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Palo Alto organization funds elite college educations for low-income students

By Christina Farr | 22 Mar 2011

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Winona Leon was invited on a free college tour of Williams College. (Photo: Winona Leon)

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Winona Leon, 18, is a typical college-bound teenager. She brims with excitement at the prospect of the world outside Fort Davis, TX, from where she is expected to graduate at the top of her high school class in June.

Leon has always excelled academically but had never expected to attend college. Her parents are not in the picture and struggle to support her younger half-siblings , so money has always been in short supply. “School was the one place I really felt at home,” she said.

She shares a tiny house with her grandmother, and the nearest Walmart is an hour-and-a-half away. Her parents, who live 60 miles away, have not offered to pay her college tuition. She and her grandmother get by with her monthly social security check and Leon’s own earnings from a part-time job at Murphy’s Pizza.

But then, when she was a junior, she got a letter from an organization in California, which offered all-expenses-paid college visits.

QuestBridge applicants pose near the organization's office in downtown Palo Alto. (Photo: Nancy Hill)

“We get students who have lived in homeless shelters and use the computers in their local library to apply to college,” said Karen Peterson, College Relations Director for QuestBridge, a nonprofit based in the heart of Silicon Valley.

It acts as a matchmaking service connecting low-income students to top colleges. Each year, the organization sends out thousands of information packets to students, teachers and counselors in high schools across the country.

Stanford alumni Ana and Michael McCullough founded QuestBridge in 1994. The initial idea was to invite around 70 low-income students to spend summers at Harvard and Stanford. “The reality of this program was that we couldn’t help that many kids,” said David Hunter, chief executive officer of QuestBridge.

In more recent years, however, they have reached out to thousands more students, and developed partnerships with thirty private universities, including Princeton, Notre Dame and the University of Chicago. The successful applicants – called Quest Scholars – have excelled at these colleges, and drop-out rates are extremely low.

Yet, many of the Quest Scholars said the transition from public high school to a private university is quite difficult, given that the majority of the student body continues to be drawn from the wealthiest subset of society.

In December, the University of Southern California accepted Leon on a full-ride scholarship. “It was a big surprise,” she beamed. “I never expected it. Leon ranked the university as a top choice on the QuestBridge application and was rewarded with offer of admission and a grant worth $200,000 in housing and tuition. Last year, 268 students received funding through this program, known as The College Match.

One of our favorite days is to call students to tell them they’ve been matched,” said Jennifer Stein, director of student recruitment.

“The benefit of the match is that it’s a certain four-year financial commitment,” added Hunter. “Kids can’t believe that an ivy-league education can be essentially free.”

In their junior high school year, students are offered a variety of incentives to apply to QuestBridge, including summer conferences, laptops and free tours of several colleges.

Michael Murillo, a former Quest Scholar who worked for the organization as a Program Associate in the early days, said it was a “wake up call” for kids who never believed they would attend college. He said many more low-income students faced a unique set of problems that the typical college applicant does not. So the program created a tailor-made application that would allow students to demonstrate how they had overcome obstacles.

Winona Leon said the financial aid forms that most colleges require overwhelmed her. “I do have some contact with my parents,” she said, “but not enough to ask what their income is.” Leon decided to file a claim for independent status from her parents; after all, they had not offered to fund her education.

Meanwhile, at the QuestBridge office in downtown Palo Alto, a tight-knit group of 15 full-time employees are prepping this year’s batch of college applicants, and high school juniors, in a small but brightly lit converted garage.

Juniors are currently applying for a ‘College Prep’ scholarship. If chosen, they may be offered a variety of awards, which include an invitation to conferences at Stanford or Yale.

QuestBridge plans to offer special grant for students from the Bay Area at the end of the month. One student receives a free laptop or expense-paid visit to the college of his or her choice.

Hunter feared that the non-for-profit model would not been immune to the economic malaise. “Fundraising is a challenge,” he said. The organization relies on the Silicon Valley business titans. In fact, support floods in from the upper echelons of Hewlett Packard, Google and Yahoo. “We’ve been fortunate to reap the benefits of local generosity Hunter said.

Stanford boasts a strong connection to the organization. Alumni are involved at  every level. The Board of Directors includes many of the university’s most influential alumni and professors, including Tim Brady, Yahoo!’s former Chief Product Officer and former pro Basketball player, Bill Bradley.

Staff-members are partnered with a small number of students, and walk them through the application process. Sometimes, they must convince kids that the organization is not a hoax, or too good to be true. “A flier will come in the mail saying ‘four-year-scholarships-to-leading-colleges’ and a lot of people are suspect when they get something like that,” said Nancy Hill, Quest Scholars Network Director.

Sarah Quartey, a freshman from a tiny rural town on the eastern shore of Maryland, was admitted to Stanford through the ‘College Match.’ The QuestBridge application encouraged her to share her personal setbacks. Quartey said the quality of education at her high school was terrible, and she became unmotivated and disenchanted. “My honors chemistry teacher was a working alcoholic,” she said.

At home, she had to take care of her uncle, “a full-time alcoholic.” Quartey dropped out to enroll in a private online high school. To pay the cost of tuition, she worked overtime as a cashier at a grocery store.

The QuestBridge students are a glimmer of hope in their high schools, which rank as the most under-performing in the nation. Many said they struggled to assimilate to a culture of wealth and privilege, and to accept the limitless resources at their fingertips.

For Cristina Leos, a Stanford undergraduate, this is the first time anyone in their family has ever received a letter from college admissions. Leos, who is from El Paso, TX grew up in a single-parent home and recalled waking up before dawn so her mother could drive her to a magnet school an hour away because the local public school was located in a rough part of town.

Leos said she felt uncomfortable turning down invitations on expensive ski trips with her college friends. She said she has encountered this problem since high school. The magnet school was located in a more affluent area, and many of her friends were from wealthier families. At Stanford, she said she turns to the community of Quest Scholars for guidance.

For Quartey, it has been a struggle  to relate to other students on campus. “My experiences really are different,” she said. “It is hard to be surrounded by privilege 24/7.”

“There are subtle but pervasive differences,” Murillo said. He recalled feeling perennially on the outside and that he did not belong in this culture of wealth and privilege. He felt most comfortable, he added, around other Quest Scholars, who had “struggled deeply” at a young age.

Hill said every college has a core group that is very involved in setting up leadership retreats and fun events for Quest Scholars, while other students “simply don’t want to identify.” Currently, the organization is in touch with 178 scholars at Stanford, but there may be many more. Leos said she had met former QuestBridge applicants who did not feel comfortable advertising their economic disparity before their peers.

Yale welcomed Quest Scholars, pictured above, to campus. (Photo: Nancy Hill)

QuestBridge hopes to take the message to kids in poorer neighborhoods across the U.S. One method is for Quest Scholars to hold meetings in their hometowns. Facebook and Twitter have been a huge boost.

Irteza Binte-Farid, a Quest Scholar at Stanford, said she feels a responsibility to “give back” to the organization that helped her access opportunities. As she put it: “It gave me the means to access a higher education at a college that I had always worked for and hoped to get into.”

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