Isaiah White ’20 didn’t know small liberal arts colleges were a thing.
Attending high school at Brooklyn Tech — enrollment 5,500 — he could imagine this other world of the postcard-perfect campus, the spirited professor in a small circle of students. But he didn’t know it had a name.
Then he found QuestBridge, a program to which Swarthmore belongs that links high-achieving, low-income students to some of the nation’s top colleges. It opened his world to a wide network.
“That was tremendously valuable for me,” says White, who upheld his family’s tradition of going to college. “I wouldn’t be here without it.”
The program was equally pivotal for Reham Mahgoub ’20, another New Yorker, by way of Egypt and Saudi Arabia. She relished academia at Bard High School Early College but worried about affording and fitting into an elite school.
Through QuestBridge, she found Swarthmore — which met her full financial need while appealing to her as a person and a scholar. On top of that, belonging to the QuestBridge cohort on campus eased her transition away from home.
“It’s very comforting to feel like you’re part of a community of people who look like you and come from similar backgrounds,” says Mahgoub, an Honors chemistry major from Brooklyn, N.Y. “It’s still a big part of my friend group here.”
“It helps connect you to all of these other people,” adds Bryan Alvarez ’19, a biology and political science major from Carbondale, Colo., a town of just 6,000 outside of Aspen. Alvarez says his first Swarthmore friendship was forged when he saw the QuestBridge banner on a hallmate’s wall. “There’s an unspoken understanding, to an extent, of one another’s experiences and struggles.”
As a boy, Alvarez dreamed of being a doctor, carrying around a toy medical kit. He commuted to high school in Aspen, where his dad drove a school bus, and expected to apply to a state school. But then he learned of the QuestBridge program and was accepted into its Prep Scholar program.
“That gave me the confidence to know I was a successful student,” says Alvarez. “It encouraged me to reach out to more competitive schools.”
Also gaining confidence from QuestBridge was Jasmine Betancourt ’20, a political science and educational studies special major from Mesa, Ariz. For Betancourt, college “represented the idea of liberation, of expanding my bubble and exploring the world.”
Betancourt was always a high achiever, but she wasn’t sure whether she stacked up to students from higher-resource school districts. Then she became a QuestBridge Scholar and member of the Arizona Ivy League Project, a community-based organization whose alumni guided her tours at Swarthmore, which she considers a turning point.
“I related to the things they had been through,” says Betancourt. “Even in the mist of self-doubt, I knew a place like Swarthmore was possible because there were always people pushing me forward.”
Betancourt's is a success story for QuestBridge, which estimates there are 30,000 talented low-income students each year who qualify for the nation’s top colleges, but that more than half don’t apply. The program seeks to fill this gap through its scholarships, community-building, and resources like summer internships.
“I wish I had known earlier about all that QuestBridge offers,” says Alvarez, citing the internships as ideal for college first-years and sophomores unsure of their academic path.
The program invites students to apply for full scholarships through its National College Match, an early application program: students rank up to 12 partner schools, and those who are matched to one of their schools receive a full scholarship.
Those who are not matched can convert their free application to a regular-decision application at any of the schools, many of which, including Swarthmore, still meet the student’s full determined financial need. So the match program application can essentially be a trial run for regular decision, says White, who retooled his and was accepted to 17 schools, including QuestBridge partners.
“It’s two chances to get into a great school,” he says. “And you get to say ‘QuestBridge Finalist’ for the second one.”
“Why not try?” adds Betancourt. “It’s a really easy way to apply to a lot of good schools at once, and even if you’re not admitted on the first try, you’re getting a head start on all the essays, personal statements, and supplements.”
For all of these reasons and more, QuestBridge students have increased rapidly at Swarthmore in recent years. There are now 130 “Questies” on campus, and the College has averaged more than 50 students in the two previous classes. In fact, nearly one third of all admitted students for the Class of 2022 are affiliated with QuestBridge or community-based organizations. The College's partnerships with these groups supplement and highlight Swarthmore's concerted efforts to widen access.
“We have seen remarkable growth in our QuestBridge pool over the past few years, which contributes to our goals of increasing first generation and low-income students on Swarthmore’s campus,” says Andrew Moe, associate dean and director of access in the Admissions Office.
Early camaraderie among Questies was sparked at last week’s Swatlight program, which brought 88 admitted students to campus. Recalling her own Swatlight experience fondly is Betancourt, who now serves on Swarthmore’s Quest Scholars Network committee. The group hosts study breaks and fun events to build the Questie community.
“Our Quest Scholars are among the most active groups helping our office to attract and enroll the new class. It’s always best when students share their own stories with other students,” Moe adds. As a first generation college student himself, Moe considers building community and support on campus essential.
“I’ve met numerous friends through the Swat Quest Scholars Network who continuously support me through both good and rough times, always encourage me, and make me smile every day,” adds Linda Lin '20, an Honors computer science and biochemistry special major from Brooklyn, N.Y. “This supportive, loving community is definitely one of my favorite parts of Swarthmore.”
Learn more about Swarthmore’s commitment to access and inclusion at lifechanging.swarthmore.edu.