When sophomore Gene Yang first came to Duke, he worried that being from a low-income background would hamper his ability to find friends.
“Am I going to hang out with people? Do the same things as them, given the money I can spend? said Yang, who double majored in biology and computer science. “I had to get used to being at Duke. I walked in with a bit of stress, etc., regarding “How am I going to fit in here?”
But Yang is a Questbridge Scholar, and he ended up meeting his best friend through the Questbridge program: second Adan Hernandez, who is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering.
After connecting through GroupMe, the two discovered they shared a love for the outdoors, watching anime, and playing poker. Now they share a room on West Campus.
“Questbridge made me realize how much diversity there is here,” Yang said. “In terms of wealth, racial background, cultural background, it just allowed me to start with a support system there.”
Questbridge is a non-profit organization that provides financial aid to exceptional low-income students, giving them the opportunity to attend the best universities in the country despite their financial situation. Duke partnered with Questbridge in 2017 and admits more than 30 scholars per year.
High school students are eligible for the Questbridge Scholarship if their annual household income is less than $65,000. Duke has a median parental income of $186,700, with only 1.6% of students from low-income families. According to the New York Times, 19% of students come from the top 1% of families by income and only 3.9% come from the bottom 20%.
The extremely affluent nature of Duke’s student body can leave low-income students feeling out of place. But the Questbridge Scholars community on campus provides a space where scholars can share their concerns and experiences with each other.
“If I’m like, ‘Ooh kid, look at my bank account!’ I know someone may resonate with that when I’m in the Questbridge student body,” said Brianna Johnson, a freshman planning co-major in public policy and global health.
Johnson met her two best friends through the program, and they often spend time together studying, watching movies or baking cookies.
Inspirational community leaders
Many students who receive the Questbridge Scholarship see this as their chance to give back to their families and communities.
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“Throughout high school, I did a lot of public health research internships because I live in a very low-income community. I was very interested in the food deserts of [Advanced Placement] Human geography, and from there my interests grew,” Johnson said.
Johnson plans to pursue a career in law, hoping to bring about real change to help members of disenfranchised communities. Beyond academics, Johnson’s strong involvement with the Mary Lou Williams Center for Black Culture, Black Student Alliance, and Black Women Union are all ways to uplift the black community and champion racial equity.
Hernandez is pursuing studies in mechanical engineering. He is also the secretary of the Society of Hispanic Engineers, which seeks to empower the Hispanic community and inspire a world of industry leaders from Latinx backgrounds.
“It gives you a bit of a sense of responsibility because you’re representative,” Hernandez said of his motivation for community leadership.
It can be easy to daydream, but Johnson knows he also needs to stay focused on the present.
“I’m really trying to adapt to this new lifestyle. I just try to make sure I keep my grades first,” Johnson said.
A strange process
The Questbridge application process is different from what most high school applicants remember from their joint or coalition applications.
The prospective student must first apply to become a Questbridge Match finalist. The app contains several intense elimination rounds, and becoming a finalist is a massive achievement in itself. In 2020, over 18,000 students applied to receive a Questbridge scholarship, but only 1,464 scholarships were ultimately awarded.
The program is so selective that even current scholars on the Duke campus have been rejected.
“They have a junior program, and I didn’t participate in that program. So originally I was like, ‘I’m not going to apply for the game,'” Johnson said. “But my mentor back home, he was like, ‘It doesn’t hurt to apply.’ “
Once a student becomes a finalist, their college application process begins. Rather than applying to schools individually, Questbrudge students write multiple essays shared across all of their schools, and admission is based on a ranked list of choices of the candidate’s preference.
However, there is a catch: Questbridge Scholars can only attend the highest ranked school on their list that admits them without knowing whether or not they have been accepted into any of their other options.
“It gets even more confusing because chances are you won’t be associated with any of those colleges on your list,” Hernandez said.
Crossing the finish line is a tumultuous process, but Johnson said his community has been supportive.
“I had a lot of doubts, but my family and friends encouraged me along the way,” Johnson said. “I just think everyone should be proud of him no matter how he got here. It’s time to rise up and move on.
James Cruikshank is a freshman Trinity and news service reporter.