Our Top 10 Tips for Academic Success

strategy-iconThe QSN theme for October is Academic Success — just in time for upcoming midterm exams for QuestBridge Scholars! Late nights and last-minute cram sessions may seem inevitable in college; but if you figure out the study techniques that work for you, then you can minimize these as much as possible.

We asked QuestBridge Staff and Quest Liaisons for their best study tips, and here are the top 10… Continue reading

A Musing on Freedom in College

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The author and friends celebrating Founders Day at Yale.

Sometimes, when the weather is pleasant, when I have a lighter workload than usual, or when I just need a moment to meditate, I take a stroll around campus. I walk through Cross Campus, my favorite area at Yale, savoring the tranquility of the open green spaces, the homey grandeur of the two architecturally contrasting structures that are Beinecke and Sterling, and the energy from the perpetual stream of students through the area. I take long deep breaths of the crispy New England air, trying to capture the essence of my new home.

And I feel free.

It is a freedom from the many constraints that have dominated my life. For once I can walk with my shoulders unburdened by household responsibilities. For once I can spend my weekends reading, doing homework (as lame as it sounds), or hanging out with friends instead of working two jobs. For once I can easily get to where I need to go without asking around for rides or coming up with creative ways to my destination.

It is also a freedom to do and explore. The freedom allows me to join different organizations and groups, pursue personal interests, attend campus events and shows, and go on spontaneous outings. Last semester, I was able to try my hands at an activity that had fascinated me for years – dance. I had wanted to dance since middle school, but I had neither the time nor the funds to take dance lessons. Dance was definitely on my list of things to try in college. Yet I was nervous since I had zero previous experience. Luckily for me, at Yale, there is a non-auditions dance group called Danceworks that welcomed everyone of all levels. I joined Danceworks and I have had an absolute blast. It is both a satisfying and grateful feeling to be able to do what you’ve dreamed of doing but never had the means to in the past.

The main reason why I thoroughly appreciate this newfound freedom is that I have been independent for most of my life, but family circumstances and financial constraints didn’t allow me the freedom to do what I enjoy. The paradox of being forced to be independent and mature, yet not given any freedom, has been difficult to grapple with, up until this year. Here at college, I am able to fully exercise my independence and fulfill my desire to take charge of my daily life.

But my situation is not unique. I think my sentiment can resonate with most QuestBridge students. College is a time for exploration, and the newfound freedom is valued by all freshmen. However, this is even more true for Questies. We never had as many opportunities growing up because we had to take care of household chores, we had no reliable transportation, or we simply couldn’t afford to pursue the activities we liked. Financial obstacles made it necessary for us to focus on things more relevant to the immediate well-being of our families such as bringing food to the table. Given our personal circumstances, college seems to us like a wonderland, an aside from a harsher reality, a chance to let go. It opens up a whole world of opportunities and adventures that we never imagined we could have access to.

Although this freedom is exhilarating, it can also be overwhelming. We may feel so liberated that we become disconcerted. Most of us have never been exposed to so many options, so we may not know what to do with them. What classes should we take from this enormous catalog? Can we squeeze this event/talk/info session/ into our schedule somehow? Why can’t we do everything that is posted on the bulletin board? They all sound so new and exciting! People talk about internships and research programs and study abroad options, but how do we start?

These questions constantly swarm our heads and may cause us to panic because we feel like we are at a disadvantage. Our backgrounds didn’t give us a chance to receive proper guidance on how to use these resources. We may feel intimidated by our peers, who seem more prepared, more economically and socially adept at handling these resources than we are. We may feel let down when we know that we can’t turn to our family for advice on this problem because for some of us, our parents never went to college or do not speak English.  On the other hand, a feeling of guilt may seize us because we feel as if we are running away from our past, leaving our family behind, and selfishly basking in the glory and freedom of college while our loved ones seem to be stuck in a different world.

For times like that, I remind myself to stop and think of my priorities and goals. I am here to learn and grow, not to be carried away by social pressures or meaningless pursuits. I stop to recognize that yes, the guilt I feel is real, but while I am moving forward, I’m also carrying my family with me. They are my unseen support system and will be with me every step of the way. I stop to think of how much things have changed for me. In a way my life has become more exciting, adventurous, and even comfortable. But I still can’t lose sight of the obstacles that await me on my college path. I stop to reflect on what I’ve been able to accomplished and plan out what I need to do to prepare against future challenges. My first semester of Yale is over, yet I feel like all I have managed to get done is schoolwork (being helplessly overwhelmed in the process) and some minor extracurricular stuff on the side. Time management has not been a strong point of mine, but I am determined to work on it next semester. I am still figuring out how to maintain a balanced schedule all the while exploring what the campus has to offer. There are so many other things I want to do – research, study abroad, volunteer. So I stop to breathe and assure myself that I still have time for all those endeavors.

