Sandra P.'s Story

"I worked relentlessly to prove that I deserved my seat at the table."

For the first half of college, I actively concealed my affiliation with QuestBridge. When I received my acceptance letter in December 2008, I couldn’t contain my excitement at the materialization of my dream to study at the University of Chicago. However, as the news spread to family, friends, and strangers, I grew increasingly ambivalent. While most were sincerely happy for me and my mom, I couldn’t drown the voices of those who either implicitly or explicitly resented me (and everyone who shares my background) for “taking” their share of resources and enrollment seats.

When I arrived on campus, I felt isolated by the economic and social privileges of my peers. Very quickly, I re-internalized the shame of poverty- an oppressive weight that I had momentarily shaken off as I read and re-read the QuestBridge letter.

Afraid of being targeted by those voices again, especially at the university that I loved for all that it promised, I worked relentlessly to prove that I deserved my seat at the table. Having been raised by a single mother with physical and cognitive disabilities, I did not have the privilege of conversing with parents about social, political, or intellectual issues at home to supplement my learning at school. Being the first in my family to attend college, I also had to learn to navigate institutional labyrinths on my own.

Amidst these struggles, I found friends and professors who encouraged, supported, and challenged me to attain my goals. As I met more people who similarly struggled to carve out spaces for themselves in higher education, I began to regain the optimism I felt while holding my acceptance letters. This renewed confidence animated me as I wrapped up college and began to plan for graduate study.

As graduation neared, I spent most of my time revising my resume to submit to future employers. As I went through drafts, I read and re-read the line “awarded full, four-year scholarship to the University of Chicago.” This time, it wasn’t shame or ambivalence that I felt; it was immense gratitude and restored self-assurance. I wasn’t graduating college “because” or “in spite” of my background. I was at the table because the institutional mindset in higher education began to gravitate toward lowering barriers that had historically excluded students from marginalized backgrounds. Moreover, it is the work of organizations like QuestBridge that make access to top universities tangible for students like me.

In 2015, I returned to UChicago to study modern Korean history as a PhD student with my undergrad adviser, who continues to be an inspiring mentor. While it can be a challenge to reconcile personal life and academic scholarship in a way that is fruitful, I find my work constantly driven by a desire to understand the origins and structures of historical inequities. My formative experience in college, where I was able to locate my individual struggle within histories of structural oppression, profoundly shaped my vision as an aspiring historian in ways that I believe will continue to manifest.

Written by Sandra Park, University of Chicago '13, as a part of the QuestBridge Storytelling Week in April 2017. For more stories like this, please visit QuestBridge Storytelling.