A Story of Stress, Grace, and Hope

suhe_post1Once upon a time, I was stressed out.

It was the fall of my junior year in high school, the time where my classmates were discussing which colleges they were planning on applying to, and I had no idea if I was even going to go to college. As a student from a low-income family, I was particularly worried about the expense. I was considering getting a job straight out of high school. Then I told my friend, Grace, about everything that was worrying me after school one day. She gave me a pensive look and said, “Why don’t you apply to QuestBridge? It’s a full four-year scholarship for low-income students. College is a possibility.” At that point, all of my worries shifted. I went from worrying over what job to apply for to worrying over whether I wanted to apply to Stanford, Vassar, or Wesleyan.

After that, Grace and I researched and worked on our applications together weekend after weekend well into our senior year until we were both accepted as College Prep Scholars, and subsequently as College Match Finalists. As a College Prep Scholar, I was fortunate enough to be able to road-trip with my cousin to the QuestBridge College Admissions Conference at Northwestern University and learn more about the Quest colleges from admissions officers. I relayed information from the conference to Grace, and together we decided that we would rank colleges when we applied for the College Match. We wrote essay after essay, traded and reviewed and re-edited, then repeated the process with our other friends and teachers up until the last minute when we submitted our applications and hoped for the best. It was stressful, but we pulled through.

When I found out that I was a College Match Finalist, I was nervously excited. Since I had ranked colleges, I had to check which of them required extra submissions and complete them within the two week deadline. Depending on the college, this became a bit pricey as I submitted my ACT and SAT scores, high school transcript, and Common App to my ranked schools. I also had the option of rearranging my ranked schools as I pored over stacks of informational pamphlets at the last minute. Double-checking the rankings was imperative since there was a very real possibility that I could end up at any of my six schools for the next four years of my life.

A month later, I got my Match letter telling me I was accepted at my second ranked school, Vassar College. Fast forward ten more months and every morning that I wake up to a beautiful view of the Vassar campus. I’m thankful and content that I stuck through the application process and was chosen to attend this school.

Zuheily Quinones, Quest Scholar, Vassar ’18

Discovering New Hoops: A QuestBridge-Inspired Story of Time Travel

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If ever there has been a true “coming-full-circle” moment in my life, I experienced it while volunteering as a Group Leader at QuestBridge’s recent College Prep Scholarship National College Admissions Conference. I had graduated from Princeton University just weeks before flying out to the conference at Northwestern University, and my head was filled with the typical thoughts of a postgraduate life (like actually figuring out what this whole LinkedIn business is really all about…). But, during the course of my weekend in Evanston, I found myself facing someone I hadn’t really been planning on seeing: my 17-year-old self.

She looked at me through the eyes of the bold young woman who catapulted the unwieldy“so-what-did-you-get-on-your-SAT?” question my way just moments after meeting me. She was polished, articulate, and friendly, yet I couldn’t help but sense the ripples of stress hiding below the surface as she talked with someone who had successfully gone through the process she was just about to enter.

The ripples were easy to recognize. I still bore the marks of the stress that had radiated through me back when the things in my life felt uncertain in an uncontrollable kind of way, as I waded through all of the letters and e-mails that promised I had the whole world at my fingertips — if I could just somehow strike the right chord with an unknown admissions officer out there. A pretty big “if” in the mind of a teenager.

The anxiety over test scores, extracurricular engagement, and getting that opening sentence of my college essay to resonate just right were the worries beating a steady tattoo in the minds of the College Prep Scholars who had chosen to dedicate that summer Saturday to auditoriums, boxed lunches, and financial aid powerpoints in hopes of bettering their futures. Just as I was during the summer and fall of my senior year of high school, they were concerned with checking all the right boxes and jumping through all the right hoops — while trying to make the process seem effortless, like second-nature to those so precocious and well-suited to college life as they were.

In talking with the Scholars, I became very well reacquainted with the idea of my 17-year-old self, but I could not longer truly connect with her. Something fundamental had changed; we were quite simply no longer the same person. The 22-year-old had stopped thinking of herself as a list of accomplishments or numbers on a page. She had fallen out of love with the idea of being“successful”and moved on to thoughts of what it meant to be happy and balanced and good to the people around her. The ripples she felt these days were ones of excitement and the electricity of being young — not ones of stress.

What she had learned at college was that, in contrast to high school, life was no longer about being quantifiably great. It was about finding that subject or idea or author that made you too excited to sleep. It was about being surrounded with people so quirky, passionate, and alive that they made you better than you ever were when you were “the best” in high school. It was about becoming the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the person you were on paper.

I tried to convey these ideas to the students around me as best I could, but I don’t know if I was successful — it was a hard-won sense of purpose and confidence I had gained through my years of college, one that becomes somehow diluted and hackneyed when I try to put it into words. But I still want to reassure the girl who asked me about my SAT score, as well as every rising senior out there and probably 17-year-old me as well, that the stress she is facing will be well worth it in the end. The hard work and hours she spends on furthering her education now are just the dues she has to pay for a full, rich college experience. I am so proud of the effort and passion I saw among the College Prep Scholars I met in June, and I know that big things are in store for them.

