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Chicago Tribune, Posse Chicago allows overlooked college-bound students to dream big

By Manya Brachear Pashman
Chicago Tribune (source)

November 5, 2015

When Anthony Halmon became a father at age 15, he didn't see a college education in his future. He envisioned finishing high school and working at his pastor's restaurant to support his family.

"A high school diploma is enough to situate yourself where I'm from," said Halmon, 21, who grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago's South Side.

"My high school counselor always told me he saw something in me, something more than graduating high school," Halmon said. "He told me you need to get out of here. You have the ability to expand your horizons."

Thanks to that counselor's high expectations, Halmon, now a junior at Cornell University, became one of the first students through Posse Chicago to attend an Ivy League school. Posse Chicago identifies 120 public high school students often overlooked by traditional college selection processes to attend one of 12 partner universities outside Illinois on full scholarships.

"We believe there's a tremendous number of kids who are strong, ambitious and have incredible potential even if they don't have a top ACT or SAT score," said Deborah Bial, president of the New York-based Posse Foundation, which has 10 chapters, including Chicago. "We believe they can become senators and CEOS and entrepreneurs and begin to change the way leadership looks in America."

The foundation also offers those students an intensive college preparation workshop, on-campus mentoring and employment services throughout their college career. Posse Chicago receives financial support from Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Foundation Fund.

Posse succeeds by placing students with multicultural teams, or posses, of 10 students from their hometown who prepare together before arriving on campus.

Once selected for scholarships and college admission, students meet once a week for several hours of interactive academic and leadership workshops. Conversations cover topics such as politics, religion, sexuality and race and how these issues affect decision-making. They also practice cross-cultural communication, team building and writing.

"They're talking about issues that most 17-year-olds don't talk about," Bial said. "By the time they go to Cornell or Pomona, they sit in front of the classroom, they raise their hand, they're comfortable talking about these issues and they begin to contribute to discussion in a really meaningful way."

The Posse Foundation also trains tenured faculty at the partner schools as mentors to meet with students weekly or semiweekly once they're on campus. The Chicago staff visits its campuses several times a year.

Since being founded in 1989, the Posse Foundation has sent about 6,000 students to college and maintained a 90 percent graduation rate. Posse Chicago has sent more than 1,100 high school students to college since the local chapter was founded in 2000.

Though the oldest Posse alum just turned 43 and some already serve as CEOs and vice chancellors, Asaf Bar-Tura, director of Posse Chicago, said the organization takes a long-range view.

"We know it will take another generation before we see hundreds of those alumni in leadership positions," he said. "That's what we're working toward."

Mary Khalaf, 20, the oldest of four siblings, graduated from Whitney Young Magnet High School in 2013. There were five Posse scholars in her graduating class, attending colleges across the country.

"I never thought a place like Cornell would be an option," Khalaf said. "It was too expensive and out of the realm of possibility."

Halmon, a 2013 graduate of Calumet Leadership Academy, said he also was intimidated by the Ivy League label. His mother had never heard of Cornell. His father had died in prison a few years earlier.

Both Khalaf and Halmon have relied on each other and their posse for support and encouragement.

"We see it everyday in our work," Bar-Tura said. "When you have a group of people who can back you up and support you and understand some of your past experiences and how that impacts your present experiences, that makes a huge difference."

Bar-Tura said because many students might be the first in their families to apply to college, they don't think high enough.

"The ways our families can hold us back can vary person to person," he said. "We work primarily with the scholars and we do that very intentionally because they're adults and they're carving their path. … The focus is on the scholars as agents of their own future."

mbrachear@tribpub.com

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