On a recent Sunday afternoon I was sitting on one of two buses coming back from the University of Pennsylvania’s Posse-Plus Retreat (PPR) with a group of students I have become very close to over the last four years. This was the sixth retreat I participated in as Penn’s dean of admissions and an early champion of bringing Posse to Penn’s campus. PPR is a critical component of Posse’s Campus Program in which staff from the national office and the students’ home city (Miami in this case) visit the scholars each semester for follow-up with the students and the assigned campus mentor (Arlene Fernandez formerly of Penn’s Civic House served as the mentor for this year’s graduating seniors).
The ‘Plus’ part of PPR is the wider group of students who are friends and allies of the program who are not Posse Scholars, but are interested in the opportunity for a leadership retreat to reflect on a topic of national importance on college campuses. The topic chosen each year is voted on by the national network of Posse Scholars. This year’s topic is as relevant as ever. Sticks and Stones, Language and Speech in a Diverse Society. Only in a retreat setting away from campus and other distractions of technology and campus life, can students, faculty, and Posse Staff create a ‘Safe Space’ to discuss critical issues facing students, college communities, and the country. Posse staff, under the leadership of founder and MacArthur Genius Award winner, Debbie Bial, convene each year to carefully plan the retreat. Staff members write a guiding script, produce supporting videos and publications, and train professional moderators (our leader this year was a caring, dynamic, intellectually nimble gentleman named Antonio) to lead the weekend’s activities. Some PPR staple moments are a Rock-Paper-Scissors competition to get the morning energy moving; Human Barometer to measure the pressure around certain issues; TAPS, where participants ‘tap’ the shoulders of their peers who they admire and trust; No Talent-Talent Show, self-explanatory; and Closing Circle where participants link arms in solidarity before leaving this safe-space and re-entering the realities of the world. The feeling in closing circle is like the final scene in The Breakfast Club, the 1985 coming of age comedy-drama by John Hughes, before the individual students head back to their self, and often externally imposed, stereotypes.
The value and result of participating in PPR is an amazing transcendental (thank you, Arlene) awareness of self and society. The complexity and need for greater dialogue and understanding in a nation defined by class stratification, social inequality, huge educational opportunity gaps, and the politics of fear (especially in an election year) requires a new generation of young leaders with both the inclination and ability to serve. Fortunately, the events that took place this past weekend at the University of Pennsylvania will also take place at over 50 other college campuses affiliated with the Posse Foundation. That means approximately 5,000 college students will be more aware and better equipped to become leaders in a highly complex, diverse, and global world. We need them, desperately.