De’Lena Martin didn’t grow up in a wealthy family. A Houston native and the fourth of five kids, she brought home A’s and filled her time with sports and activities like model UN and the debate team. College was always on her radar, and she “figured the money would figure itself out,” most likely through a sports scholarship. That changed when Martin was hit by a car at age 15, an accident that ended her career as a student athlete and could have limited her college options if not for the Posse Foundation, a New York City-headquartered nonprofit that matches groups of promising high school students from a particular geographic area with top-tier universities across the country.
“Had I not been hit by a car I probably wouldn’t be at UVA,” Martin said, adding that the accident forced her to focus more on academics. “I’d probably be somewhere in Texas, at a small school that offered a scholarship for sports.”
UVA announced its partnership with Posse in the fall of 2013, and the following year the first group of Houston Posse students, including Martin, matriculated at UVA, 1,300 miles from home. Posse students, many of whom are from low-income families or are the first in their family to attend college, go through a lengthy qualifying process and, once selected, are grouped into 10-person teams, or posses, which provide academic and personal support before and during college. The idea, according to organization founder and president Debbie Bial, is to alleviate the culture shock of being so far from home and to improve the chance of success for “nontraditional students.”
This spring marks the end of year one for the University’s first batch of Posse students, who arrived at college just in time to experience the historic challenges UVA faced during the 2014-2015 school year: the abduction and slaying of Hannah Graham, the retracted Rolling Stone article, several student suicides and the bloody arrest of African-American student Martese Johnson.
In the wake of these incidents, Wahoos have been at the forefront of peaceful protests, vigils and thoughtful discussions about cultural and political issues roiling the country right now, and Bial believes Posse students, whom she describes as “gritty, motivated, ambitious kids,” are well-positioned to cope with the challenges.
“These kids have been trained for eight months before they even get to school to talk about things that are hard to talk about,” she said, noting that the Posse curriculum encourages students to be frank about topics like sex and race. “I think that’s an incredible added value to an institution,” she said.
UVA Dean of Admission Greg Roberts, who serves as a liaison of sorts between the University and Posse, said the partnership is part of an ongoing effort to increase diversity on Grounds.
“It’s an effort by the University to attract and enroll underserved and underrepresented students from around the country,” said Roberts, noting that all students benefit from an increase in diversity. “The best way to prepare student leaders is for them to work with, partner with and engage with students who have different backgrounds and beliefs,” he said.
Martin said the support she’s received from the organization has been invaluable in helping her adjust to college life.
“I don’t see how people don’t have Posse,” she said, noting that most of her friends, who are also out-of-state, don’t have mentors and the same kind of support system in place when they arrive at school. “I feel like Posse kind of opens the door and when UVA is on the other side, there’s another door to open. I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing had I not had Posse open that first door.”
It wasn’t hard for Martin to fall in love with UVA and Charlottesville. But even with the support of her posse and a solid group of friends she acquired pretty quickly, her first year as a Wahoo wasn’t all smooth sailing. The homesickness came and went, she said, and she’s still getting used to the cultural differences between Texas and Virginia. Surrounded by mostly Virginia natives, many of whom have been wearing orange and blue since childhood, Martin misses a lot of things about Houston—namely her family, friends and the city’s diversity.
“In Houston, you don’t know what the next person’s culture is, so you don’t want to say the wrong thing to upset them,” she said. “I had to learn that sometimes people here just talk.”
She’s also had to get used to no longer being a big fish in a small pond. Setting an example and being a star student was one thing back home. But at a university like UVA, Martin quickly realized, she’s surrounded by students who are just as intelligent and motivated as she is, and even more competitive.
“I was relatively great in high school. And when you’re relatively great and around relatively great people, then you’re all on the same level,” she said. “Somebody’s got to fall in the lower half, and somebody has to occupy the top.”
Getting lost in that shuffle and becoming just another face in the crowd is exactly what the Posse Foundation is trying to help students avoid. Bial said the inspiration for the organization came from a former college student who, after dropping out, said he would have been more likely to stick it out if he’d had his posse with him. All 10 students in the UVA posse meet as a group with their mentor, political science professor Michael Smith, to discuss what’s going on academically, socially and personally. Smith also meets with each individual student on a regular basis.
As for the dynamic of the posse, members of the group are pretty frank about it: It was awkward at first. They were all hard-working seniors who had been accepted into UVA, but for a lot of them, the similarities ended there.
“We dropped the charade real quick,” said Daniel Luo, noting that the group of 10 didn’t pretend to all be best friends right off the bat, and they’ve all found their own niches on Grounds. “But it’s comforting to know they’re also there.”
According to Bial, there’s really no norm when it comes to how the posses interact with one another socially. She’s met Posse students who become best friends and even wind up dating one another, and she’s seen groups who are all business.
“I can’t generalize the groups at all, except for one thing they share,” Bial said. “They’re there for each other. They feel responsible to help each other if somebody needs help, and they’re incredibly proud to be a member of the institution that they’re part of.”
Luo, one of the Posse students to join a fraternity during his first year at UVA, said most of his close friends at school are from his pledge class and other organizations he’s involved with. The posse doesn’t spend much time together as a group outside of the organized weekly meetings, he said, but he’s looking forward to seeing how the group changes over the next school year.
A new group of 10 Posse students from Houston, selected last December, will arrive at UVA this fall. The inaugural group will serve as mentors to the newbies, and Luo said he’s looking forward to a new sense of responsibility as the dynamic shifts.
“We’re so different that our friend groups and interests as Posse one are really varied. I’m pretty sure that given more kids, Posse will be more close-knit,” Luo said. “It’s more effective, I think, with kids in different years to provide mentorship and a kind of structure that you can work around. Right now we’re all peers in almost every way, and it’s a little different when you have someone who’s a year above you.”
Having found himself in voluntary leadership and mentorship roles before, Luo said he’s already thinking about what he wants to pass on to the next posse. The academic and social aspects will be covered in the months leading up to the school year and the ongoing weekly Posse meetings, and he said as an older student he’ll be able to offer advice that as a first year he didn’t even know he needed: what meal plan is preferable, which libraries are best for studying, how to hunt for off-Grounds apartments without getting ripped off by aggressive landlords. The “inconsequential stuff” that, had he known ahead of time, he said, would have made his first year at UVA a lot easier.
Luo, whose parents are both from China, said he likes the idea of being part of a group that increases diversity at UVA, both in terms of race and school of thought.
“Diversity is a sore subject, especially when you talk about affirmative action and discrimination, but I do think it’s really important,” he said. He added that Posse not only fosters ethnic and socioeconomic diversity, but it encourages students to look outside the group to pursue their interests and make a difference.
“I want to do something impactful here,” he said. “What’s the point of college if you don’t build something and make a presence?”