Sarai O.'s Story

"I could see that other people were going through what I was going through."

When Sarai Ortega first received a letter from QuestBridge in the mail, she thought it was a scam. A four-year scholarship to a top-tier university? She thought it must be too good to be true. After transferring to a brand new high school, she knew that she needed guidance in her college search. While her high school brought in many different colleges to their college and career fairs, Sarai had to spend a lot of time researching which colleges would be best suited for her. 

Since fifth grade, Sarai knew that she wanted to attend college. Her mom worked very hard for her and her sister to be successful, and so Sarai listed potential colleges she wanted to attend on a poster as motivation. Her family was not able to help her much with the intricacies of applying to college, so Sarai depended heavily on the resources she could find on the internet. She remembers the application process being pretty isolating because she did not have a lot of people to turn to for help. While her parents were very supportive, as a first-generation college student, Sarai found it hard to explain to them everything she had to submit.  She explains, “I ended up sitting in my bedroom, Googling others who had gone through the National College Match who would post on forums or Facebook groups. That became a huge source of support for me because I could see that other people were going through what I was going through.”

Eventually, Sarai learned about the National College Match, and thought that this would be a great opportunity that would also help to mitigate her application anxiety. After doing some research on Claremont McKenna College (CMC), she realized that this school checked all of the boxes she wanted to see at a college, and she chose to apply to CMC through the National College Match. However, she still had some obstacles to overcome before the application process was complete. She remembers, “It was a challenge going through the financial aid process. My parents were working really long hours and didn’t have the time to sit down with me and explain what the tax forms meant. I ended up staring at my computer and Googling things like ‘what does line 13 on the W-2 form mean?’. The whole process was very draining and I felt anxious that I would mess something up on one of the forms and ruin my chance at a scholarship.” Sarai felt an enormous weight lifted off her shoulders when she got the exciting news that she matched to CMC in December. 

Looking back, Sarai realizes that the National College Match made her senior year a lot easier, and if she could say something to her high school self, she would remind herself that there is no reason to feel so alone. There were many first-generation college students across the country who were going through the exact same thing that she was, and everyone felt scared and worried at some point during this process. Sarai realized this when she came to campus at Claremont McKenna. She says, “Before going to college, I didn’t really know who I was, nor did I fit in very well in high school. But once I came to college I realized that there were aspects of myself that I hadn’t ever addressed, and identities that I had that I hadn’t even realized were differences.” There was a thriving first-generation community at CMC, and she quickly found friends and a support system that would greatly impact the ease of her transition from high school to college. 

Today, Sarai finds herself engaging in leadership roles in a variety of communities and organizations on campus. Sarai has served as the CMC QuestBridge Scholars Network Chapter president, a mentor for the First Gen club, a Chicano-Latino Student Affairs sponsor, and even lends some of her help and advice on her journey progressing toward higher education as a community tutor for local elementary school students. Sarai is now looking toward medical school once she graduates with a degree in Molecular Biology, and she is looking forward to meeting more students on campus who can relate to her story.