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Not Your Average First-Year

Shaylithia Copeland (COM’12) and her Posse take on Boston

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Shaylithia Copeland (COM’12) is one the 12 Posse students from Atlanta attending BU. Photo by Edward A. Brown

Atlanta native Shaylithia Copeland is the first in her family to go to college, and she’s jumping in feet first. No shrinking violet, the 18-year-old College of Communication freshman speaks in a clear, confident voice and strides down Comm Ave like she owns the place. Already, she’s helping other freshmen find their way. And she isn’t bothered that most of her stuff hasn’t arrived from Georgia yet, which means sleeping without a pillow and using a towel for a rug.

Copeland (COM’12) is a Posse student, one of 12 given scholarships by BU this year, all of them from the Atlanta area. The Posse Foundation is a national nonprofit program that recruits and trains groups of talented, leadership-oriented urban youth for life on American college and university campuses.

Copeland has the makings of a young urban leader. Despite being raised by a single mother in one of the Atlanta’s roughest neighborhoods and graduating from a high school where metal detectors and pregnant classmates were part of everyday life, she was determined to leave the city, attend college, and one day give back to the community. And that’s what Posse is all about.

“No way I would have gotten this opportunity in-state,” she says as she weaves through crowds of students after her first World of COM lecture at Morse Auditorium last week.

The idea behind Posse is to send a team of like-minded kids from similar backgroundsto top-tier colleges, where they support and encourage one another in what canbe a bewildering world of privilege and opportunity. The organizationhas so far placed 2,200 students, representing more than $220 millionin scholarships from the host universities. Posse’s long-term goal isto cultivate leaders for America’s multicultural urban centers who canhelp tackle the complex social problems often found there.

“I come from your typical drug-infested, high-pregnancy, high-murders, shootings-every-night type of neighborhood,” Copeland says. She and her mother and younger sister live in Atlanta’s Summerhill section in Police Zone 3, considered the city’s worst crime district. “I’ve lost a lot of people to murder. That’s what helped me say, ‘I’m not going to stay here.’ That’s always been my motivation: to get up and out, and make an impact.”

The Posse students, the inaugural group for BU and the first from Atlanta, arrived on campus August 24 to participate in the First-Year Student Outreach Project (FYSOP), which offers freshmen the opportunity to volunteer for community service work in the Boston area. During her first week in Boston, Copeland passed out condoms and prepared and delivered meals for AIDS patients. (Back in Atlanta, she had volunteered at Grady Memorial Hospital as a sexual health peer educator.)

She says she loves the diversity at BU. Although she is the only African-American in her Women, Society, and Culture class, Copeland hardly feels alone. “I love my classmates,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to communicate across cultures than I thought. I thought people would have preconceived notions about African-Americans in general, and African-Americans from the South, and that it would be hard to talk to people because there would be stigmas attached to who I am. But it’s not like that. There’s a Peruvian girl, a Jewish girl, in my class. A lot of my classmates are minorities. I’m just a piece of the puzzle. Each of us has a story to tell.”

Copeland’s story starts off like this: her mother was living on her own when Copeland was born, having been kicked out of her family home after revealing she was pregnant. Copeland’s father was in jail on drug charges at the time and has only flitted in and out of Copeland’s life. But it’s precisely this type of uphill start that has shaped her attitude toward life.

“It’s helped make me a determined young lady,” Copeland says. “I can never say, ‘I can’t do it.’ My mom just says, ‘Well, my momma kicked me out when I was pregnant with you, so I know you can do it.’ My mom’s a real example.”

Prior to arriving at BU, the Posse students, who hail from a variety of backgrounds and from different sections of greater Atlanta, took part in an eight-month training program to prepare them for campus life and to strengthen their bond. “We’re tight,” Copeland says. The students will continue to meet as a team with BU mentor Jeffrey Allen, a School of Management assistant professor of information systems and himself an Atlanta transplant.

Kelly Walter,BU’s executive director of admissions, describes Copeland as a “hot ticket” and says the University, from the president on down, has high expectations of the Posse students. They’re not only dynamic students and personalities, Walter says, “but were proven leaders in their high schools and their communities. My hope is that they will make a similar contribution in all aspects of student life at BU. I hope they will be transformed by BU, and that BU will be transformed by them.”

Arriving at her last class of the day, How to BU, a COM freshman survival skills course of sorts, Copeland strides confidently toward a front row in the lecture hall as though she’s been here a million times. She strikes up a conversation with seatmates and calls out answers to the lecturer. So when she later says, “I want to go back and make a lasting impression on my community,” there seems little doubt she will. In Atlanta — and in Boston.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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