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Posse mentor learned the hard way

To say Wil Smith's first semester at Bowdoin was challenging would be like announcing that Maine gets chilly in winter.

Mr. Smith had just left the Navy, and was unexpectedly the sole custodial parent of his infant daughter. He missed orientation and arrived clueless about most of the resources there to help him. By the time the school's director of multicultural affairs perceived his plight, his lack of computer skills had made term papers disappear, and he had failed a course because he couldn't afford the books and didn't know they were on reserve in the library.

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Now Smith can use that experience to make sure other students don't have the same problems. In addition to filling a newly created position as coordinator of multicultural student programs at Bowdoin, Smith will mentor the school's first group of Boston Posse scholars.

"For many of them, like myself, what has gotten them to this point in their life, in their academic life, is their independence, their self-determination, their drive, and their pride," he says. "That's a positive characteristic to have, but in an academic environment like Bowdoin, it can be very detrimental also, because it causes you to ... not seek the resources, and then have too much pride to ask." He'll tell them that "no one is expecting them to do this alone."

When he met the diverse group of 10 Boston students, his first impression was, "Bowdoin is not ready for this."

He found it refreshing, though, that "they were still rough around the edges... That they had not been through the boarding schools." There's nothing wrong with prep schools, he says, but some students who come from that environment arrive at Bowdoin "already programmed."

Bowdoin's commitment to the posse has already encouraged the enrollment of more minority students, Smith says. And he's looking forward to seeing how posse members affect classroom discussions. "Bowdoin has very few perspectives, and those coming from other perspectives are not encouraged to share, or do not feel comfortable. There are a lot of people who are hiding. There are a lot of white students that have class issues that are hiding. And these kids [in the posse] have been trained to not hide, and to get these issues out on the table." Smith worries that his efforts to educate the community through voluntary workshops will reach only those who are interested, and not those who most need them.

"Bowdoin is a reflection of larger society. There are those in favor of this type of progressive ... diversity initiative. And there are those who are very conservative and wary of any type of diversity initiative.... They tie it to affirmative action, and among those people, affirmative action has negative connotations.

"By the end of the year, I think the students will have proved that they belong at Bowdoin."

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