First Posse shares their 'incredible gifts'

When Jocelyn Vega ’17, Anthony Halmon ’17 and Mary Khalaf ’17 arrived here three years ago as members of Cornell’s first Posse Scholar class in 2013, they knew they would become role models for groups of students to come.

They didn’t realize, however, how important they would become to each other or how much their backgrounds and experiences would shape what they would decide to study.

Today, all three of the Chicago natives are in leadership positions on campus, have explored and decided on majors that suit their goals in life and feel confident as they advise underclass and prospective students about making the most of Cornell.

The Posse Foundation founded the program in 1989 to identify students from urban public high schools with "extraordinary" academic and leadership potential who might have been overlooked by traditional college selection processes. Students are given scholarships to attend college in "posses" of 10. These groups serve as a support community for the students on campus and in their studies.

Pushing through in difficult situations

“When I arrived, I recognized that not a lot of students shared my background, as a first generation Latina student from Chicago,” Vega said. “But my Posse peers are the people I turn to if things get tough. They make me realize that Cornell is what I make of it.”

And Vega has made her mark, as a Mellon-Mays Fellow, a student assistant in the Office of Academic Diversity Initiatives, a member of the Chi Alpha Epsilon society, a house officer at Von Cramm Cooperative Hall and a board member for IvyG, an Inter-Ivy conference aimed at first-generation college students. She’s decided to major in government and sociology and is working on research related to immigration policies. She’d like to work for a non-profit or governmental agency before pursuing a PhD and teaching.

Vega attended a military high school and said the experience taught her valuable lessons about herself and her skills, both as a negotiator and leader. “I don’t get frazzled in tense situations, so I’m often the middle person helping people to solve their conflicts,” she said. She rose to become the first female commander at the school and earned the respect of a mostly-male population of students.

But still, one of her trusted high school counselors told her “students like you don’t go to Cornell” and so many other signs pointed against her – the cost of application, the fact that no one from her family had gone to college, she said.

Still “I didn’t let him assert any value over who I was,” she said. “If I don’t believe in myself in those difficult challenging moments, what is there really to believe in.”

The Posse program empowered her in many ways, she said, including knowing that she was one of only 110 students chosen from more than 3,000 nominated in Chicago. As she was preparing for Cornell, a summer internship at the University of Chicago medical school helped her to realize interests in the healthcare system, immigration and activism.

Her thesis project for Mellon-Mays is focusing on the social impacts of immigrant policies, particularly recent policies that detain women and children and how those affect family structures, she said.

“My family has really instilled in me the value of hard work and of pushing through when things seem impossible,” she said. “I want to focus my life on giving back to others, to create a collaborative system where we can solve issues together.”

A mentor and so much more

Linda Nicholson, professor of molecular biology and genetics, was just returning to campus after delivering help to people in a Staten Island neighborhood recovering from Superstorm Sandy when she was called to the dean’s office and asked to be the faculty mentor for the first Posse group. The timing was perfect.

“I was coming back questioning my purpose here, seeing the huge gap between the students here and the people suffering from lack of opportunities there,” Nicholson said. “When I got to Dean Lepage’s office and he started to describe the mission of the Posse Foundation, it was a profound spiritual experience.”

As a mentor, she’s offered advice, but more importantly, helped the scholars connect with resources that help them find their own answers and pathways. She helped them choose classes, get extra help when they needed it and learn about study abroad opportunities, but also been there as they dealt with stress, wellness and balance issues and even chipped in for food or rent money when times were tough.

Now she has 10 kids who she “believes in fiercely,” she says. “They’re incredibly gifted and have had very real impacts on this campus.

“I know they will go on to do incredible things in the world.”

Not that the process has been easy for all of them, she said, especially since they begin their time as freshmen without taking part in Cornell’s Prefreshmen Summer Program because they’re involved with Posse-led programs..

“Without this preparation, I think their experiences in some math and science classes as freshmen deflect them from a career they might want to pursue,” she said. 

Having the scholars on campus benefits the campus community in so many ways, she said.

“We are in a bubble here; we don’t see the perspectives of students from inner-city public schools on a daily basis,” she said. “But having students here with those critical perspectives to bring to the table is a part of how we move forward as a society, by getting those essential voices into the classroom.”

Being true to himself

Like Vega, a devotion to community work also comes through when Halmon talks about his plans for the future, which include returning to Chicago to help other young people find their way to Ivy League schools like Cornell.

Halmon received attention in high school for an invention combining a pacifier and a thermometer, which makes it easier for parents to take their child’s temperature, a helpful tool for him as a young father. He came to Cornell planning to focus on engineering, but soon found it wasn’t what he wanted to study and is now majoring in Africana Studies and psychology,

“The transition was tough, but I knew I had to be true to myself,“ he said. “I know I want to be a professor, an activist, a motivational speaker and a mentor to young men. I want to help change Chicago and I know I’m going to make it happen.”

Halmon works in the lab of Professor Gary Evans in the College of Human Ecology, an environmental and developmental psychologist who is interested in how the physical environment affects human health and well being among children. Halmon’s project focused on how poverty might affect children’s ability to wait for rewards. Halmon is also working on an honors thesis focused on religion’s role in African American movements and progress.

He’s also involved in the Chosen Generation Gospel Choir and Scholars Working Ambitiously to Graduate (SWAG), a group to support black male students at Cornell. For him, the Posse group has been his major support system.

“Having the Posse, you always have someone you can lean on,” he said. “We’re all different and have different strengths and weaknesses, but because of that, we balance each other out.”

Halmon said he definitely feels pressure as part of the first Posse at Cornell.

“I know we are setting an example, so the pressure can be both a blessing and a burden at the same time,” he said. “I know that it’s a privilege to go to Cornell, but I also know that I belong here, that we all do.”

A confidante for new students

When Khalaf thinks of her time here at Cornell, wellness and wisdom are two words that come to mind. She’s happy to be in her second year as a resident assistant in Mary Donlan Hall and she’s also excited about her position promoting wellness within the Greek system.

“I know there are so many resources on campus, but students don’t know about them,” she said of the Greek health and wellness initiative. “Sometimes as Cornell students, it’s hard for us to accept that we need help with either physical or mental health issues.”

The new initiative hopes to create wellness ambassadors within each Greek organization, as well as other student groups, who are well informed about campus wellness efforts and can act as connectors.

The new Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, created in 2015, and the expanded Cornell Health building, both offer a big boost to the effort, Khalaf said, because they put health and wellness at the center of Cornell’s mission.

Majoring in biology and society with a minor in inequality studies, Khalaf says she imagines herself working in health care, but she also says a dream job would be working with the Posse Foundation. She ran a summer workshop for new Posse members back in Chicago after her freshman year to tell them more about college life. And she clearly relishes her role as a resident assistant.

Khalaf is a Community and Respect (CORE) RA, a special post dedicated to creating community among students and responding to the university’s call for addressing needs, issues and services related to sexual violence and bias prevention.

“I love to hang out with my freshmen in the lounge and help them through everything, from enrolling in classes to managing friendships," she said. “I’ve found that if I share a part of myself with the students, then they’ll open up about themselves."

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