Early one autumn morning, 11 years ago, Nicole Tsesmelis ’06 was sitting in her home room at Cardozo High School, in Bayside, Queens, trying to ignore the drone of daily intercom announcements. One caught her attention.
“Something about a scholarship to Middlebury College,” she remembers. “I think it registered because I had a friend attending Middlebury.”
Later that day Tsesmelis stopped by Cardozo’s guidance office to inquire about the announcement. It was, a school counselor told her, about something called The Posse Foundation. But it wouldn’t be right for her, the counselor said. For one thing, Tsesmelis was an honors scholar. And for another, Posse was for students of color, the counselor said.
Not persuaded, Tsesmelis asked for some literature about the scholarship. Posse, she soon discovered, is not for students of color only. To the contrary, it’s a youth leadership development organization that welcomes bright students of all kinds. It ensures access to leading colleges and universities for teams (Posses) of urban students from diverse backgrounds, in the broadest sense.
Tsesmelis liked what she read, and the next day she signed on to compete for one of several Posse slots available to New York students. Though she had strong credentials—a G.P.A. well into the 90s and leadership roles in high school organizations—she was up against hundreds of bright students. So she was surprised that December when she learned, after an intensive three-stage interview process, that she would be a member of the first Posse attending Trinity College.
They were mostly strangers to each other when the group convened for the first time. But, in all important respects, they would soon become a family. And though they thought they were on the verge of getting a great college education, they really had no idea what an adventure they were about to embark upon. “We were told we were trailblazers,” Tsesmelis says. “And that’s how we felt.”
The Posse Foundation was founded in 1989 by Deborah Bial, who earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from Harvard, with a focus on higher education administration, planning, and social policy. (Trinity also awarded Bial an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters at Commencement in 2009.) The foundation’s essential focus is on leadership development.
“Our big goal is to create a new kind of leadership network,” says Bial, whose work earned her a MacArthur Fellowship in 2007. “Posse scholars are selected for their leadership and scholarship potential. By 2020 we expect to have 6,000 graduates who will represent the voice of America in leadership roles with companies and organizations all over the country.”
It’s not idealistic rhetoric. In the 21 years since it was launched, Posse has identified over 3,100 scholars, who have won more than $329 million in leadership scholarships.