Supporting First-Generation Students

Low-income students who make it to college graduate at significantly lower rates than their higher-income counterparts. In the first two parts of this documentary, we’ve followed Christopher Feaster, one such low-income student who lost nearly $200,000 in scholarships after dropping out of Michigan State University.

I wanted to find someone who’s been successful in helping low-income students like Christopher get through college. And I did, in Deborah Bial, the president and founder of The Posse Foundation.

The Posse Foundation says 90 percent of the students they serve graduate from college. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)

Bial worked in an after-school program in the New York public school system in the 1980s.

“There was a young person who had grown up in the Bronx, gone to a great school, had a big scholarship even and he dropped out,” Bial says.

She asked him why it happened.

“And he said ‘I would never have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me,’” she says. “That’s a great idea! Why not send a posse or a team of students together to college so they could back each other up. And that way, if you grew up in a big city and ended up in say Middlebury, Vermont, or Greencastle, Indiana, you’ll be less likely to turn around and come home.”

Someone in their corner

Today, the Posse Foundation selects 700 students from 10 cities and sends them in groups of 10 to colleges all over the country. Most are low-income students of color and the first to go to college in their families.

The Posse Foundation says they have a 90 percent graduation rate.

So why do the Posse kids succeed when so many others like them end up dropping out? Well for starters, these students have lots and lots of support that begins a full year before they go to college.

Diana Sanchez and Bernice Hodge are eating pizza and drinking Coke — staples, they say, of their college diet. They’re lovely, warm and opinionated. They’re both Posse scholars, back home in Washington, D.C. for the summer. But soon they’ll go back to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, hoping to catch the Badgers’ first game of the season.

The Posse Foundation sends groups of 10 students from 10 cities to colleges across the U.S. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)

“I didn’t know people got that hyped about football games,” Bernice says.

“Yeah! People were climbing trees,” Diana adds, and the two share a laugh. They weren’t interested in football when they first got to college, but now they’re rabid Badger fans.

Diana’s parents didn’t finish elementary school. Bernice’s parents only made it through high school. Both teens were surprised that the community on their college campus in Wisconsin wasn’t as diverse as what they were used to in D.C.

Diana says there were lots of misconceptions.

“They think a lot of people [in D.C.] are kind of ghetto,” she says. “They were like, ‘Well you guys walk really fast, you’re not friendly and you also curse after every word you say?’ And I was like, ‘Umm, no, not really.’”

But Diana learned that stereotypes work both ways. Before she left for Wisconsin she read up about beer and cheese, since that was the state is famous for.

“I was with a group of people and was like, ‘Guys let’s play this game where we get in a circle and we just list the different cheeses,’ and I only did this just to impress them, and they were like ‘I don’t even know some types of cheese.’ I was like, ‘But I thought you’re from Wisconsin, you should know!’ and they were like ‘What?!’”

Keeping things structured

Diana says Posse support was critical in helping to bridge the gap between high school and college. She expected staff would check in with her once in a while, but the scholarship turned out to offer much, much more.

“Career, academic, emotional, every aspect of life, they have someone that you can talk to. And I definitely did not expect that at all,” Diana says.

Students receive full scholarships from the universities they attend. But beyond that, Posse spends approximately $5,000 on each student every year. A tenured faculty member meets with them every week for their first two years. And Posse staffers regularly visit students on campus.

Bernice Hodge, left, and Diana Sanchez are both first-generation college students from Washington, D.C., who are part of the University of Wisconsin-Madison posse. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)

It’s a highly structured program. Diana says she has to go to each of her individual professors and ask them to fill out mid-semester evaluations. Both Diana and Bernice say they’re grateful for that because they wouldn’t have done it on their own.

“College is so overwhelming, things happen like nonstop. Deadline this, deadline that, sometimes it doesn’t cross your mind,” says Bernice.

“Also, sometimes you question yourself. These kids might be smarter than me; I don’t see anyone else scrunching up their face. So sometimes it’s also sort of like a pride thing. I don’t want the professor to think that I don’t get it,” Diana adds.

Bernice had a 4.2 grade point average in high school but found she had to work much harder in college.

“Professors were saying: ‘You speak very well, you know how to critically analyze what we’re talking about, but when it comes to writing on paper, there’s something that’s missing,’” Bernice says. “And I just remember thinking back to high school. Why didn’t anybody catch these mistakes or why didn’t anybody correct me before I got to college?”

Diana is nodding her head vigorously. She felt other students came to college with huge advantages.

“I felt like they had … you know how Dora the Explorer had that backpack and she could just take out things? I felt like they had an imaginary backpack with like all these resources,” Diana says.

That imaginary backpack she describes was full not just of items but experiences that were out of their reach as well.

“I’ve met a lot of people who’ve traveled,” Diana says. “I’m taking a political science intro to Africa. And I only know the information that I’m learning in the class, but these people, they either had a specialized course in high school or they went to Zimbabwe.”

They noticed classmates who could recite Shakespeare, speak a foreign language and had taken AP courses as early as 9th grade. Diana says one classmate had gone to the seventh-best public high school in the country.

“I feel like a lot of people in Madison, they’re smart and very intelligent, but I feel like it has a lot to do with the education that they got when they were younger,” Diana says.

Tamara Wilds Lawson, director of Posse D.C., has a color coded system of college campus visits and check ins. (Photo by Kristen Taylor Sorensen)
Helping students stay the course

Tamara Wilds Lawson heads the Washington, D.C., Posse office. She’s worked with hundreds of students like Diana and Bernice.

“The first image that comes to mind is wading into the ocean and getting hit by your first wave. Right?” says Lawson. “At least our students see the wave coming and we give them as many details about what it’s going to feel like. So when it comes, they’re still like, ‘Man! That was serious and I got knocked on my butt, but, OK.’”

She says Posse students have each other for support and that’s very different from going to college alone.

“It’s a lot more difficult to get up and want to stay there. You’re going to back up. There are plenty of first-generation students who go to college and they figure it out. I think that’s important to say. They do. But the numbers don’t lie,” Lawson says.

“The messaging that we share is you have your posse, you have your mentor, now go and explore. We advise strongly against them living together. Don’t register to be in the same classes. We want them to make friends, to have a diverse — capital ‘D’ — experience. What the posse is supposed to be is a touchstone,” she says.

Lawson says many parents of first-generation students urge them to come home at the first sign of trouble.

“That’s a common narrative that you’ll hear. These parents love their kids just as much as anyone else. They want to protect their kid. So if your child calls you hysterical because they’re miserable, because they failed a quiz, your instinct is going to be to bring them home,” Lawson says. “That’s where you can protect them. It happens all the time.”

And sometimes it’s the other way around. Diana had a difficult time last semester when her mother fell ill.

“‘Cause my mom, she doesn’t speak English. She has a lot of health issues, so I would be the main translator to go with her to the doctor’s appointments,” Diana says. “I remember one day, freshmen year, she called me and she actually was crying in the voicemail and was like ‘I’m lost, I don’t know where I am right now, come home. I miss you.’ Ugh, God! It was just like, ‘that’s my mom.’”

Diana’s mother fell into a coma last semester. She says that was really hard because she felt like she did abandon her mom. Posse stepped in and got permission for her to go home for a while. Staff spoke to Diana’s professors so she could catch up with assignments and they supported her through this entire period.

Diana says that’s the only reason she came back.

“They treat you as a human being; they don’t treat you as some prize or something they invested money in,” Diana says.

“And you feel that warmness in your heart when somebody says, ‘Keep going, great work; you’re going to succeed.’ Because not everybody gets that,” Bernice says.