How to Make Your Alma Mater Matter in LA

Mar 18, 2010 | Updated May 25, 2011

You went to college back East, down South, or in the Midwest and whether you're five or 25 years out, now that you live in Los Angeles your relationship to that institution is virtually nonexistent--tethered by little more than a bullet point on a resume.

I grew up in Pennsylvania and graduated from my home-state school of Bucknell University in 1982 and while I didn't follow a straight path getting to Los Angeles, I've been more or less settled here since 1997, my East Coast life receding ever further in the rear-view mirror.

Over the years I didn't think much about Bucknell--okay, except for the occasional bittersweet memory of an old flame from senior year who's long since married with children. I never attended a reunion, I rarely made a donation, and I never looked up old classmates on Facebook (except for the old flame, of course). I'd skim the alumni magazine and toss it in the recycle bin like so much junk mail, not for lack of quality--it's a handsome and well-written publication--but because it felt so far removed from my life in Los Angeles, both geographically and in time. Only once did I venture out to a mixer for Southern California alumni since it happened to be taking place at a bar near my neighborhood. In the dimly lit room it would have been difficult to find people I knew among the 50 or so attendees, but it didn't matter; I knew no one, and there was no facilitator to help break the ice. The whole experience served only to widen the gulf between me and my alma mater.

Then I learned this summer that Bucknell University was about to choose 10 Los Angeles high school students--students who might not otherwise choose an out-of-state college like Bucknell--to receive four-year full-tuition scholarships through an exciting new partnership with the nonprofit Posse Foundation. Discovering this connection between my distant alma mater and my adopted city electrified me. I pictured two bright lights pulsing on a giant map of the United States, one in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania and one in Los Angeles, and a stream of positive energy circulating between them, and myself a part of that, not only because I have lived (and worked and loved) in both places but because I was invited to participate in this fall's Posse selection process.

Along with dozens of other local volunteers, many of whom, like myself, have ties to one of the eight partner colleges that each choose 10 Posse Scholars a year from Los Angeles, I helped to winnow the candidates from a field of over 2,000 down to 20 Bucknell finalists. Last week the ultimate recipients of this extraordinary scholarship received "the call" from Bucknell officials and I can only imagine the sweet rejoicing in their homes this holiday season. (The Scholars' names will be publicly announced at an award ceremony on January 9, 2010.)

The Posse Foundation is the brainchild of the organization's president and founder Deborah Bial, recipient of a 2007 MacArthur "Genius" Fellowship for her innovative, high-impact work in education. It all started when she heard a young man remark, "I never would have dropped out of college if I had my posse with me." Each year, Posse Foundation affiliates in seven American cities identify public high school students with strong academic and leadership potential who may be overlooked by traditional college selection processes. In multicultural teams--or Posses--of 10 students each, supported by scholarships, mentors, and each other, students go on to achieve a 90 percent graduation rate, well above the national average. Since its founding in 1989, Posse has sent 2,650 Scholars to 37 colleges and universities throughout the country.

"Transformative" is an overused catchword these days, ascribed to everything from cosmetic potions to healthcare reform, but when it comes to a quality college education the word is not mere hype. In our society, a college education remains the key to economic opportunity and personal advancement. It opens up possibilities and it changes people's lives. Having worked in professional and volunteer capacities with numerous nonprofits and philanthropies, I can attest that the Posse concept, and its consistently successful implementation, is one of the most inspiring and effective programs I've encountered.

For now, the Los Angeles Posse Scholars' journey is just getting started. Over the next eight months, as they finish high school, more than 80 students bound for eight different colleges will meet weekly in the Posse Foundation office at 7th and Figueroa for an intensive program of pre-collegiate training, they and their families making whatever sacrifices are necessary for them to be there. They will work in groups on academic, writing, and leadership skills, along with cross-cultural communication and team building, strengthening their own Posse in the process.

LA's Bucknell Posse Scholars will be among the first to participate in Posse's new Civic Engagement Program. These students' demonstrated commitment to activism and to building community in their neighborhoods was a major factor in their being awarded scholarships and, going forward, they will carry out summer internships at organizations that address social justice issues.

Come September, the first Los Angeles Posse will enter Bucknell's Class of 2014 and, if all goes well, the students will adapt to an environment that may be radically different from what they have known until now--and not just in terms of the weather. Yes, Central Pennsylvania can see winter temperatures drop to zero and snowfalls reach a couple of feet, which in my day made a great billboard for social change messages stomped in six-foot letters on the sloping hills of the 163-year-old campus. But beyond that, in contrast to the majority-minority metropolis that is Los Angeles, Lewisburg, built on land once owned by the original Penn family of Pennsylvania, is a small rural town whose population of 5,600 is over 90 percent white (according to 2000 Census figures). What little racial and ethnic diversity exists is due partly to Bucknell's faculty and student population, including those from the three Posse cities with which Bucknell partners: Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, D.C.

I am eager to see how students, in this context, will define civic engagement for themselves and manifest it through their fields of study and their activism. I hope to find ways to stay tethered to them as they navigate life in their new community, my old community. I will be rooting for the LA Posse Scholars, and rooting at long last for Bucknell, with pride and with deepening appreciation--for the university's role in my own development as an activist and for the many educational opportunities that I have been given, including this year as a 2009 Rosenthal Fellow of PEN Center USA. I hereby give a warm shout-out to my writing posse partners. Where would I be without you?

If you live in Los Angeles and graduated from any of these eight schools--or even if you did not--contact the Posse Foundation to find out how you can support its efforts as a volunteer or donor: Bucknell University, Dickinson College, Grinnell College, Kalamazoo College, Tulane University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.