For the fifth year in a row, Hancock College Prep High School on the city’s Southwest side celebrates its students who earned full college scholarships from the Posse Foundation, an organization supporting students with extraordinary academic and leadership potential. Chicago Public Schools students Barbara Cruz, Tatyana Hornof, and Sergio Ruvalcaba can focus on their studies because all four years of their college tuition will be paid. Sergio describes this program as more than just the money. “Aside from money,” he says, “we get a support system. We are not just team building for next eight months. We are also getting into the academic side. We’re getting mentors to give us an idea of what to expect.” In the last five years, Hancock produced eleven Posse Scholars.
Posse is a national, competitive program that sends high-achieving students who may be overlooked to college in a group or posse. With the financial support, mentoring, and peer connections, Posse Scholars graduate at a rate of 90 percent and, according to the foundation, “make a visible difference on campus and throughout their professional careers.” Since its 1989 inception in New York, Posse has supported over 2,200 alumni.
All three Hancock students got the news from Posse in ironic ways. Sergio says his mentor called and said he had bad news. “I’m sorry you’re stuck with me for the next four years,’” his mentor said over the phone. Sergio was shocked. Weeks later, he says he still can’t wrap his head around the the idea that in eight months, he’ll be in California--at Pomona College, one of the top schools in the country (according to Forbes Magazine). The tuition, covered by Posse, is over $45,000 a year.
Tatyana took the phone call in her kitchen while her mom eavesdropped. She thought it was a follow-up call from Posse, so she was ready to emphasize why she wanted this opportunity. Instead, her mentor asked, “What’s your shirt size because you just got Posse!” She cried tears of relief. “All the times I kept going were paying off,” Tatyana realized. “In a way, this boosted my confidence.” Tatyana will attend St. Olaf in Minnesota where Posse will cover over $41,000 each year.
Barbara says she still cries sometimes if she thinks about it. For her, as the first person in her family to attend college, winning Posse is an affirmation. “Going to a school like Cornell is something people expected me to do but I don’t think people expected that it would actually happen,” Barbara reflects. “Ever since I can remember, I always worked hard in school but I could never tell what I was working towards. Now I understand what it was all for.” Barbara will live on campus in New York; Posse will cover over $47,000 of tuition each year.
How They Overcame Barriers
For Barbara, the hard part was not completing the rigorous Posse application process that includes essays and rounds of interviews. For her, the challenging part was gaining the experience to qualify her for such a competitive opportunity. “Students in this community fall through the cracks. I’ve seen so many smart students drop out or not go to college. They don’t have the money. They don’t have the resources. Everyone feels these things, but when you have statistics against you, you start to give up.”
The college enrollment rate for Chicago Public Schools can be disheartening. According to research by the University of Chicago’s Consortium on Chicago School Research, “Fewer than half of Latino students who aspired to a four-year degree applied to a four-year college, compared to about 65 percent of their African-American and White/Other Ethnic counterparts.”
However, the report emphasizes the impact of good teaching and staff guidance in a college-going culture at schools: “Across all our analyses, the single most consistent predictor of whether students took steps toward college enrollment was whether their teachers reported that their high school had a strong college climate, that is, they and their colleagues pushed students to go to college, worked to ensure that students would be prepared, and were involved in supporting students in completing their college applications.”
For Tatyana, the encouragement she received from Hancock teachers and staff built her confidence, along with her academics. Tatyana recognizes that she was chosen because Posse saw “potential and qualities that lots of other students don’t have, not just academically but characterwise and leadershipwise.” She didn’t always see these qualities in herself--especially when she had to attend this neighborhood high school instead of King College Prep where she was admitted but was unable to travel the distance.
At Hancock, Tatyana, who also plays on the school’s basketball team, found an unexpected experience. “The thing that I love about about Hancock,” she says, “is that it gave me an awesome high school experience.” Tatyana explains how even though this school was not her first choice, the constant reminders from the adults at Hancock made a difference in her drive and confidence. “Maybe Posse will see what my teachers see in me,” she thought during her interview process.
Hancock provided Sergio quality experiences as well even though he did not expect much. He got accepted to a selective enrollment high school, Lane Tech, but it was too far. Sergio admits, “At first, I wasn’t too keen on the idea that for the next four years I’d be at Hancock. But that’s because of the way people described it. When I got here, I saw that was not the case. People here, even though we lack resources in comparison to selective enrollment schools, build a support system, not only teachers and staff but students themselves.”
More than Good Grades
Besides earning high grades, Sergio participated in a number of extracurricular experiences. Freshman year, he joined BuildOn, a program designed to help students improve their communities and others’ through service. In junior year, he welcomed 9th grade students as a leader in the summer Freshman Connection. He participated in the Science Olympiad, on student council, and on student government.
It’s because of these experiences--in addition to good grades--that these and past students earned Posse scholarships. Barbara advises students to not focus only on grades. “There are so many students who have amazing grades but they didn’t do any extra curriculars. They have to understand they can’t remain isolated in high school.” She goes on to say that students need to learn how to interact with others and lead. “That’s an incredibly important skill,” Barbara says. “If my grades were not at their best, it’s because I was involving myself in other programs. That’s what got me Posse, not just my high grades, but my experiences,” she emphasizes.
In addition to her passion for learning, Barbara found inspiration in her mother's life. Barbara says her mother wanted to go to school; she wanted to continue her education. But because she had polio, she was told, "You can't walk. You can't take the bus. You can't go to school." To this day, Barbara's mother encourages her daughter to continue on with her education.
Tatyana also moved forward in life because of her mother, who adopted her. Tatyana says she learned to strive for opportunities because of her family’s financial challenges. At home, her mom’s encouragement motivated her, even when her mom struggled to find stable employment for five years. “Even though everything was terrible,” Tatyana says, “my mom remained her strongest for us. She said that working really hard for what you want is how you get there.” Tatyana’s mom taught her that “it’s about creating opportunities for yourself regardless of your financial situation.”
In Sergio’s home, the experience was different. “My parents weren’t really supportive,” Sergio says. “The things I did were for me. I never went to them for guidance and support because I never received it as a child.” However, Sergio saw how his mom struggled financially and that, along with the support at Hancock, motivated him.
So Is It Grit?
For all three students, disappointment has been part of the process. Barbara, for example, was rejected from every single selective-enrollment high school she applied to. “Every time I was kept from doing what I wanted to do, the way was paved for me to do something better. That’s what students don’t realize. They get rejected and they give up. That’s a mistake.”
Some people may chalk up these students’ success to grit: courage in difficult situations. But Barbara, Tatyana, and Sergio say their success is not that easy or that simple to explain.
All three students recognize their self-determination, but they also recognize self-doubt. And all three credit adults at Hancock for building their confidence. Barbara suggests that teachers should help low-income student not by grooming them but by nurturing them. “Teachers should not groom because that’s like putting their own identities on students. What should happen is nurturing, trying to find out what they’re passionate about and continuing that passion.” Barbara says she found adults at Hancock who asked her, “What do you WANT to do?” Through these conversations, she found opportunities to get involved in politics and student leadership. She even wrote for the Mash, the Chicago Tribune’s citywide student newspaper.
In the fall, at some of the most notable schools in the country, Barbara will focus on public policy, Tatyana on public health, and Sergio on pre-med.
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