"I was immersed in a community of intelligent, outspoken, brave, and caring women."
Mai Yer, Wellesley College

Mai Yer Xiong

Hometown: Saint Paul, MN

Wellesley College

“I never thought we would end up at the same college.” I was left speechless when an upper-middle class fellow graduate from my high school sarcastically muttered those words to me during our first encounter at Wellesley College. If I give her the benefit of the doubt, she probably meant those words as a compliment. If I don’t, they were an underhanded insult. But the thing is, she was right. The college admission process is daunting and challenging for students like me, who come from a low-income background and are among the first generation in their family to attend college. My parents were not able to support me through the college application process. I had to figure it out on my own. What chance did I have to attend an elite university like her? Ever since childhood, her parents had groomed her to be a strong candidate for college. Her parents could afford tutors and violin lessons. Her parents knew how to navigate the academic world because of their own experiences, such as guiding her course selection so that it would be impressive and rigorous enough to prepare her for college. On the other hand, I didn’t even know what made a good college “good.” I didn’t know to refer to U.S. News & World Report for college rankings nor that I wanted to attend a college with small class sizes to get personal attention from professors who would later write me strong recommendation letters. I didn’t know to look for a college with a strong alum network that would help me land internships and jobs after graduation. However, QuestBridge helped offset some of the advantages that upper-middle class students have in the college application process. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics and Spanish from Wellesley College, in large part because of QuestBridge.

As an American-born child of Hmong refugees, there was never a doubt in my mind that I would attend college. My parents were subsistence farmers in Laos. Although my father nearly completed secondary school, my mother did not receive any formal education because her parents could not afford the school fees for all their children. My mother’s parents paid for her brothers to attend school, while she and her sisters worked in the field and did household chores. Given my parents’ struggle to barely make it in the United States, they realized how negatively a lack of education impacts a person’s earning potential. They made sure that I grew up valuing and respecting college as a means to financial stability. I excelled in academics and dreamed of one day going to college, but I didn’t know what that looked like or how I was going to get there. 

At the end of my junior year, I only considered attending colleges in Minnesota to be able to pay in-state tuition and to stay close to my family. When my high school counselor told me that I would be a competitive applicant for top national universities and suggested I expand my search beyond Minnesota, I shrugged off her suggestion. My counselor persisted and recommended that I consider Wellesley College because she thought it would be a good fit for me. I looked up the school’s website and was immediately drawn to Wellesley’s focus on educating women who will change the world. However, when I navigated to the page with tuition information for prospective students, I stopped looking further. Almost as immediately as I had started imagining the possibility of Wellesley, I quickly dropped the idea. I thought it would be impossible to afford Wellesley for a year, much less four years. At the time, I did not understand Wellesley’s need-blind admission policy nor was I aware of their standard practice of meeting 100% of demonstrated financial need. As a first-generation college applicant, my parents and I were not familiar with those resources. As such, when I saw the initial “price tag” for an education at Wellesley, it discouraged me from even applying.

I received a postcard from QuestBridge right before my senior year of high school that changed the trajectory of my life, even though I did not realize the significance of it at the time. The post card promoted the National College Match scholarship. As I glanced over it, I didn’t take the information seriously. I had been receiving an excessive amount of college recruit mail from all over the U.S. and I usually threw them out after briefly reviewing them. I did not think they were relevant to me, and rather were just reminders of opportunities that I did not think I could access. However, as I studied the QuestBridge postcard further, I saw that the National College Match offered full scholarships and listed Wellesley as a college partner. I still remember how my heart started to race after realizing that there was a possible solution to be able to afford Wellesley. After some back-and-forth, I decided to apply for the chance to be matched with Wellesley College. I was still planning on applying to colleges in Minnesota as plan B when QuestBridge notified me that I was selected for a College Match scholarship.

At Wellesley, I found college to be a much more rewarding experience than just a means to achieve financial freedom. I was immersed in a community of intelligent, outspoken, brave, and caring women. I met people who came from many walks of life, and most were different than my own. I learned to be a critical thinker. I learned to advocate for myself, to articulate my needs and opinions, while learning how to have dialogue with people who don’t agree with me. Most importantly, I gained cultural capital. I learned how “elite spaces” function and how to behave in those spaces to be able to get a seat at the table. And I grappled with how to maintain authenticity of who I am and where I come from while doing so. I became fluent in Spanish because Wellesley provided me with the opportunity to study abroad in Spain and intern in Guatemala and Bolivia. Wellesley College opened many doors for me, and those opportunities continue to open many more doors. After graduating from Wellesley, I was selected for a Princeton in Latin America Fellowship and worked for the World Food Programme in Panama for a year. I went on to serve as a Princeton in Asia Fellow in Laos for a global health NGO. I am currently working as an M&E (Monitoring and Evaluation) Consultant in Laos and aspire to pursue a graduate degree soon.

Attending Wellesley College set my life on a trajectory where I am privileged enough to be able to seek personal fulfillment through my career. I have QuestBridge to thank for my decision and ability to attend Wellesley, which has been the most important and best decision of my life. I am lucky and grateful to have had my family, mentors and organizations like QuestBridge support me in my journey.