Commencement Speaker Deborah Bial discusses Posse

On Mar. 6, Vassar College announced that Deborah Bial, President and Founder of the Posse Foundation, would be this year’s Commencement Speaker. Bial, who attended Brandeis University for undergraduate and Harvard University for graduate school, founded Posse in 1989. The nonprofit organization sends students who may traditionally be overlooked by college admissions offices to elite schools in groups, or posses.

The Miscellany News recently spoke with Bial about Posse’s origins, the organization’s partnership with Vassar, and how she hopes Posse will continue to grow in the future.

This year’s Commencement, at which the first class of Posse students to attend Vassar will graduate, will be on Sunday, May 28 at 10 a.m. in the Outdoor Amphitheater.

The Miscellany News: How did Vassar approach you to be this year’s commencement speaker?

Deborah Bial: Well, Bill Plapinger is the chair of the Vassar Board [of Trustees] and he’s also on the Posse board, so he talked a little about it with me, and then the College invited me to be the speaker and I was thrilled.

Misc: You’re the president and founder of the Posse Foundation. Can you tell me a little about how and why you started this organization and what Posse does?

DB: In the 1980s, when the word “posse” was a little bit more hip and cool than it is today— you know, it meant “my group of friends”—there was a student who dropped out of college and he said, “I never would have dropped out if I had my posse with me.” And we thought, what a great idea! Why not send a posse, or a team of students together to college, so they could back each other up? And we decided to take that idea to Vanderbilt University, and Vanderbilt liked the idea, too, and they took a chance on a program with no track record—none. But Vanderbilt was looking for diversity and they were looking for students who could really succeed on their campus. We sent the first Posse to Vanderbilt and they were incredibly successful. Let me give you some numbers: Since 1989, we’ve sent 7,500 students to college, they’ve won more than $1 billion in scholarships, they graduate at rates of over 90 percent, and they’re becoming leaders in the workforce. We have 57 partner colleges and universities now and we operate out of 10 cities, [including] San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Atlanta … The national headquarters is here in New York and one of our programs, in addition to the high school program, is the Veterans Program.

Misc: Vassar was the first college to enroll students from the Posse Veterans Program. How did that program and that partnership with Vassar come about?

DB: One day, Cappy Bond Hill, who was the president before Jon Chenette, called me up, and she said, “You know, Debbie, I think Posse is a great program and I was wondering, would you ever consider applying the Posse concept to post- 9/11 U.S. veterans?” It was one of those moments when I just got chills, because I thought, oh my God, what a great idea. We were having a board meeting at Posse the next week and I told the board the idea and I said I thought we should do it and I didn’t even have the words out of my mouth before they said, “Let’s do it.” I called Cappy back and I said, “Okay, we’re in, we’re doing it.” Vassar became the first college to become a Posse Veterans partner. That’s an important thing, because Vassar has been a champion for this over the years that we’ve been building the program. Because of Vassar, we designed a program that really works and we now have Dartmouth and Wesleyan as Posse Veterans partners, as well. And the program’s going to continue to grow to include 10 to 12 Veterans colleges and universities for us. So that was how I got connected to Vassar originally and it’s been a pleasure to work with Cappy and now with your interim president, Jon Chenette.

Misc: Is there anything in your personal or educational background that caused you to see a need for a program like Posse?

DB: I was 23 when Posse started, and I felt like I was just in the right place at the right time. It seemed like such a good idea, and so doable, that I invested time and energy and my heart in it. Today, I am motivated by additional things; the social justice aspect of Posse motivates me today, and the sense that it’s our duty, as a nation, to make sure that opportunity is available to people from all backgrounds motivates me. We don’t have an equal playing field for students and especially when you look at the way we break down diversity in this country, when you think about class and race. We just haven’t been able to provide opportunities in an equal way to all our kids.

Misc: On the subject of that unequal playing field, are there any particular challenges that veterans and other Posse students face when they come to an elite college like Vassar?

DB: I’ll speak about veterans for a second: Vassar always made the point that our most selective colleges and universities should be welcoming veterans to their campuses. Before Posse, I believe Vassar had one vet on its campus. Now there are four Posses on the campus—between thirty and forty [individual] Posse scholars who are veterans on campus. That’s incredible! And if you think about the question you just asked, the average age of a post-9/11 vet is 27 or 28 years old; why would you want to go to an elite college campus, maybe in Poughkeepsie, New York, by yourself, when you’re going to be with a bunch of 18 and 19 year olds? You’ve lived a life already, and you’re an adult and your experience is just so different, but if you have other vets on the campus that you can talk to and interact with and know that they have your back, it feels different. You feel more willing to go. I think it’s an easier thing, to become part of the fabric of the community, when there is a community of your peers on campus.

Misc: Posse students are in a unique position at the colleges they attend. What does this allow them to bring to those campus communities?

DB: This year, we had 17,000 students nominated for only 740 slots. So the students who are winning Posse scholarships are truly impressive people and they’re being selected because of their leadership potential and their academic potential—and, by the way, they have eight months of leadership training before they come, so it’s cross-cultural training, leadership development, team building, all that stuff. These young people are very comfortable talking about the social and political issues that we wrestle with as a nation. They’ve had a lot of practice talking about race, gender, religion, class, politics, how all these things intersect with one another, how they influence us in the classroom, how they influence us when we make decisions about who is going to be part of this fraternity or sorority or how are we going to talk about this particular piece of literature in class. So I think they bring that kind of perspective of a diverse America into the classroom and onto campus.

Misc: How has Posse grown since it was founded 28 years ago?

DB: We started just in New York City, had one partner school, Vanderbilt University, and only one Posse. Over the years, we grew. The first 10 years, we stayed recruiting students in New York City, but we grew the number of partner colleges we had. And then in 1999, we replicated our first Posse city in Boston, and then we grew really, really fast. And now since 1999, we’ve grown to include 10 cities, 57 partner colleges and 740 new students this year.

Misc: Where do you see Posse going in the future?

DB: The ultimate goal of Posse is to build a new kind of leadership network for the United States, one that reflects the tremendous diversity of the American population. When I say leadership network, I mean, we want to see our alums, who have gone to amazing colleges like Vassar and Brandeis and Bryn Mawr and Northwestern and Cornell and Dartmouth, become senators, CEOs, deans of universities, entrepreneurs. We want to see them running newspapers. We want to see them be in the rooms where the decisions are made, and that’s the ultimate goal.

Misc: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

DB: [Posse is] a strength-based program. I think sometimes reporters miss that, they think it’s a program for poor kids—if you’ve met the vets, you know that they’re really dynamic and engaged and talented people. You can see them becoming leaders. So, that’s important, that it’s a strength-based program. Also, I don’t know if everybody knows, but Vassar provides the scholarships for [the Posse students attending their college] and Vassar has been a leader in getting institutions of higher education, especially the elite institutions, to think about how they can recruit veterans. That’s a very unique and important role that Vassar has filled and we’re really, really proud that we’ve been able to partner with Vassar to do that, to be part of that conversation, to help encourage other institutions to join us in this. You know, the veterans that we meet today, the post-9/11 vets, they’ve been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, they’ve often done two tours of duty, sometimes three, four, even five tours of duty, and the country owes them. What better way to show our appreciation than to help facilitate a way for them to be part of these institutions of higher education, to get these great degrees?

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