his experience with the Posse students has helped him be a better mentor to all of his students. “I’m much more holistic in the way I think about things now,” he says. “I’m far more patient. I’m a better listener. I’m more sensitive to, and appreciative of, the challenges that students bring to the classroom and how that might affect their performance.”

A Path Forward

Because the Posse STEM model so closely follows the wildly successful traditional Posse model, and because early Posse STEM outcomes data seem so promising, it’s not difficult to imagine that its long-term success will be similar. Alumni from traditional Posse cohorts have earned 43 Fulbright scholarships since 2007. And 41 percent of Posse alumni who are two or more years out from graduating have earned a graduate degree or are pursuing a graduate degree.

Posse STEM students are just as ambitious: Caroline Rozado, who plans to pursue majors in neurobiology and communications, says her dream is to be the next Dr. Oz, someone who uses her deep knowledge of science to teach the world how our bodies work. She credits the Posse program for giving her the chance to talk with other bright science students who helped her unlock her passion—and who fuel her relentless drive to succeed. “Those conversations made me realize how happy I am when I can help others learn, but I didn’t know that until I was in Posse. Now I understand why I’m doing this work in science.”

For Fransheska Clara, Posse has given her the one piece of the puzzle she was previously missing: confidence. “I used to be very doubtful and uncertain, but now, I know I can match up with anyone,” she says. “That’s helped me with academics. It’s helped me with everything.”

Scientist Profile

HHMI Professor
Brandeis University
Biophysics, Neuroscience, Physical Science