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An L.A. 'posse' passes its Iowa test

Four years ago, the 10 disadvantaged students entered tiny Grinnell College. Amid the cornfields, most beat the odds -- and cold.

June 03, 2008|Duke Helfand | Times Staff Writer

GRINNELL, IOWA — The phone rang at 10:30 p.m. Lauro Franco picked up and heard panic in the voice of his friend.

"I'm leaving," Sandra Herrera said. "I don't belong here."

Dressed only in pajamas despite the winter chill, Franco sprinted from his dorm room at Grinnell College to Herrera's a floor below. She opened her door and burst into tears.

Herrera told Franco she was tired of the cold, exhausted by school and worried about her father, who was sick back home in Carson.

"We're going to make it, Sandra," Franco said as he hugged his friend and shared his own concerns about his mother in Pacoima.

And so the pair hit on a plan: They would spend Saturdays at the library and break the monotony with occasional trips to the mall, 50 miles west in Des Moines.

Franco's late-night rescue that sophomore year may have saved Herrera's college career, both now say -- just as recruiters from the New York-based Posse Foundation had hoped.

Franco and Herrera entered tiny, idyllic Grinnell four years ago as members of a "posse" of 10 disadvantaged but promising high school graduates from Los Angeles.

By banding together, the students would help one another navigate unfamiliar academic and social terrain in this remote college town surrounded by fields of corn.

Grinnell would cover their tuition -- $1 million worth -- and in return get a little more diversity on its campus of 1,500 students, virtually all of them white.

The preparation for their journey was chronicled in a Times story in 2004. Over the four years that followed, academic demands reduced some of the "posse scholars" to tears. Cultural differences left a few feeling like outsiders. Homesickness was a constant, especially in the midst of bone-chilling winters.

The pressure drove one student to quit. Two others fell behind in their coursework.

But most found opportunities they never would have imagined back at high schools better known for producing dropouts than graduates.

Evelyn Gandara found her calling during a summer of study abroad before her senior year. She dreamed of becoming a doctor in a developing country and ventured to Ecuador for what she thought would be an internship in a rural hospital. She wound up treating patients.

That was a turning point for Gandara, a top student in high school who was surprised that her hard work at the prestigious liberal-arts college often produced only average results.

"Ecuador made all my frustrations and my hardships worthwhile," she said. "It just confirmed that I'm on the right path and I have the right spirit."

Gandara's posse-mate, Nikisha Glenn, had to overcome an unlikely obstacle: her mother.

Afraid to let her daughter go, Paula Moss delivered Glenn late to her high school posse interview in hopes of torpedoing her chances.

Glenn, who came from Locke High near Watts, wound up studying physics under a professor who treated her like a daughter -- checking up on her when she was sick, making sure she got a paid internship for a research project on quantum optics.

Glenn stayed in school even after two of her cousins were killed in drive-by shootings during one of her summer vacations back home. Through it all, she clung to Herrera and another posse member, Jessica Starling, two of her roommates during senior year.

"There is no way you can survive alone without a close knit of friends," she said.

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The Los Angeles students found an extended network at Grinnell, which was gradually adding four posses from Los Angeles and four more from Washington, D.C. -- with a goal of 80 students in all.

Daniel Zamora, an aspiring artist, grew close to three friends from Washington. They bonded over their love of art and their urban backgrounds, jokingly calling themselves "the three black chicks and the sassy Hispanic guy."

The friends from opposite coasts would hang out at a Dairy Queen near campus, commiserating occasionally about fellow students' questioning if they had made it to Grinnell only because of the posse.

"They are my family here," Zamora said of his Washington friends. "In my eyes, they are my posse."

Zamora and his posse friends enjoyed other support on campus. Posse offices in Los Angeles and Washington sent trainers several times a year to check in with the students. Grinnell assigned a staff mentor to meet regularly with them.

Frank Thomas, a senior counselor at the college, spent hours talking to Zamora and the others in the L.A. posse about their fears and doubts. He drove them in the snow to the airport or train station and fed them turkey and sweet potato pie on Thanksgiving at his Des Moines home.

An African American and a Grinnell graduate, Thomas confronted the students after hearing that they weren't speaking up in class. "You cannot hide in a Grinnell classroom," he told them.

Yet despite his efforts, Thomas could not seem to reach Nakeyia Poitier.

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