"I became super proud of identifying as low-income, I felt like I represented someone from the ‘real world.’ I wore it as a badge."
Jason, Northwestern University
Hometown: Rossville, GA
Rossville, Georgia, a suburb of Chattanooga, Tennessee located just over the state line, is textbook small-town America. According to Jason Garcia (Northwestern ’17), it’s a very insular community, where people rarely branch out, and where education is not highly valued.
“The general mentality was that going to the community college was good enough.”
It’s a mindset that Jason also possessed. “I thought I could float my way to a state college,” he says. At his high school of 1,500 students, most students aspired to community or technical colleges or joined the military, and counselors were more accustomed to giving resources about small scholarships, like $500 to help attend local schools.
It wasn’t until his older brother got into Harvard University and became the first student in the history of his high school to get into an Ivy League, that the mindset began to shift. It was such a momentous feat that his brother was featured frequently in the local news. For Jason, seeing that example was an indication to him that getting into a top college was something that could be done, even from their small town.
He also recalls feeling incredulous when he received a brochure in his junior year from Brown University, another Ivy League. After that, something changed in him, and he began to work much harder and set his goals higher.
His family and friends were also highly influential. His best friend growing up was highly motivated, and supported him as they applied to college at the same time. And while neither of Jason’s parents attended college, they highly valued it and pushed their children to apply themselves in their studies. His father in particular wanted them to attend college so they wouldn’t have to work a hard labor job in the future.
Getting good financial aid was always a priority for Jason and his family. When his brother got admitted to Harvard, their mother’s excitement was tempered by worries about whether they could even afford it. Receiving an outstanding financial aid package was when his parents actually broke down in tears—it was a much bigger deal than even getting admitted.
Seeing QuestBridge’s focus on full scholarships, Jason applied because he already knew that his family would need excellent financial aid in order for him to attend a top college. Getting his application fees waived made it affordable for him to apply to many top colleges at once.
He applied to only QuestBridge colleges and the University of Georgia, and may have been a bit more focused on the brand names of the colleges than whether they were a good fit for him. Recently, when he helped out at the National College Admissions Conferences at Yale University, he learned about Colorado College, one of QuestBridge’s newer partners. “I definitely would have considered that, and other LACs. I would have applied to more places.”
Fortunately, though he did not match to a college, on almost the same day, Jason received a letter from Northwestern University offering him the choice of either Early Decision admission or deferring his application to Regular Decision. Hoping to see what would happen with other colleges, he deferred. In the end, he still decided to attend Northwestern.
“The Northwestern financial aid package was big. I still have to pay some, but it is super manageable for my parents.”
Northwestern is one of the nation’s top research universities, but because of the lack of recognition of Northwestern in his community, Jason didn’t get the same overwhelming reaction as his older brother. “Most people from this day think that I attend Northwestern Technical College. Some of my teachers and my counselor were happy, but that was about it.”
At Northwestern, his freshman year was academically brutal—a big jump from his high school experience. He also found it overwhelming to be surrounded by students who had achieved so much excellence already, like the ones who were fluent in five languages or who could play two instruments. As a first-generation, low-income student, he felt worlds apart from some classmates who had experienced such different upbringings.
“When I stopped comparing myself to others, I was able to appreciate my own background more, and it helped me find out how I fit into Northwestern.”
Socially, Jason has flourished at Northwestern, saying that he’s met “great and amazing” people. Part of this has to do with the culture of Northwestern, where all the students are very involved in a number of activities.
One of the ways he got involved was through the QuestBridge Scholars Network, where he served on the executive board during his freshman and sophomore year. He attributes his high involvement with QSN to a very impressive and nurturing senior class during his first-year.
“I became super proud of identifying as low-income, I felt like I represented someone from the ‘real world.’ I wore it as a badge.”
He is currently one of three co-chairs of the Freshman Urban Program, a week-long program that takes place one week before freshman orientation to familiarize new students to the city of Chicago.
Jason has also become involved with supporting low-income students through a work-study position at a newly established student services office for first-generation, low-income students. That experience, in addition to an internship at QuestBridge headquarters in 2016, have helped to cement his growing interest in the field of educational access.
When asked what comes next, Jason is thinking about how to improve the experience for low-income students. “Maybe even going back to my high school as a counselor,” he suggests. Until then, he hopes that students from his community feel empowered to branch out, and challenge themselves academically.
“Keep an open mind to opportunities you don't expect. There is nothing about where you come from that disqualifies you from anything.”