But, most of the time, I stop in the midst of my customary stroll to remind myself of how fortunate I am to be at a university like Yale that grants me the freedom to let go and explore who I am.

— by Guest Blogger Emma Dinh, Quest Scholar, Yale ’18

Between Two Worlds: Learning How to Deal with Having Enough

jessica_jordan_post_1I wasn’t expecting to encounter the issue of “socioeconomics” when I left home for college. I had been poor for so long that, in a weird way, I didn’t even think about it anymore. I mean, of course, I thought about it—whenever I couldn’t eat out with my friends, when we didn’t have enough money for groceries, when I wept after getting a notification that my bank account had been overdrawn, after hearing snickers from the rest of my class when I had to turn in the form applying for free school lunches in homeroom…I didn’t have to think about it because it consumed my whole life. I didn’t think about my place on a spectrum of socioeconomic privilege. Every day was just hard, and I had long learned that some things others had, I didn’t—I couldn’t. I didn’t think about if I was disappointed if I couldn’t see a movie with my friends, or buy a new book by my favorite author, or any other trivialities—it was such an impossibility that I never even considered it. After years of hard days, I stopped feeling the hard anymore, and they just became days, and it’s only when I look back that I recognize the gravity of what I was going through, and I see that each day I lived in fear.

Before going to college, I didn’t feel poor – I knew I was poor. When I started my freshman year, my peers were celebrating their freedom from their parents, while I was celebrating a bit of freedom from the economic worries that shadowed me everywhere I went. They didn’t disappear—I took food from the dining hall to stash in my room in case I wasn’t able to buy more, I made panicked phone calls to the financial aid office when my books were more expensive than I had anticipated, I interviewed for job after job after job—but in so many ways money didn’t factor into my day-to-day existence at college. Though I was nervous about having enough food, my scholarship-funded dining plan included both plenty of meals and points that were used at on-campus restaurants and grocery stores. No cash necessary. There were lots of events on campus I couldn’t attend because I didn’t have enough money to buy a ticket, but there were lots of free things I could go to as well. Concerts, movies, comedy shows, it didn’t matter—I didn’t need to be able to afford an admission price to hang out with people anymore. Wesleyan, to me, was like a luxury camp: heat, power, laundry, my own little room. For the first time since I could remember, all of my basic living needs were met. Although I was conscious to live frugally, after a couple of years at Wesleyan, I could almost forget that I was poor, sometimes. Instead of knowing I was poor, I felt I was poor, but only on the rare occasions that my friends wanted to leave campus or go out to dinner. I was extremely lucky that Wesleyan afforded me a financial aid package that afforded me this opportunity, as I know that many of my fellow Quest Scholars still had to constantly fret about making their student contribution each year. Mine was a different kind of education, one that many of my peers didn’t need—how to live each day free of fear.

During my time at college, this freedom had its own difficulties. I was, for most of the year, living out of poverty, but the circumstances of my family’s finances hadn’t changed. Inevitable financial emergencies occurred, and I had no one to turn to. Neither of my parents could afford to send me money if an unexpected charge came up on my student account. In fact, when I could, I sent money I earned from my work study job home. This disconnect, this isolation, is an uncomfortable place to be. As much as life had improved for me, I couldn’t relate to my fellow students on a lot of levels—our experiences growing up had just been too different, shaping our minds in completely different ways. At the same time, I was sometimes unable to talk to my mother or sister about experiences or problems I was having at school. My mother didn’t go to college and had lived in the same small-town her entire life—she had never had the privilege of encountering some of the problems I was having. There’s a lot of talk about how to help gifted students from underprivileged backgrounds go to college; there’s almost no concern for the radical way in which it displaces them from their community without integrating them into a new one. I was a top student with great grades, but I couldn’t compete with my more advantaged peers when it came to summer internships. I wanted to work in publishing, but there is no way I could afford to live in New York for a summer, or even Nashville or Atlanta, two cities three hours away from my hometown. I had been given a great gift of a liberal arts education, but perhaps now, more than ever, it was obvious that no matter how great the powers of my mind, I would never be able to compete with richer students. After believing for so long that there’s a way out, this is devastating.

