Pandemic Notebook: For Students from Low-Income, Immigrant Families, Getting into College Can Feel like Winning the Golden Ticket. The Pandemic Has Only Raised the Stakes

High school senior Bridgette Adu-Wadier at her desk at home during a virtual school day. (Courtesy Bridgette Adu-Wadier)

I was sitting in my room when admissions decisions for the QuestBridge National College Match Scholarship finally arrived. My high school’s college counselor texted me midway through AP English Lit on Zoom. “I’m ready whenever you are,” she wrote. “No pressure.”

For the previous half hour, I had been thoroughly entertained as my class acted out scenes from “A Streetcar Named Desire.” The comedic attempts at Southern accents provided a welcome break from the day’s nervous anticipation.

But not even a good story lessened the anxiety of high-stakes college admissions.

Despite my youth, I’ve had many sleepless nights. I’m not talking about all-nighters preparing for tests or cramming through last-minute projects, though I’ve had plenty of those. I mean the stress of applying to college, during a pandemic, as a low-income, first-generation American. I would often lie awake at night wondering how I would pay for college, take on as little debt as possible and still make my parents and friends proud.

It seemed like an impossible task.

In my family, it was always a given that I would go to college — the more prestigious, the better. I’m privileged to have parents who highly value education and were able to get college degrees, even if they’re from institutions outside the United States. In first grade, I overheard them talking about college and my father’s struggle to continue his medical training after emigrating from Ghana. As early as elementary school, my parents began to encourage me to focus on college so I could accomplish what they could not — go to graduate school, find a job related to my degree and join an esteemed alumni network.

“You will go to Yale one day and excel,” my dad once told me. For my family, education was the Way Out. It was also a way to set a precedent for my younger siblings, lift my family up from poverty and potentially change their economic trajectory for generations.

I fell in love with Northwestern University in seventh grade. Its top-ranked journalism program, proximity to Chicago and artistic campus fueled a six-year infatuation, peaking with my application to join the Class of 2025 as a QuestBridge Scholar.

QuestBridge is an annual talent search program that offers high-achieving, low-income high school seniors full scholarships to top universities. This year, over 18,000 students applied for just under 1,500 scholarships. I applied in September, learned I was a finalist in late October and finished a mad dash to send financial aid documents and applications to Northwestern and six other prestigious schools by Nov. 1.

Once the Nov. 1 deadline hit, I expected life to slow down. After all, the chaotic sprint was over. If QuestBridge rejected me, I thought, I’d have plenty of time to prepare for regular decision applications in January. But the post-deadline period was agony. I’d been in consistently low spirits since the start of virtual school. Because of my parents’ schedules, the job of homeschooling my younger brothers, ages 6 and 7, largely fell to me. Between mentoring them and sticking to my rigorous academic schedule, I began to lose sleep.

Now I struggled to get out of bed. I worried about hypothetical rejections and acceptances. I missed class due to fatigue and sadness. This led to arguments with my parents. I grew increasingly irritable and resentful at our ongoing family strife. It was not the first time during my academic journey that I felt so alone. But never before had it seemed as if there were no release valve from the constant pressure. The boundary between work and home life blurred. The constant pressures from my parents about the importance of getting a full-ride scholarship became less motivating and more oppressive.

My college counselor reminded me that few people understood what it was like to apply for college as a student from a low-income immigrant family. Luxuries many of my peers take for granted — tutors, therapists, prep classes and emotional support from parents — are all things I went without.

The cost of living in Alexandria, Virginia, my hometown, is 44 percent higher than the national average. Median family income is $96,733 compared to $61,937 across the United States. For years, I’ve seen my well-funded school district prioritize the voices of white, influential parents with money and lawyers over minority students with legitimate grievances about discrimination. Through community discussions, panels, and articles in my school and city newspaper, I spotlighted inequities in the diverse school student body, such as school suspensions disproportionately targeting minorities and the struggles of undocumented youth to integrate into my school. As a young journalist who was often just as affected by the issues I covered as the subjects I interviewed, it was empowering to chip away at the ivory tower my wealthy public school environment constructed.

