"Because of QuestBridge, I was able to focus my college search on the non-financial aspects of college and eventually find the college that fit me best. Through QuestBridge, I discovered that attending a prestigious university could be financially feasible and even more affordable than an in-state public university. I was able to realistically look at colleges that had previously seemed like only dreams."
Fort Mill, SC
Born and raised in a rural Southern town, Farrah Bui, an enthusiastic sophomore at Princeton University, epitomizes the Southern pride of her hometown of Fort Mill, South Carolina. But her family’s history also reflects a story of resilience and struggle. When her mother was just 14 years old, she immigrated with siblings to the U.S. on a special government program that placed Vietnamese youth in the U.S. in the 1970s. In Charlotte, South Carolina, her mother married at age 17. Lacking educational opportunities, she eventually attended cosmetology school and began work in a salon.
Years of hard work later, Farrah’s mother became the owner of the salon, and also eventually divorced from her husband. Though her family was strained financially, Farrah, the eldest of three, had her mind set on attending college as a first generation college student. “I always knew that I would go to college- it’s all I ever wanted to do,” she recalls, “There was just a common understanding that to get somewhere in life, you need to have a good education.” And through a good education, Farrah hoped to provide a better life for her mother, just as her mother provided for others her entire life.Having witnessed a close cousin aspire to attend Harvard, only to have her dreams shattered due to an unstable household, Farrah was inspired at a young age to aim for the top colleges in the country.
Farrah’s journey to a top college did not come easily. At her high school, the vast majority of students stay in South Carolina for college. But Farrah didn’t let that stop her: “I was set on applying to out-of-state schools. I knew that it would help me grow up and experience the world, and force myself out of my comfort zone.”
She kept her aspirations secret for the most part, even from her parents, fearing that she would be judged or wouldn’t be good enough to get into her dream colleges. She shouldn’t have been worried: Farrah was a top student in high school, and was deeply involved in community service- providing outreach to disadvantaged children - as well as student council and Girls’ State.
In the summer before her senior year, she received a brochure for QuestBridge in the mail, and felt she had nothing to lose by submitting an application. When she applied to the National College Match, she ranked Princeton first, as well as two other non-binding partner colleges. After being named a finalist, Farrah nervously awaited the results. On December 1st, she learned that she was not matched to a school. “I felt my fears of not being good enough reaffirmed,” she remembers. Though obviously upset and disappointed, a supportive teacher reached out to her and reminded her that “this is not indicative of where you’ll end up. This is your second chance.”
Buoyed by the encouragement, Farrah bounced back quickly and immersed herself in the regular decision process. Farrah ultimately applied to 10-15 private colleges, in addition to state schools as a back-up plan. Her list included a mix of QuestBridge and non-QuestBridge schools. She was accepted to every school, except Duke, where she was waitlisted. She was the very first student in the history of her high school to be accepted to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, but she chose Princeton. “I’ll never forget the day I found out: April 1st, 2010.”
At Princeton, Bui is a student in the Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs (Global Health) and has found an array of new hobbies: club lacrosse, advising sexual assault victims through an on-campus organization. She is also an Indie Music Radio DJ.
Bui’s vision for her future is to help children with cancer, and her interest began when she shadowed doctors as a teen in a Fort Mill hospital. Bui found that “an eight year old would tell you stuff that an older person would. It made me more humble and appreciative. I saw the family’s monetary, physical, and mental struggles.” On one of her first weeks, Bui threw a birthday party with staff for a cancer patient who just had his leg amputated. “I saw how happy he was… even though he was handicapped and not projected to live long.”
Fort Mill also sowed the seeds for Bui’s entrepreneurial spirit. She started an organization called Notes of Hope to help kids fit in through music. She did all of this while “playing mom” to her two younger siblings because her own mother, a single parent, worked long days and nights at a salon.
Despite her responsibilities, Farrah doesn’t consider her upbringing a struggle. She said she was simply more frugal than others, a habit she carried with her to Princeton where friends have said it is “cool” that she is a first generation college student. “When we go out, my friends take my budget into consideration,” she said.
Bui said that her message to new Quest Scholars starting college is: “You’re in class with a bajillion others like you. I doubted myself a lot. Be confident in yourself.”
Even though Bui has won awards at Princeton like the Asian Women in Business scholarship, she’s still trying to figure it all out. “I’m jumping into a major that’s scary. I can’t really go back. I go through stages of dreading junior year – falling on my face. Once you get past doubting, people are capable of doing a lot more than they think they can.”
She added, “The older you get, the faster the time goes. It hit me this past year. I’m twenty, whoa. I’m not a teen anymore. I would say: take in the moment. Be fearless. In high school, I would have never tried to do radio. I would have never done a major in Public Policy. I came in thinking I was a chemistry major.”
Bui, who has continued her involvement with QuestBridge as an intern and Princeton liaison, said that she is “just really lucky to go to one of the prettiest campuses in the world.”
Interviewed July 30, 2012