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If someone had told me three years ago that one day I would attend the college of my dreams with a full-need financial aid package, I would have been deeply confused.

You see, I was a lost 17-year-old who had just moved from Vietnam to the United States, struggling to adapt to a new life as well as catch up in school. Like many other first-generation students, I wanted to go to college but I could not seem to find a bridge to get there. Besides having minimal knowledge about how the college admission process worked, I also had no clue about how to pay for college when my parents couldn’t support me financially with their minimum-wage-jobs. That is when EMERGE came to my life, changing my perspective and my future for the better.

I did not have any sense of direction regarding the college process until my 10th grade English teacher encouraged me to apply to EMERGE Fellowship, a non-profit program whose aim is to help students from under-served communities get into top-tier colleges. After much deliberation, I decided to give the program a try because I believed that one must “dream big to be big” (a motto that I included in my application). I was among the 16 students who were selected out of the more than 100 applications submitted from my high school. I was excited about the opportunity, yet I still felt doubtful of myself and was unsure if I could make it into a high-caliber school.

However, my doubt was quickly removed after my first meeting with the EMERGE staff and mentors. While the other fellows and I listened to the college stories of our mentors in round-eyed wonder, we learned how private colleges are actively seeking to recruit first-generation students; how they are willing to give out generous financial aid packages to assist students from low-income backgrounds; and how much we would benefit from a top-tier education. As first-generation students who graduated from the most respectable colleges, the EMERGE mentors were the living proof of how reachable and affordable it is to pursue an education at the nation’s top schools.

With strong encouragement from my EMERGE mentors, I started taking more Advanced Placement (AP) classes, stepping up to new leadership roles in my extracurricular activities and spending more time on SAT and ACT preparation. I also spent three hours after school every Friday working on my college applications with my EMERGE mentors and other fellows. Through two years in the program, I transitioned from thinking I had no chance of getting into top tier schools to become more positive, confident, and hopeful. And, all of my hard work finally paid off as I was accepted into my dream school, Tufts University, something I would not have achieved without EMERGE’s immense support.

Leaving my two main supports, home and EMERGE, for college could have been daunting and terrifying for a first-generation student like me. However, I was lucky enough to be selected into Tufts’ newly-created BLAST (Bridge to Liberal Arts at Tufts), a summer bridge program designed to support first-generation students from under-resourced high schools in transitioning into college and through graduation.

Along with 21 other freshmen, I started my college journey earlier than the majority of my class. During a summer session, we took a math course and a history course, both of which fulfilled our distribution requirements. Besides getting a heads-up regarding college academic rigor, we were also introduced to support groups and resources throughout Tufts such as our academic deans, financial aid counselors, Heath and Counseling Services, writing tutors and time management consultants, just to name a few. Moreover, we were given the chance to embrace our differences through social justice workshops, which undoubtedly helped us to grow together as a group. By the end of the summer, we entered our first semester not only with great confidence that we could navigate through our first year in college and succeed, but also with a great support system founded on our long-lasting friendships.

As soon as my freshman year started, I realized that transitioning to college was harder than I had expected. Despite having prepared, I still made a lot of mistakes in my first semester and ended up feeling unsatisfied with my academic performance. However, thanks to instant support from the BLAST Director, who was also my Academic Dean, I was able to learn from those mistakes and push myself up. Taking his advice of making better use of on-campus resources, I began to make more appointments with language tutors, writing consultants and my professors. Asking for help when I needed it did not make me any less of a successful student; instead, it helped me to expand my comfort zone and ultimately improved my GPA. By the end of my first spring semester, I was more confident in my study skills and ability to balance academics and extracurricular activities.

As I reflect on my self-growth after being in the U.S. for three years, I can’t help but feel proud of how far I’ve come and grateful for all the help I’ve received along the way. Although I still have moments of self-doubt, I am now more aware of my own potential and constantly striving for the better, as I have always believed in “dream big to be big.”