By Michael McCullough, M.D., QuestBridge Co-Founder and President
The Quest Scholars Program grew from a few simple ideas, and a lot of help. With roots extending to 1987, Quest has flourished thanks to the nurturing, commitment, and creative effort of hundreds of dedicated people.
The Quest Scholars Program officially started in 1994 as a five-week residential summer enrichment program for high school juniors on Stanford University's campus. After the summer session, Quest provided five years of academic and personal support to our students. Ten years later in 2004, Quest launched QuestBridge in an effort to expand the number of high school students it reached.
Quest's early origins actually also belong to Marc Lawrence, a fellow Stanford undergraduate, who had the idea of starting a local commuter-based outreach effort in 1987. I, Michael McCullough, joined him early in the planning stages. Eight students interested in medicine from East Palo Alto (at the time, one of the poorest communities in the country) journeyed daily to Stanford where they received college lectures and clinical experiences. We called it the Stanford Medical Youth Science Program (SMYSP). The Stanford academic community responded generously with world-class instruction and incredible hands-on experiences, like watching open-heart surgeries or witnessing births.
At days' end as we brought them home to East Palo Alto in the afternoon, Marc and I often journeyed past drug dealers and gang activity. We realized that the students' having to bridge two worlds on a daily basis undermined our impact. Our results had been mixed. SMYSP required stronger students than simple local recruiting could produce, and we needed to create an educational environment without distraction.
The transformation to a residence-based program solved both of these problems. We could draw from a wider and stronger pool of bright, hungry, low-income students beyond commuting distance. At the same time, we could immerse the participants in the Stanford environment and give them more fertile soil from which to grow. The efforts exponentially increased as we took on twenty students for the first residence program in 1988. I was 21 at the time.
The Beginnings of a Residence Base
Co-Founder Marc left for medical school before the residence-based program began, but with the help of Marilyn Winkleby, SMYSP's academic advisor, and six undergraduates, we embarked on the larger residence-based program, which I directed for the next two years until graduating from Stanford. On a shoestring budget, the staff all volunteered their time (we took turns preparing meals). But it worked, and it worked well. SMYSP grew quickly.
I spent the next year institutionalizing the SMYSP program, which operates successfully to this day under the guidance of Marilyn Winkleby who began as our academic advisor, but has since gone on to become the heart and soul of SMYSP.
Then Launching Quest
Between graduation and starting medical school, I spent a year at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship. Ana Rowena Mallari, then-girlfriend now wife, joined me at Oxford. Our time there allowed us to reflect on our experience at SMYSP and conceptualized a new program that took full advantage of the potential that a residence base provided. That new program was Quest.
We believed that Quest could teach leadership and outreach as well as science. Moreover, if we could get more Quest graduates into Stanford, then we could improve continuity, and even create a culture of support at Stanford. We could also teach public service. Most importantly, we could try to reflect the noble potential in each student, and create a mutually reinforcing culture where ideas and growth could flourish.
Ana returned from Oxford to complete her degree at Stanford, and I began medical school at the University of California in San Francisco. Ana and I spent two years building our model, taking the best of SMYSP and adding our new ideas. Midway through medical school, in 1994, we launched Quest – then called the Stanford Youth Environmental Science Program (SYESP).
Quest's environmental theme had an advantage over the SMYSP model of recruiting students with wide ranging interests other than medicine. We could now could accept motivated low-income students with nearly any professional interest -- medicine, law, engineering, policy, science, and nearly every other academic area -- that somehow impact the environment. Approaching one subject from so many different areas also introduced Quest students to the complexity of problem-solving in academics and especially in the real world. This model was so successful that we developed a second Quest program at Harvard in 2000, which had similar results (more on this below).
Shortly after beginning Quest, we realized that the communities from which our students were drawn sorely lacked leadership in environmental and other important social issues. We wanted to develop social entrepreneurs who were concerned about local and national issues affecting their communities. By the third year, our recruiting pool was large enough to allow us to screen applicants for their dedication to public service. By the year 2000 we had 2,800 applicants applying for 44 spots at Harvard and Stanford.
