“I remember thinking that the low-income status was a stigma you shouldn’t talk about. I was scared that if I showed too much of my financial problems, that colleges wouldn’t accept me."
Harpreet, Emory University
Hometown: Dayton, NJ
As a child growing up in a city where most of the families were well-to-do, Harpreet Singh (Emory, ’17) never viewed himself as low-income. But as he grew older, he couldn’t avoid certain questions that amplified the disparities in income.
“What did you do last summer?” his peers would ask him, innocuously. Stay at home, watch TV, he’d respond. As his friends recounted all the places they visited over the summer, he started to realize he wasn’t quite like everyone else.
In the school orchestra, Harpreet played cello well enough to make second seat but he couldn’t quite compete for first seat with peers who had private lessons and owned their own cellos.
As he reached high school, Harpreet began to think that his family’s finances might affect his future. Seeing his older sister struggle to get through college at a state school in Massachusetts where she received very little aid, Harpreet assumed he just would not attend college.
“I became very aware of my financial background and I didn’t see how it would translate into the future.” He acknowledges that at that time, he didn’t understand financial aid, and just thought you needed a scholarship to attend.
His parents also sent him mixed messages about their expectations of him. His father, an immigrant from India with a high school level education, told him to get a job after high school. His mother, an immigrant from Peru who also didn’t attend college, told him he could go to Harvard.
Harpreet was conflicted. He felt that although he was just as academically qualified to get into a good college as his higher income peers, he didn’t feel like he could do it on his own. At his large high school of nearly 3000 students, many of the wealthier students got into top colleges like Cornell or Princeton, but lower income students went to community college or didn’t attend college at all.
“It was either high-income, high-achieving students or low-income, low-achieving students at my school.” This left Harpreet caught in an unusual space compared to his peers.
However, with a naturally competitive nature, Harpreet still poured himself into his schoolwork while balancing other responsibilities like working, cooking, cleaning, and helping to take care of a younger brother, as well as extra-curriculars like football.
“I am a positive person,” he proclaims. He believes strongly that everything he works hard for now will have a positive effect on him in the future. “I used that mentality to push myself through high school.”
When asked when he first heard about QuestBridge, Harpreet responds without a beat: August 29, 2012. He remembers the day so vividly because it coincided with his little brother’s birthday. Seeing the words “Full 4-year scholarships” in an e-mail in his spam inbox piqued his curiosity but also made him very skeptical. Following a few Google searches on “Is QuestBridge real?” and reading up on student testimonials on the website, Harpreet decided to give it a try.
As he began his application process with QuestBridge, Harpreet struggled with how to present himself. “I remember thinking that the low-income status was a stigma you shouldn’t talk about. I was scared that if I showed too much of my financial problems, that colleges wouldn’t accept me. Maybe they couldn’t afford to take care of me or pay for my scholarship.”
He decided not to write about his financial struggles, merely alluding to them.
Three days before the application closed, his father passed away. So, in considering which colleges to rank, Harpreet’s priority was to stay close to home, a strong wish of his mother. He ranked the full eight colleges (the maximum number at the time), all of them located in the Northeast, near home.
He didn’t match. Though often a major disappointment for many Finalists, match notification day also fell on the day his football team won the state semi-finals. The excitement of going to state finals offset any hard feelings about the College Match.
A few days later, he processed it more and felt somewhat disheartened, but kept a positive attitude. “I remember reading if you didn’t get matched, that didn’t mean you wouldn’t be able to get into the schools you ranked. I deeply internalized that.”
For Regular Decision, he applied to about 15 QuestBridge colleges. “If they didn’t require a supplement, I checked it off!” (A poor tactic, he reflects now, with some embarrassment.)
Luckily for him, Harpreet was admitted to some excellent schools. The first acceptance was Emory, a school he barely remembered applying to (due to his “check-off” strategy). After some delayed college research, he realized what a great college it is.
His friends celebrated his admission, as it was rare for students from South Brunswick High to go away to Emory. Unfortunately, he also remembers one of the school’s administrators telling him, “you can just go to the state school” in a condescending tone, assuming that Harpreet and his family would not be able to afford it.
Later, the sting of that comment subsided when Harpreet’s family received a very generous financial aid package from Emory. They were able to say with confidence that Harpreet could indeed afford to attend.
At admitted students day, he and his mom took a 26-hour Greyhound bus ride from New Jersey to Georgia. Because his journey was so long, they only had three hours on campus. It was a rainy, dreary day, and they missed many of the scheduled events. Despite the circumstances, he knew Emory was the college for him.
“When I stepped on campus, there was like an ‘aura’… A feeling that I belonged here.” He also liked that Emory had strengths in numerous academic fields, which was important to him because he was still undecided about what to study.
His mom also liked the campus and said to him, “you can come here if you want to go far away.” With her approval, he accepted the offer of admission.
“August 29 was a good day,” he says, looking back.
Harpreet transitioned to college life easily, both academically and socially. Unlike many first-generation, low-income students, he did not experience a culture shock. He found friends easily and was well prepared academically.
There were some days though, where he felt like his low-income background was “very salient.” During Parents Weekend his classmates were “perplexed” when his mom couldn’t afford to attend. Or Thanksgiving, he agonized whether to use his savings to fly home, a luxury that other students took for granted.
When he spoke to a classmate about his low-income struggles, he was surprised when she broke down in tears about her own financial troubles. That’s when he realized that many students hid their background even more than he did. He began to read a lot of articles on the subject and met other students on campus who outwardly shared their low-income background, and it empowered him to do the same.
Even though the QuestBridge Scholars Network on campus is large with over 300 members, he believes that not many students participate because there is a stigma around identifying as “poor.”
Harpreet feels that if low-income students want more help from the institution and need additional support and acceptance, there needs to be more open dialogue on class—not only internally within groups of low-income students, like the QSN, but with people outside the identity. Open discussion will help remove the “stigma” of being low-income on campus.
He felt so personally motivated to help his fellow students on campus embrace their identities that he founded FLIP, First-Generation Low Income Partnership, a student-driven organization for first-generation low-income students in his junior year.
“I’ve been personally invested in improving mental health and ‘flourishing,’ so I want to help other students mitigate these issues. I’m like the face of low-income first-gen on campus. I’m proud to be that way.”
It’s a far cry from a few years ago. Once timid to share details of his family’s financial struggles in his college application, Harpreet says, “The low-income identity I now hold is not one of stigma but one of pride.”
As a Psychology major, Harpreet is exploring the possibility of turning this passion into an academic pursuit, and is looking into Ph.D. programs that might support his focus on low-income students and their mental health in higher education.