“QuestBridge taught me that everybody’s story matters. Adversity and struggles – they come in so many forms.”
Aaron, University of Notre Dame

Aaron Tarnasky

Hometown: Sioux Falls, South Dakota

University of Notre Dame

Aaron Tarnasky (University of Notre Dame, ’16) lost his father to brain cancer when he was just three years old. Despite this, he grew up in a supportive environment with his mother and younger brother in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. As a young child, he never felt like he was missing anything – it was the life he knew.

But around third grade, during a Boy Scouts activity where fathers and sons huddled together to make a model car, Aaron looked around and noticed that his mother was the only mom there.  The moment struck a chord with him and he realized there was something missing in his life – a relationship with a dad, something all his peers had.

“I lost my dad when I was very young and no one else I knew had that problem. I was unique in dealing with that challenge.” 

As he grew older, Aaron also noticed that his family was financially less advantaged than many of his classmates. Instead of large homes and fancy vacations, Aaron’s family lived in a modest home until high school, when finances became tight and they were forced to move to a smaller apartment. For vacations, they would take the 3-hour drive to Valley Fair in Minneapolis once a year. 

“I didn’t feel like I was lacking, but it was pretty obvious we didn’t have much either. I never felt low-income, even though we were.”

On her single income, Aaron’s mother worked hard to send him to O’Gorman Catholic School, a good school that drew students from all over town.  “She sacrificed a lot to make that happen. That’s made all the difference in the world. I met my best friends, we were all at the top of the class, we all motivated each other,” he said. 

He credits his mother and this group of friends with his academic preparation, which enabled him to apply to selective colleges. “I owe a lot of my success to the people I surrounded myself with.”

Though he was one of the top in his class, when it came time to apply to college, it was the first time Aaron actually saw his mother’s income — and it didn’t add up to much. Comparing it to the sticker prices of a few top colleges, Aaron thought, “there’s just no way.” It was not a problem that other students at his school encountered. 

As a first-generation, low-income student at a school filled with relatively wealthier peers, Aaron didn’t know if top colleges were a viable option for him. “I didn’t know other students who were aiming for top-tier colleges and also struggling financially. My guidance counselor did what he could,” he reflects. “But anyway, thank God for QuestBridge.”

Similar to the responses of many students who receive mail from QuestBridge seemingly out of the blue, Aaron’s initial reaction was, “No way. This is too good to be true.” After further research, he realized that QuestBridge was a legitimate opportunity. He applied first to the College Prep Scholars Program and was invited to a National College Admissions Conference. Though he couldn’t attend, being selected as a College Prep Scholar renewed a sense of hope in Aaron.

“Having had some success with that application made me excited to go for the National College Match and made me think I had a shot at it.”

When it came time to rank colleges, a college trip to Northwestern and University of Notre Dame proved especially influential. “I loved them both. But there was just something about Notre Dame.” Having grown up following Notre Dame football (and himself a football player), it just made sense to rank University of Notre Dame first on his list. 

On match day, Aaron remembers checking his email relentlessly until he received a call from QuestBridge telling him he was matched to his first choice, University of Notre Dame. How did he feel that day? “Ecstatic. Pretty ecstatic.”

University of Notre Dame and beyond

A few months later Aaron left home for only the second time in his life (his first being the college trip.) “It was terrifying. I had never been away from home. Notre Dame is incredible but it does mostly attract upper class students, many of whom are legacies. I didn’t have people in my family who knew what that was like. But I knew I could figure it out.”

He acknowledges that coming from O’Gorman Catholic School, which has a “similar vibe” as University of Notre Dame, helped him acclimate quickly to college.

As a college student, Aaron knew that the pinch of his finances precluded him from certain things, like the ski trip or eating out frequently. He learned that you “just stay back” and also notes that those kinds of things didn’t happen that often. His scholarship package generally enabled him to get by just fine. “I didn’t have to work to make ends meet. I wasn’t constantly stressed about finances.”

In his first year, he was busily involved in the school’s marching band, which requires a big commitment. In later years, Aaron added hospital volunteering, medical mission trips with the Global Medical Brigade, intramural sports, teaching as a Chemistry tutor, and peer advising.

That his college activities gravitated toward a medical focus was no accident. Aaron recently graduated from the University of Notre Dame and is currently starting his first year at Duke University Medical School. 

Aaron is one of those people who has always known he wants to be a doctor. “I’ve always felt comfortable in a hospital and I can’t see myself doing anything else.” He was influenced by his father’s cancer and by interactions with a highly skilled and caring orthopedic surgeon who treated his broken arm at age 14. He thinks it is likely he will go into the surgical field, but knows there’s a lot to consider until then.

Final advice for high school students

When Aaron looks back at his experience applying to college through QuestBridge, he never expected to match. He felt then that his “story” — though compelling in its own right — wasn’t “good enough”. He knew that he qualified financially, but he just didn’t think his story was interesting, especially since he had a strong network of family and friends.

“QuestBridge taught me that everybody’s story matters. Adversity and struggles – they come in so many forms, ” he says. In addition to urging students to embrace their story, no matter what it is, he also wants to impart this message to high school students: “Realize that you can make college possible. The sooner you can realize that as a high school student, the more motivated you can be. Work hard. Do the things you enjoy and do them well. That’s what stands out to people, and that’s what matters.”

Interviewed in August, 2016