The enthusiasm, sincerity, intellect, and raw hunger of our students began attracting many of the best professors at Stanford to our program from the former Stanford President Don Kennedy to former Secretary of State George Shultz. Several Nobel Laureates, eight Rhodes Scholars, two MacArthur fellows and thirty other Stanford faculty signed on. Working for Quest also became one of the most popular student jobs at Stanford. Five Quest staff went on to Oxford as Rhodes Scholars.
The Quest students responded enthusiastically to this collection of energy. Around 75% of our alumni worked for Quest at some point during college, including several that decided to take a semester or two off to help grow Quest. The strength of the Quest model carried us through some difficult times as Ana began law school at Stanford, and I began my residency in emergency medicine at Stanford. On multiple occasions, Ana and I were both encouraged to focus exclusively on our careers in law school and my emergency medicine residency rather than running the Quest program.
While Ana and I both continued full-time work, we also kept growing Quest. During this time Quest entered 'email mode' as Ana and I managed Quest between the hours of 1:00 and 3:00 AM, after emergency medicine shifts in the pockets of time in my emergency medicine residency. I returned phone calls between running traumas in the evenings during months on trauma surgery, in Ana's case between law school classes.
Surprisingly, despite our busy law school and emergency medicine residency schedules, Quest not only survived, but it flourished as former Quest graduates began pitching in as staff. Quest's acceptance rates to Stanford and Ivy League colleges collectively passed 90%. Simultaneously, Quest began to take "higher risk" applicants, still obtaining similar results. Over half of Quest graduates eventually worked for Quest, ensuring continuity.
Quest at Harvard
Just before completing my emergency medicine residency, I met Dari Shalon who was visiting his father, Yehuda Shalon, in the Stanford Hospital. Dari, Ana and I decided to create a new Quest chapter at Harvard. This was made possible by hiring two 1995 Quest graduates, Dana Gavrieli and Brian Anderson, who served as directors of Harvard's Quest chapter.
Our biggest question was whether Quest's culture of altruism and warm-hearted inclusion could be transplanted to Harvard. It was, thanks in large part to Stanford Quest graduates who worked at Harvard. (Half of the Harvard chapter's staff was former Quest graduates. The other half interned for a week at the Stanford chapter in advance of the Harvard opening.) Still, it wasn't easy. And the transplantation of the Quest culture became the rate-limiting step of Quest's growth. In 2002, we opted to return to focusing our efforts at Stanford and brainstorming a more effective expansion plan to bring Quest to scale. Sarah Chandler, who worked for Quest for eight years, took over direction of the summer program in 2002 as Executive Director while Ana and I continued our search for a model which would allow Quest to survive over the long-term.
The Creation of a Strong Culture
Quest operates under the assumption that people have the capacity to be good, that the nature of individual and group action should be noble. Often society gravitates away from this to the lowest common denominator. Quest supports and encourages the noble nature in our students. In our first decade, this commitment extended beyond participation in the summer program through college and beyond. Summer participation in Quest marked the beginning of a long relationship commitment to our students.
When good people are thrown together in a house for five weeks, they don't automatically, or easily, give up the assumptions that others will cheat, or not cooperate, at some level. A warm, but strict, residential environment in a university house allowed students to feel safe to let down their guard, to open up, and to explore together as a team.
When high school students feel safe, they are also apt to celebrate. Standard high school enrichment programs run the risk of degrading to one big party. One of the Quest secrets was to combine strict discipline with unconditional warmth. In an effort to liberate students' attention and energy, distractions were removed: no television, radio, internet chatting, emailing, phone calls, flirting or romantic involvement. In its place, we kept the students active with an engaging curriculum ranging from lectures and labs to Aikido and public speaking.
The glue that bound this together was reflection and internal growth. We were not as concerned with what facts the students retained as that they learned how to think maturely and question for themselves. Students were also encouraged to integrate their growth at Quest in the context of their lives--past, present and future. Quest participants were provided with an hour of reflection daily in which they could pray, introspect, meditate, write or reflect in any way that enriched their spirits. It was not Quest's role to tell students how to engage the depths of their character, but rather to build a curriculum and schedule that allowed them to do so in their own personal ways.
In addition, we emphasized the idea that one can be true to his or her principles and passions – while also being highly successful and practically effective in the world. We challenged the students to explore this idea and put it into practice in the summer and beyond.