It’s easy to scoff at the obsession with the Ivy League and other prestigious institutions. But for people like me, the name-brand degree means much more than a way to advance. It’s a chance to defy the odds and thrive in an environment where people like me were not always welcome.

“There is a seat at the table at every one of these schools,” my counselor told me during one of our many college admissions discussions. “And they will gladly welcome the voice of an African-American woman.”

But four years at Northwestern costs over $300,000, a bill completely out of reach for my family of six and its limited income. When I considered this massive expense, I felt stuck, a feeling I knew all too well after two summer months without reliable Wi-Fi. I felt stuck after finishing the first academic quarter on Zoom, not knowing if there would be an end to virtual learning. I felt stuck as I continued helping my brothers get through first and second grade online, worried about their development as young students.

It was exhausting. With my dad’s taxes and an assist from Google, I filled out the financial aid forms myself. I was intimidated by the over 100 questions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the over 300 questions on the College Scholarship Service Profile. Despite my desperate need for grants, these lengthy applications made me not want to apply at all. The size and complexity of the task felt daunting. I made several mistakes I had to fix because I had no idea which documents to send.

When QuestBridge decision day finally arrived, I stayed in AP Lit until the end. Then I immediately hopped on another Zoom call with my counselor to view the decision. In one click on our shared screen, the situation I’d been knee-deep in for months suddenly got unstuck.

So please forgive me for burying the lede: I got in! Through Questbridge, I won a full, four-year scholarship to Northwestern.

It was, to say the least, unexpected. I’d gotten used to seeing Northwestern as a pipe-dream, something that would never become reality. Until it did. The bubble of anxiety I’d formed around myself finally burst, and now I would be catapulted into an elite education.

In my quest for the Golden Ticket, I discovered a glaring similarity between college admissions and the pandemic. Both are difficult for everyone, but harder for some students than others. This is something my teachers and administrators got grossly incorrect, basing their academic expectations on the false idea that the pandemic is some sort of great equalizer. But not everyone is “going through the same thing.” Just one example: Some classmates, who kept their Zoom cameras off for fear of exposing their home lives, had been marked absent by their teachers. Despite their best efforts, many teachers simply don’t understand the unique situation of first-generation, low-income students.

The author after learning she won a Questbridge scholarship to Northwestern University. (Courtesy Bridgette Adu-Wadier)

I’ve heard many adults in my life say that kids are “putting too much pressure on themselves,” when honestly we just want a decent shot at changing our futures. As over-hyped as people think they are, selective institutions offer low-income students a massive opportunity for social and economic advancement. Our elders often describe college as something that opens doors, and I count myself extremely fortunate to be passing through one of them. For too many people in my position, however, the reality is a door slammed in their faces.

Years of public schooling instilled in me a staunch belief in meritocracy — that hard work would get me whatever I wanted. But living through the pandemic in the shadow of my affluent town taught me that hard work isn’t always enough. Some have more obstacles than others that keep them from achieving their goals.

I tearfully celebrated my Northwestern acceptance with friends from my school paper. That night was the first one in years in which I slept peacefully without stress.

It wasn’t until I began withdrawing all of my other college applications that the finality of it all set in. “It is done!” my counselor proclaimed contentedly at the end of our Zoom meeting. My college admissions process was over. I’d come out the other side in a triumph I once believed to be impossible.

“Pandemic Notebook” is an ongoing collection of first-person, student-written articles about what it is like to live through the coronavirus pandemic. Have an idea? Please contact Executive Editor Andrew Brownstein at Andrew@The74million.org.

Bridgette Adu-Wadier is a senior at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Virginia. She is an editor for her award-winning school newspaper, Theogony, and a freelance reporter for The Alexandria Gazette. 

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