And I would be lying if I said that a part of me didn’t want to do it all over again, even the hard parts. I want to pick up that course catalogue again, exchange cautiously-eager Facebook messages with my soon-to-be roommate, and dream about all of the people I could potentially become. I haven’t yet stopped the dreaming part yet, but the experience of being at the conference helped me see that that stage of my life had come to a close, partly to make way for new adventures ahead.

In the end, I am still that 17-year-old jumping through hoops. Not everything has changed, and I might be wired on some fundamental level to always be that way to some extent. But I’d like to think that, more and more, the choice of precisely which hoops to jump through is becoming uniquely my own.

— by Linnea Paseiro, Quest Scholar, Princeton ’14

More Lessons from a Group Leader

thais_college_prepAttending the 2014 QuestBridge National College Admissions Conference at Princeton was, in a unique way, bittersweet. You see, I had attended the very same conference two years ago. I can remember the day like it was yesterday. I was wearing an oxford blue dress (wasn’t much of a dress girl, so it was weird), feeling nervous and excited. I had a great time at the conference and I came home full of motivation to fill out the QuestBridge College Match application. So coming back to the same chemistry building two years later as a Quest Scholar from Amherst gave me such a sense of relief, the kind a hiker gets after getting to the highest point of the mountain and admiring the glorious landscape. Believe it or not, but Frick Chemistry building in Princeton, New Jersey was my glorious landscape.

After meeting the other fellow Quest Scholars/Group Leaders and going through training, I had the opportunity to meet the staff behind the magic that is QuestBridge. They seemed just as excited as the Group Leaders, which just filled the meeting room with energy — something we all needed after a long training session. At 5:00 a.m. the following morning all the Group Leaders reluctantly crawled our way out of bed to get ready for the big day. Thankfully there were bagels and coffee waiting for us at Frick. Before I knew it, it was 7:35 a.m. and we were all headed to our first stations. I was on parking lot duty, meaning Daniel (part of the QuestBridge staff) and I got to greet people at the park lot and direct them to Frick. I met many of the College Prep Scholars and their parents, guidance counselors, and family friends and even got hear their travel stories; some came from the town over, others drove all night from Kentucky. I headed over to meet my group, full of nerves and excitement. My mind was full of endless thoughts. “Don’t forget transition times!” “Don’t forget to pass out bingo sheets!” “What if I can’t remember the next room to go to?!?” “What if my kids are anti-social?!”.

Luckily none of that happened! I got a great group of students who were excited to be there and eager to learn as much as possible about the College Match process and QuestBridge. My favorite part about my conference back in 2012, and still my favorite part about this year’s conference was the college fair. I remember running around going from table to table learning about fly-in programs, summer programs, core classes, liberal arts schools (What were was those?!?). This year I got to watch the madness from a different looking glass. As I stood at the Amherst table with my admissions officer, I quickly realized how much I knew about my college. It was great to be able to show students how much Amherst has to offer and how even at a liberal arts schools there’s top tier research, athletics, dance and theater programs, fellowships, and best of all personal, relationships with the faculty. I also love Michael McCullough’s talk at the conference; both times he has managed to leave me and my fellow Group Leaders dumbfounded with the ideas and topics he brought to our attention — within only just that hour and thirty minutes or so. Once the conference was over, I had students come up to me, asking for advice, more information about Amherst/QuestBridge, and even my email address, so they could keep in touch during the application process. It was such an eye-opening experience.

So far you’ve seen the “sweet” part… but now comes the “bitter.” Once the day ended, I realized that I actually missed the application process (SHOCKER). Even though it was the most stressful time of my life, it was also one of the most memorable. I realized the door has closed on that period of my life and that a new group of students were about to open it to experience everything I did and maybe even more. But it’s most definitely not a sad ending! I realized that I had been looking at the wrong door. Instead of reminiscing on my past life experiences, I had another door that was opened right next to me — a door I had opened by becoming a Quest Scholar, full of my freshmen year college experiences and waiting for three more years full of memories. I have QuestBridge to thank for my experience. It has been a rollercoaster in itself — full of joy, anxiety, unexpected turns, that funny feeling in your stomach as you plummet to the bottom of the hill where all you can do is scream, and much more. QuestBridge reminds me that we all have opportunities to be great and do great things and still humbles us as we embark on the ride.

— by Thais Calderon, Quest Scholar, Amherst ’17

Lessons from a Group Leader

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I had no idea that the College Prep Scholarship was a thing until I was already a Quest Scholar at my respective school, but that just goes to show that you all are really on top of your game. I don’t think I was nearly as prepared to go into my senior year of high school than the dedicated, intelligent, and diligent students I met at the conference. The fact that you all took time out of your present summers to do something that is going to benefit your futures, (it will trust me), shows that your futures are already bright.