Lectures and projects were more focused on process than outcomes as students were taught how to create and answer questions for themselves. When students' inner curiosities were ignited in the silence of this reflection, the whole Quest program took on a different mood.
All of this inner growth happened in the backdrop of Quest assisting participants with college admission, SAT performance, financial aid and skills workshops. The days were full, the mornings early, the nights late. Five weeks is not much time.
Five weeks is not long enough to end a journey, but it is long enough to begin one. Quest summer graduation was more of an introduction to a new future and new opportunities. And a journey our graduates could take with the benefit of each other.
Ana and I did not foresee the strength of the culture we would create at Stanford once so many of our graduates arrived. The majority of our graduates remain loosely bonded in a web that spread across the Stanford campus and became a substantial presence at Harvard where Quest operated in 2000 and 2001. It also clearly exists independent of us. Some sort of 'Quest identity' has emerged. Many Quest graduates became roommates, took classes together, worked together on outreach projects. Two are even married to each other. For many graduates, Quest evolved into something of an extended family at Stanford. The spirit spread beyond just the Quest alumni, but to Quest staff and others who joined the Quest culture.
Over time, this culture had become the heart of Quest at Stanford. The summer residence program, rather than the locus of Quest, was merely the introduction to it. The generation of the Quest culture itself was our product. We were trying to think of how to maximize the impact of the Quest culture both on the communities from which our students were drawn, as well as the colleges they eventually attended.
Most of our Quest students in those early years enrolled at either Stanford or Harvard. We had no formal relationship or link with the admissions offices of either college, but, starting in 1996, we were lucky enough to get 72% of the graduates from the Stanford program into Stanford or Harvard. The others attended outstanding schools such as Yale, MIT, Swarthmore, Williams, UC Berkeley, and many more.
Building an Organization
Beginning in 1996, the program would not have survived during my emergency medicine residency or Ana's law school if the Quest alumni had not stepped up to ensure its survival. From these early student workers emerged several standouts such as Isabel Cesanto (now Safie), Erin Palm, and Annie Ma, all whom took off a year from school to work for Quest full-time. Sarah Chandler worked with Quest from 1998-2005 – for three of those years as Executive Director of the Quest Scholars Summer Program, renamed QuestLeadership – until she entered the Stanford Graduate School of Business in the fall of 2005.
At the board level, Quest was incorporated as its own non-profit 501(c)(3) organization in 2000. John Rick Berthold and Terry Gannon (who also served on Quest's steering committee from 2003-2005) served diligently as Chairs of the Quest Board, a position now held by Ana McCullough as of August 2006. Other core board members of the original Quest program included Frank Brucato and Richard (Dick) Jacobsen. Meanwhile, a solid donor base infused Quest with vibrancy. Core individual donors include David Mills (also on the Quest board), Ed Fein, George Roberts, Helen Bing, Irv Grousbeck, and venture capitalists Bruce Dunlevie and Bob Kagle. Important foundation partners (e.g. Mellon, Goldman Sachs, Packard, and Hewlett Foundations) allowed Quest to grow and scale at key junctures.
Growing Our Impact: QuestBridge
The Quest Scholars Program built its success in part on its ability to mentor and add value to the growth of motivated Quest Scholars from the junior year of high school to their first job or professional or graduate school, not simply college placement. Starting in 2000, we sought to scale Quest from helping 20-40 students a year to hundreds, perhaps even thousands.
With QuestBridge, we found the model to do this. Around 2003, as the price of computers dropped, more low-income students gained access to the Internet. Thus, new potential arose for Quest to create a new form of online community for its students. With this, we could use our 12 years of expertise to assist students in new ways, both by ourselves, and by bringing together others who wanted to help talented low-income students (prep-schools, colleges, universities, mentors of all kinds, companies, enrichment programs, scholarships and professional and graduate schools). The potential existed to form a national clearinghouse or meeting place for talented low-income students and opportunity.
That was one root of the vision. I happened across it late in the application season of 2003. The lowest hanging fruit in this vision was to begin helping colleges recruit talented low-income students, as Quest had between 1,000-2,000 applicants a year.
