A Modern-day Superman

November 22, 2010  | 3 min read

Visiting professor of Humanities and Teacher Education, and Director of the Social Action and Justice Colloquium, Service Learning, and International Internships

I first met Ralph (Rafaello) a few months ago while camping in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. I was training to be a mentor to 10 Posse Scholarship students from the D.C. area who were coming to Pepperdine this fall on full academic scholarships. The Posse Foundation identifies public high school students with extraordinary leadership potential who may be overlooked by the traditional college selection process because of lower test scores and GPAs.

Ralph struck me as a fun loving, gregarious, warm, enthusiastic type of 18-year-old. His demeanor masked a backstory rife with struggles: father unemployed, mother a janitor at McDonald's, home in foreclosure, and personal problems within the family. Ralph worked 40 hours a week from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. at the International House of Pancakes. He turned the money in to his parents to help support the family, including his younger brother. He often came to school on just a couple of hours sleep, filled with coffee and other energy drinks. "It was exhausting; it was tough," Ralph recounts, describing his limited free time and even more limited funds.

He told none of the other students at school because he just wanted to appear like a normal high school student. He decided to drop two AP classes in order to work five days a week to support his family. "It was my 10-year-old little brother Victor that kept me going," Ralph tells me. "I was determined to show him that even though we were going through rough times, we could still make it. I wanted a normal life for him."

Ralph graduated from high school with a 3.3 GPA and is now attending Pepperdine. He is a math major and looks forward to waking up every Tuesday and Sunday morning to go to Gospel Choir. He chose Pepperdine, he says, because it is prestigious and far away from home, because it is Christian, and he felt he would meet students with similar values.

Ralph is happy to be here, and I am happy to be his mentor and to spend several hours a week with him. In some ways he is a teacher, as well as a student. We can all learn something from this young man. Still, he faces challenges. "I just want to be a normal kid" seems to be his mantra. He earned a B- on his first exam in college. "I am not satisfied with that," he says, though he is optimistic. "I push through adversity," he notes proudly.

Pepperdine Welcomes 10 Posse Scholars

Posse Scholars arrive on university campuses across the country from the public high school system, having been identified by the Posse Foundation as possessing extraordinary academic and leadership potential. They are selected using nontraditional methods—by testing problem solving abilities, for example, rather than SATS scores; they have their educations fully funded with scholarships by Posse Foundation partner colleges and universities; and graduate from college at a rate of 90%.

This fall, Pepperdine welcomed 10 incoming Posse Scholars from the Washington, D.C. public high school system. Jeff Banks, director of the Social Action and Justice Colloquium, Service Learning, and International Internships, mentors the students as they navigate the freshman journey at Seaver College.

"They do not all come from poverty but they do come from challenging backgrounds," says Banks, who hosts a group meeting every week with the students and mentors them individually bi-weekly. "It’s a very inspiring program—more for me as a mentor, than for the students. They are like flowers growing out of asphalt."