I honestly cannot believe I am about to be a junior at one of the most elite colleges in the country–the long nights doing college apps, the endless research at the library and on the internet for scholarships, the constant nagging from my parents about if I was making the right decisions, the persistent proofreading of every morsel of information I put into the 1000 character essay that was going to dictate my destiny one way or another–it all doesn’t seem so far in the past.

All I can say is that receiving an acceptance letter from that school that was in your top ten, your top five, or even your dream school will definitely feel satisfying. I definitely know that all of you College Prep Scholars are on the right track to getting those acceptance letters and I don’t know what a washed up upperclassman like me could tell you that you probably don’t already know.

The only piece of advice that I can  give is that I know for us low-income students, a key factor that turns up when choosing a college is the financial aid package. Money (or lack thereof) has been a key factor in many of our lives for a long time. What I want to share with all of you is that yes money is a factor, but it should not be the deciding factor. You have overcome so much adversity and  and you deserve to get a top-tier college education at a school that makes you happiest AND takes the least amount of money out of your pocket.

I believe in my heart of hearts that this is truly possible especially with help of organizations like QuestBridge that are showing elite colleges that low-income students can excel at elite institutions just like everyone else. For such a long time being low-income has been a problem for students like us, but being low-income is just an economic status. It should not define who you are and the mental capacity that you have. If anything it should only define where you are going because there is only one way to go from the bottom and that’s up.

Being low-income does not have to be your dirty little secret anymore, it can now can be your super power because you have experience on handling life’s difficulties. You have overcome obstacles before and you will overcome them time and time again. I am currently thriving in college. I am going abroad this semester, I am basically getting a full ride, and I am loving the people that I get to call my professors and peers. Best part is that I am getting to stimulate my mind and grow each and every single day. I can say that going to college was a dream come true and I believe that it will come true for you all too, just stay positive, keep up the hard work, and believe in yourself, you deserve it!

— by Ashley Land, Quest Scholar, Pomona ’16

My Experience at the National College Admissions Conference at Princeton

cps_conferenceAs I made my way to the Princeton campus, I could feel the anticipation rising. A growing group of students and their guests marched towards the Frick Chemistry Lab not entirely sure of what they should expect. But as I walked through the glass doors, my nerves melted away, and I was greeted by a friendly table of QuestBridge employees directing me, and the other conference-goers, to our groups.

Once I settled into my groups, I was metwith a long, yet incredibly rewarding day. When my group first convened, we were all handed a small trivia sheet, which we all worked to solve together. Our groups allowed us to socialize in a smaller setting, and get to know more about other College Prep Scholars. Numerous presentations supplied us with information concerning financial aid, the College Match, and college applications in general. And, as my group members and I toured the campus with our parents, mentors, and friends, talked to admissions counselors, and learned more about our Group Leaders, who were current QuestBridge college students, we all gained a powerful insight into college life, and the college process.

As a Fein Fellow, one of the highlights of my day was getting to meet the other fellows during our lunch break. Sitting at the tables together truly reminded us that no matter how far apart we may reside, QuestBridge had connected us all.

Though the National College Admissions Conference was mostly a very informative event, it opened my eyes to the importance of finding a college that truly fits your needs, rather than finding a college that is highly ranked, because happiness does not lie in a number on a website. And that is the most important lesson of all.

— by Veronica Brusilovski, 2014 College Prep Scholar

My Experience at the National College Admissions Conference at Stanford

stanford_student_bloggerI looked around, the cool San Francisco air chilling my Arizonian legs. My first time traveling alone, I had no idea what to do, when, and where, as I stepped off the plane. Thankfully, I had arranged to meet another lone College Prep Scholar before taking the train to Stanford. Erica and I–with lots of asking security guards, information desks, and random people wearing Stanford sweatshirts–finally arrived at the correct platform. But our luck didn’t stop there. From the plane to the train to the taxi to Stanford, we coincidentally met not just each other, but two other Scholars: Katebah and Alley.

Yes, the QuestBridge Conference’s binder of information was and will be undoubtedly helpful in my college application process. The real gem of the conference, however, was the people I met. My new friends inspired me to explore unfamiliar subjects and colleges. And of course, I can’t forget the enthusiastic college admissions officers. Asked about anything, from curriculum structures and financial aid to choosing the perfect roommate and food clubs, they answered all of our burning, personal questions. With a new insider perspective of the partner colleges from our Group Leaders/actual Quest Scholars, the college application process is no longer an intimidating beast taunting me, reluctant to be tamed. They also taught me that the QuestBridge network doesn’t stop once I finish applying, but extends through college and beyond to the Quest Scholars Network.

It will be a rough couple months (don’t even get me started on the plethora of editing and revising and rereading that awaits), but I know I’m prepared for senior year, thanks to QuestBridge.

— by Julie Cho, 2014 College Prep Scholar