Student attends top school through matching program

Kelsey Gaetjens is a Kaua‘i High School graduate who is now a sophomore majoring in Institutions and Decision-Making in Public Health at Williams College.

That would seem impressive enough but Gaetjens said she would not have considered the top-tier school were it not for the mentoring of the QuestBridge program in applying for full scholarships.

“QuestBridge helped me learn about the admissions and financial aid process, and changed my outlook dramatically,” Gaetjens said.

Gaetjens was on-island last month and she and fellow QuestBridge scholar Danielle Ola, now attending Stanford University, presented to students at the three public high schools.

“We hope that these presentations might have helped at least a few students realize the opportunities available to them, and motivate them to apply to a top-tier college,” she said. “Ideally, QuestBridge, and the success stories that come with it, will help Kaua‘i’s youth to realize that they are not limited by their socio-economic standing, and that attending a good school is more than just possible.”

QuestBridge reaches out to high school juniors with its College Prep Scholarship program. It starts them on the application process and connects them with 31 partnering colleges and universities. While emphasizing the importance of grade point averages and standardized test scores to determine academic ability, the program also assesses a student’s ability to overcome socio-economic obstacles to achieve academic excellence as a determinant to succeed at a partner school.

QuestBridge helps tailor a full-scholarship package and has the National College Match, an extended application to give students an opportunity to discuss individual circumstances. The top-tier colleges have large endowments with which to meet the full financial needs of accepted students, and they often have ‘no-loan policies’ to ensure they will not graduate and start out life with massive debts.

State schools and community colleges are more limited in terms of available funding for low-income students, who must assume more loans in combination with Pell grants and other aid, Gaetjens said.

The competitive reputation of top-tier schools is not an exaggeration. Selection committees look at SAT scores but also compare grades with high school averages and the number of difficult courses to gauge success, she said. Students living in poverty or other challenging situations have individual circumstances weighed with how they demonstrate academic ability and motivation.

Gaetjens was involved in extracurricular activities including soccer, mock trial and key club and said it helped her application. She also credits her mother for encouragement and for pushing her to realize her potential.

Gaetjens is not the first in her family to attend college, nor is she the first QuestBridge recipient. Her elder sister, Nicole, was matched through QuestBridge last year and Kelsey said it inspired her to achieve her dream as well.

Williams College was a dream school for Gaetjens who said it is the nation’s top liberal arts college. She wanted the smaller class size, research opportunities and the beautiful rural Massachusetts setting.

“School on the Mainland is great,” Gaetjens said. “There’s a ton of new opportunities and incredibly bright people. It is a lot different though. The culture’s very different; less laid back, and very ‘New England-y’. I definitely miss local food and the beach though.”

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