This article was originally written for FirstGenerationStudent.com, now a part of ImFirst.org.
Note from the editors: We asked Kenny Yim, one of the first participants in the QuestBridge program, to write about how he came across the program and how it has affected his life since his “notification day” 10 years ago. QuestBridge works to increase the percentage of talented low-income students attending the nation’s best universities by connecting exceptional students with colleges, scholarship providers, enrichment programs, employers and organizations seeking students who have excelled despite obstacles.
December 2013 was just barely getting under way when I saw a picture from QuestBridge on my Facebook feed showing the happy faces of about a dozen office staff, none of whom I know or have ever met. It turns out that December 2 was QuestBridge’s notification day. On that day, over 440 young QuestBridge National College Match recipients received a big present—their lives were permanently, irrevocably changed. If any of them are anything like me (and I suspect there are at least a few), then they probably don’t really realize the full magnitude of what this day meant. I may be laying it on a bit thickly, a bit too ominously. Let me try to break it down.
A Surprise Notification
How did I get to be a part of QuestBridge?
The short answer is that I have no clue. I have no recollection of signing up. I didn’t fill out a form online, which seems like a stroke of genius now, in light of the federal Health Insurance Marketplace website snafu. (If you think technology is bad now, try to imagine a decade ago!) And there were definitely no balloons at my house with a video camera and a man carrying a large check. What I do recall is a long, wordy email with a line at the top that said somebody, a person whose identity I still do not know, recommended me for something called QuestBridge. As for my notification day, Facebook hadn’t been invented to mark special events, so the moment is still vivid, one of those flashbulb memories to me.
I was part of the first cohort of QuestBridge, I should add—that might be significant.
I went down to Stanford, Cali. on a Greyhound bus with my mom, grandma and brother for the day-long interview process for one of QuestBridge’s programs called Quest Scholars, which I was not accepted into. Nobody else from my small high school in Hazel Dell, a suburb in Washington state, knew anything about this. The only people who had an inkling were some kind, generous folks from the Housing Authority that had helped find, and is still providing, shelter for my family, and who claimed to know more about my potential than I did. They paid for my trip to Stanford, giving me an envelope of cash and some rather nice accommodations as bonus, during one of my many visits to the local community center, my after-school hangout place. Needless to say, I still keep in touch.
Finding My Match
QuestBridge gives National College Match participants the chance to rank their college preferences, though it seems that the schools they attend are mostly determined by whether the receiving schools like their applications. My teachers filled out recommendation forms without knowing I was applying in this super-secret backdoor way. (Actually, that part might have happened after I had been matched, since my dear sweet chemistry teacher wrote to William and Mary, which needed to be whited out; so, I must have known by then that Williams wanted me.) I also had a ranking system of my own, involving a Pokeball-shaped plastic bag and fortune-cookie sized sheets of paper, though I think I just went with U.S. News & World Report rankings, which were confirmed by my gut.
The summer before, I had gone on a road trip to New England and New York with two friends and one of these friend’s parents to visit colleges. We skipped Boston, somehow, and drove past Yale; however, we did hit two of the schools I could match with through QuestBridge: Amherst and Williams (which were the only schools I had put on my form, stupidly). Amherst’s food didn’t taste as good; that day seemed too bright, the columns too white and the tour guide a little too stuck-up with her sunglasses and pearls. At Williams, besides the Thai food melting in my mouth, our group was so popular that we had two tour guides, including a tall black guy with an Afro and a brunette girl who gave me an A-plus for knowing Oxford-style tutorials. At Amherst, another Asian guy beat me to saying curriculum and consortium as the two 10-letter words associated with the school (you’re welcome, future prospective student-tourists).
From Match to Acceptance
Back to Questbridge: At the time (again, this was a decade ago) there were only a handful of schools to choose from; the only other two I can remember were Duke and Grinnell, which were not in New England. I had done head-spinningly well on the PSAT, so college brochures started flooding my house, and my grandma was constantly getting her workout going to and from the mailbox. I’d like to think that some packages didn’t even fit the little section of the mailbox reserved for our unit. I’d like to think that I had the pick of the litter. But, when I got the call that Thanksgiving break, it really did happen like a fairy tale: I just heard, “Congratulations, you’re going to Williams,” and I dropped the phone, screamed and hugged my mom and brother, who had been with me the whole time.
No one else from my high school was sharing college news when I received word of my acceptance to Williams; I had heard about mine so early. I carried on with the rest of studying, preparing for International Baccalaureate tests. No one really talked about QuestBridge in college either, but this program facilitates a larger dialogue.
Williams was a very challenging experience, notwithstanding the time change and multiple cross-country flights. I spent four eye-opening years there developing into someone who could look back on QuestBridge a lot more critically and compassionately than when I was a naive high school nerd who had somehow stumbled on something that somebody had placed in my path.