Week 3: Find Your Posse in College


I met my friend Gerry on the Greyhound bus heading to freshman orientation. I got on at the first stop, and he at the second. Four hours later, by the time we arrived in Boston, we were fast friends. I had briefed him about all of the people I met during the previous summer while attending a bridge program on campus, and I learned a lot about his family.

Gerry and I were connected at the hip for the first two years of college before our academic paths diverged, Gerry in mechanical engineering, and me in materials science and engineering. We lived in the same dorm, took many of the same classes, partied together, and even liked the same girls (though Gerry mostly won those competitions). Later that year, we also became close to two other freshmen, both of whom also lived in our dorm.

In college, you need friends with whom you can joke and goof off, but who also aren’t ashamed to talk about their grades and schoolwork. With some minority students, and certainly from my experience in high school until I found my posse, talking about schoolwork was off-limits. That’s wrong! If that’s the way your college posse rolls, then you need to find a new set of friends.

The best example of a positive posse was exemplified by three doctors who, when they were in high school, formed a pact.

“The Pact”

Three young men, while still in high school in Newark, NJ, committed to become doctors after surviving bouts with crime, drug addicted-parents, a gang-infested neighborhood, and even jail. While Sampson Davis, George Jenkins, and Rameck Hunt supported each other through high school, college, medical school and their training, none were allowed to miss a class or an assignment, or do poorly on exams. Their healthy competition motivated them to become better students and ultimately to reach their lofty goals. Their compelling story is captured in the book The Pact: Three Young Men Make a Promise and Fulfill a Dream.

Drs. Davis, Jenkins and Hunt formed a posse that kept them motivated and also gave them a buffer against the opposing forces to their dream. Newton’s third law of motion says every action (force) is opposed by an equal and opposite reaction (force). Likewise, when you decide to set aspirations high and pursue a course of life that challenges the prevailing norms, you’ll certainly be opposed, either internally by your own doubts, or by others. By forming a pact, these three young men built an inviolable buffer against these forces.

Form a Pact

Without knowing it, Gerry and I had an unwritten pact, a commitment to see each other through at least through the first two years when we were close. 

These were the attributes of The Pact that motivated the three doctors to achieve their goal, many of which our friendships shared:

  • They had a common goal (to become doctors)
  • They operated out of a shared value system (the way they would function as a group, that is, to never miss a class or assignment, and never leave another behind)
  • They used positive peer pressure to spur them on to perform well
  • There was a healthy competition between them to outperform each other
  • They were not hesitant about calling out each other when they needed to buckle down, nor were they embarrassed to ask for help
  • They studied and “played” together, blending their academic and social lives
  • They allowed each person to be himself, bringing their personality and style into the relationship
  • They were willing to teach each other (for example, how to play baseball)
  • They held each other accountable for their grades
  • They shared a lot in common outside of their academic and professional pursuits (p.69)

As a freshman seminar leader, I had my incoming freshmen read the first two chapters of The Pact prior to the first day of the seminar. Their first assignment was to formulate an “Achievement Contract”, a pact that would encapsulate their goals and inspire and guide them over the next four years of college. After they came up with the terms of their agreement, I typed them up and had each student sign them. They would place the signed contract in the front of the seminar binder so each week they would be reminded of their commitments to each other.

It worked. Though there were times when I had to remind them of their contract, these occasions were rare. Because they were their terms (not mine), they internalized and owned them. Here’s an example of an Achievement Contract for one of my advising groups:

1. Maintain a cumulative grade point average (GPA) of 4.5 (on a 5.0 scale) or better.

2. Graduate with a bachelor’s degree in four years or less.

3. Attend all classes, recitations, seminars, and appointments on time, unless physically unable.

4. Do all readings before class meetings and to complete/submit no late work.

5. Pursue graduate studies (Master’s or Doctoral) within one year of graduating with the bachelor’s degree.

6. Commit to and perform at least one sustainable community service project/activity per academic year.

7. Establish a relationship with at least four people who could potentially serve as recommenders (at least one of which being a professor) per academic year.

Discover Your Posse

Like the three doctors, find a posse that is mutually supportive in reaching your individual and collective goals. It won’t all happen at once. Friendships and social bonds happen over time through natural evolution. Your peer connections will and should continue to evolve throughout your college years.

While every group of friends won’t and shouldn’t have “a purpose”, you should be careful not to allow any connection to pull you off your academic, personal, and career goals. In many cases, many of us regrettably form friendships because of the social currency they bring us. In other words, you become popular because you run with the popular crowd. However, when those connections draw you away from being proud of your academic accomplishments, then you need to change your network. Here’s the test: If your peers make you uncomfortable about celebrating an “A” on an exam, then you’re running with the wrong posse. Period!

Everyone needs a Gerry!