I wish I could say that post-graduation all of this works itself out, but that’s far from true. I have been extremely lucky (and have worked many long hours) and I’m not poor anymore. Not rich, by any means, but like in college, the majority of day-to-day economic worries are no longer present in my life. I recognize what a blessing this is, and I am thankful for it, but it has left a hole that I don’t know how to fill. As I mentioned early on, growing up, poor wasn’t just what I was, but who I was. My mind, my energy, my hope was all tied up in being able to afford the necessities of life. A tremendous amount of my whole being was given every day to fighting fear and worry, to making it to the next hard day. I’m unbelievably proud of that person, my high-school self, who didn’t give up the fight, who believed against all proof that there was a better life. Getting out always seemed like the hardest part, but I’ve come to know that figuring out where you’re going is almost as challenging, raising a hundred new moral quandaries every day. Does it compromise my essential moral beliefs to buy a new book when it comes out, even if I can afford to? Where do I want to live, since I’m no longer tied down to the city where my family has lived for generations? What can I do with all of that energy I used to put into the fight? For so long I have resented people who can spend money without thinking, even as that was the place I fought desperately to reach. Now that I’m there, can I still respect myself? Who am I when I’m not poor anymore? I wish I could give you a better answer, but the important thing to remember is that someone, a lot of people probably, believe that you deserve a chance to figure it out.

Jessica Jordan, Quest Scholar Alum, Wesleyan ’13

I Wish I Were a Cat

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In the past two days, everything that could have gone wrong did. In fact, the only reason I am even able to write this post at the moment is because I walked to the local Panera to meet up with a friend who let me borrow her tablet (because my laptop battery died and my charger isn’t working… and the internet connection at my house is acting up). On top of this technological fiasco, things at home haven’t been great, and I mostly feel like screaming to the universe, “Why me? Why me? Why is everything so unfair and lame? Can I please just give up being a human and become a cat instead? – a pretty house cat who sleeps a lot and gets to eat treats flavored like chicken and whole grains?”

Alas, I am not a house cat. And life is not fair, and the universe isn’t going to let me give up, and I can’t make people behave the way I want them to. Much to my disappointment, things don’t work out the way I want them to. And that’s okay.

As a Quest Scholar at a highly competitive university, my peers’ advantages are often shoved in my face. This can be quite infuriating at times, no matter how much I love my school and many of my classmates. As the oldest of three children in a single-parent household, I had to do quite a bit of babysitting in middle and high school while my mom juggled to earn her undergraduate and now graduate degrees, while holding a job. I was the first student from my high school to ever be admitted to any Ivy League school, nevertheless attend one. I am Latina, which makes me a member of the most underrepresented ethnicity group at my university.

I am being a total Debbie Downer right now, but bear with me. I don’t mean to list these “injustices” or “difficulties” in order to bemoan how “hard” things have been for me, but merely to reinforce how some of us have disadvantages, especially when it comes to pursuing higher education. Even if and when we are admitted to and attend the institutions of our dreams, we are still at a disadvantage in many ways – it’s not as easy for us to afford unpaid, schnazzy internships, and it’s certainly disheartening when we are surrounded by people with lots of experiences (and resources and connections) that we totally and completely lack. Life really isn’t fair. I know that’s an old saying, and I know that acknowledging that there are people way worse off than me would be a grand understatement, but we need to remind ourselves of how unfair things are before we can come to terms with this simple fact of existence.

Some days, I get angry that my parents don’t own vineyards in foreign countries and that I don’t live in New York City. I get angry that people complain about not having enough cashmere sweaters or pea coats, when I know there are other kids in my school from families who struggled to put food on the table. I get angry when I realize how many people around me have absolutely no idea how lucky they are (and I myself often lose sight of how lucky I am).

But if we want to make progress, we have to look past life’s unfairness and start making ourselves accountable for ourselves. One of the reasons I chose to attend Yale was because of their admissions website’s blurb on “What Yale Looks For,” where it says, “Within the context of each applicant’s life and circumstances, we look for that desire and ability to stretch one’s limits.” I believe that with whatever we are given, we owe it to the world to be our very best selves.

So, in the face of life’s unfairness, in the face of a twenty-minute walk through the rain (without an umbrella and wearing a really cute floral dress that I learned is easily blown around in the wind, much to my dismay), in the face of how “disadvantaged” I may feel at times, I must always remember that whatever I face, I am capable of reaching for more, of being my very best self. I must also bear in mind how fortunate I am to attend the school that I attend and to have the resources that QuestBridge, my family, my high school, and now my university have provided for me. I must take advantage of my blessings and use the difficulties I’ve faced as growing experiences to become a more compassionate, magnanimous individual. In this way, I can prove to the world, and most of all myself, that I am capable of accomplishing whatever it is I wish to accomplish, whether it’s a blog post or becoming the kind of person with a voice that both resonates and matters.

Because those things don’t require monetary wealth – they require perseverance, courage, and, ultimately, some really great friends.

— by Adriana Miele, Quest Scholar, Yale ’16

This post was originally published on 7/22/13 on the Quest Scholars Network blog.