Be brave

One day my “Financial aid is real!” friend called to share an idea with me. She knew my daughter had her heart set on a particular college, a small, private Christian place in Virginia, Patrick Henry College. But Alexandra asked, shouldn’t we consider other schools, top-tier ones? Finances shouldn’t be a problem, she said: my daughter was poor, black, from the Midwest, and brilliant. Admissions officers would love her. And she would love learning with people who were her intellectual peers.

I wasn’t really open to what Alexandra said; I politely replied that I appreciated her thoughts. Fretting over airfares for our college visit to PHC, I put the suggestion firmly out of mind.

Then something miraculous happened. My pastor’s wife called out of the blue to tell me about a program she’d noticed in the weekly announcements at the public high school. Her daughter, also a senior, wasn’t interested in this program, but Eydie thought it sounded like something perfect for Ananda. Maybe I should check it out, she said. “It’s called QuestBridge. Look it up on the Internet.”

QuestBridge seemed too good to be true. Top colleges — places like Harvard, Yale, Stanford, Princeton — offered needs-blind admission to high-achieving, low-income students of all races, giving special consideration to those who would be first-generation college graduates.

The deadline was in three days. And the application was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Now I know that it is a hybrid of the Common Application and the individual colleges’ requirements, with that extra layer of query designed to allow the students to tell the stories of their lives. Then, it just looked intimidating, maybe even impossible. I had no idea how to begin. Ananda was unsure she wanted to mess around with it, but for some reason she called Alexandra and asked, “Do you think I should do it?”

“Yes,” Alexandra said, “go for it!” Alexandra had been on the campuses of two-thirds of the schools that participate in Questbridge; Her dad attended MIT, her mother went to Brown, her husband graduated Harvard and she had friends and colleagues at many of the other schools. The world of elite college admissions was not foreign to Alexandra, and she offered to be our guide.

okra3 Though she was eight months pregnant, she came to the house and worked until midnight, coaching and editing and placing phone calls to friends who worked in various admissions departments, and cheering us on. My husband cooked the last of the garden okra and green tomatoes, and fed us plates full of comfort food while we labored away. The deadline to fax the application was 2 a.m.; we hit “send” at 1:59.

Later, Alexandra confided that she encouraged us to try QuestBridge without any sense of whether or not it was realistic to hope for success. 
“I just knew it would get both of you thinking about what your daughter wants, and where she would like to go, and what the choices really are,” she said. “That by itself made the effort worthwhile.”

She was right. The act of conquering that application changed something for our entire family.