Despite the vibrancy of the potential, having thought of the full model only by November, I questioned whether we should try to go forward. Like Quest, QuestBridge also owes its debt to Quest alumni who got it off the ground. Two students, Teresa Sesera and Chitua Alozie, took off terms from college to work full-time founding QuestBridge. Teresa stayed for two years, becoming both a backbone of the effort and at age 19, the youngest full-time hire in Quest's history. QuestBridge joined forces with the Mellon Foundation, Goldman Sachs, and Hewlett Foundations, Stanford GSB's Center for Social Innovation, and Ashoka in the vision. Our Board was joined by Senator Bill Bradley, former Stanford President Donald Kennedy (a strong supporter since our early days), and McKinsey Director Bob Sternfels. All in all, we began building good momentum.
Amherst, Rice, Grinnell, Wheaton and Trinity joined in our first QuestBridge College Match, which, despite some early hitches, worked well enough to prove the concept.
In August 2005, Tim Brady joined our team as CEO and Board Member. I moved to the position of President, Ana to the Chair of the Board. Under Tim's talented and thoughtful direction, QuestBridge doubled our staff and greatly expanded our reach through new programs such as the QuestBridge College Prep Scholarship for high school juniors. Tim transitioned Quest into a much larger organization, and Ana and I had the privilege as Quest founders to learn and work with and for one of the best organizational leaders in America. Together, Tim and I grew the college partners from 12 to 26. Tim also created the Quest Scholars Network (QSN) with Nancy Hill, and Tim worked with me to create early versions of the Quest for Excellence programs and a pilot for Native American recruitment which showed how powerful the Quest for Excellence model could be, growing our native American fifteen-fold. In 2005 we co-authored a larger vision and strategic plan for Quest, which will carry it for many years forward.
The recession in 2008-2010 slowed these growth plans a bit as we hit pause on most new initiatives to ascertain the impact of the recession on our college partners. Impressively, no college dropped out and our University partnership grew in these years rather than shrink. Early in 2009, David Hunter joined QuestBridge as CEO after a lengthy and successful career in medicine as a Senior Partner in California Emergency Physicians Medical Group (CEP). David did an impressive job of controlling costs in the recession as the QuestBridge recruiting mechanism continued to grow in college partnership and revenue to sustain Quest. Several of his children also worked/volunteered at Quest over his tenure.
As we hunkered down in the recession, we waited to transition back to the long term strategic plan authored in 2005. In 2012 Ana McCullough returned a more hands-on role in Quest as she directed a pilot of our first geographic Quest for Excellence Program in NYC. More recently, Ana returned to the role as Quest CEO to oversee the next stages of growth. I continue as President in these exciting times under Ana’s leadership. Nine years after the founding of QuestBridge, we now have 35 partner colleges. The fees we charge our college partners cover most of our core costs at present, and they enable us to pay for our recruiting deep into the fabric of America – looking for the best talented low-income students in all corners of the country. In the most recent admissions season, Quest nearly 2000 Quest Scholars at our 35 partner colleges.
But a national roll-out of college recruiting is just the beginning. Coming full circle, Quest intends to leverage the early DNA we acquired helping students in QuestLeadership, not just into college, but through college, to internships, the workforce and graduate schools. Our goal is to improve leadership in America by finding and training the most talented and thoughtful low-income students. The QuestBridge recruiting model has been the first step in getting there.
We have come a long way since I shuttled eight local students interested in medicine to Stanford in 1987. This season, QuestBridge will place over 1800 students into elite colleges, and we hope to place thousands more, over time. Eventually, Quest aims to provide a train of opportunity from high school through graduate school or a first job. In exchange for this help, we hope students will help each other, and later their communities and the larger world as a whole.
Our hope is to help bring talented, low-income students into important decision-making roles in society. This is a lofty goal, and one that implies we wish to link students to opportunity from high school through college into their first job. And similar to Quest's summer residence program which we started nearly 20 years ago now, our hope is to involve students in vibrant ways in helping each other as well. We are most interested in helping those who help themselves, and even more interested in mentoring talented low-income students who help themselves with energy left over to help others. America has a wealth of talent locked up in our bright low-income students, talent we hope to serve as a catalyst to unleash.