GUTIERREZ: A bittersweet Quest

There are certain words that stay with people for a long time. “Congratulations! It is our great pleasure to inform you that you have been selected for admission to Yale University with a QuestBridge College Match scholarship.”

These words, written on a purple backdrop that is Yahoo! Mail interface, have been permanently carved into the inside surface of my memories. On Dec. 1, 2011, I was offered a full-ride to Yale University as a Questbridge National College Match Finalist.

Questbridge is a nonprofit organization dedicated to recruiting high-achieving, low-income students to the top universities in the nation. It provides thousands of high school students with a chance to apply to 35 partner colleges — Yale, UChicago, MIT, Stanford, Williams, just to name a few — free of charge. Being admitted through Questbridge ensures a generous financial aid package.

Recently, President Salovey stated that Yale is set on increasing the number of incoming Quest Scholars per year from 40-50 to 75-80. It may appear that I, a beneficiary of the program, would automatically approve of the statement. But I’d urge Salovey to take a look at the individual Quest Scholar experience as well.

According to an analysis of 2013 Quest Scholars, the typical Questie, as they’re affectionately called, has a household income below $65,000. Of the 2013 College Match Finalists, 78 percent are first-generation college students. Yale’s goal of recruiting more Questbridge students means recruiting more low-income students — and especially more low-income first-generation students.

This also means, unfortunately, subjecting more individuals to the experiences of being a low-income or first-generation student at Yale.

The challenges associated with being a first-generation college student are not new. From the News’ article, “Easing the Transition to Yale,” we know first-generation students struggle with cultural and academic gaps between Yale and their upbringing. Hayley Byrnes’ more recent article in the News, “The Road Less Traveled,” details more of the struggles unique to this demographic. With the inaugural Freshman Scholars at Yale program this past summer, the University has begun to address the gap disadvantaged students face. But this program is mainly focused on academics, not other aspects of the experience such as the financial concerns of a low-income student.

People from non-affluent backgrounds generally have more pressing monetary concerns than those from affluent backgrounds. To some Questies I know, it is of primary importance to work: Not only does it pay off the work-study portion of their scholarship, but it also a means to support a home that needs as much financial help as possible. Culturally, students from low-income households will enter a college culture that’s overtly tight-lipped on the issue of class. The reason “We Don’t Talk About It” stems from the reality that household incomes of the student body can be distributed on a logarithmic basis. Dinner table discussions about economic backgrounds usually devolve into excessive sympathy — but not empathy. The probability of hearing “I feel so bad now” or “I’m sorry about your situation” whenever I mention my low socioeconomic status (which occurs perhaps once a semester) is dramatically close to 1.

As I detail my experience as a Quest Scholar, I feel that I’m echoing a letter that is addressed to all Questbridge applicants. In his letter, Michael McCullough, the president and co-founder of the organization, perfectly predicts the cultural gap present in our student body. Elite institutions, he explains, do not have advising systems tailored to low-income students. But he urges Quest Scholars not to let it get to them.

Indeed, there is no reason to feel sorry for us. We might not have a privileged background, but all of us currently possess an unimaginable privilege: Attending an institution that 99.99 percent of the world cannot ever hope to be admitted into.

Unfortunately, I am not heeding his words. Not only do others feel sorry for me, but I too am beginning to feel sorry for myself. I sometimes feel that I’m simply a statistic that increases Yale’s image as a diverse school, a student recruited specially for his disadvantaged background instead of his actual ability.

Adrian Gutierrez is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact him at adrian.gutierrez@yale.edu.

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