Ana McCullough Is Improving College Accessibility for Low-Income Students

Ana McCullough Is Improving College Accessibility for Low-Income Students

College affordability and accessibility is something many young people are concerned about.

We got to sit down with Ana McCullough, the CEO and co-founder of QuestBridge, to learn more about her advocacy and support efforts with higher education access.

What is QuestBridge, and why should our readers know about it?

QuestBridge seeks to increase the number of high-achieving, low-income students who attend America’s leading colleges, and to help those students succeed and thrive in college and beyond. We founded QuestBridge in 1994 as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, and we’re based in northern California.

Today, QuestBridge is best known for placing thousands of talented students from under-represented backgrounds into over 35 of the nation’s top colleges and universities. This past year, we helped 2,500 high-achieving, low-income students get admitted to our college partners on full or nearly-full scholarships.

We also have programs for our QuestBridge Scholars to build vibrant, supportive, diverse communities on their college campuses through the QuestBridge Scholars Network.

Over the years, QuestBridge has become a place for opportunity and community for thousands of bright, hard-working high school and college students across the country. (For a profile, please see here.) QuestBridge Scholars have overcome difficult odds—and by their own hard work, they have become exceptional. Together, as a community of Scholars, they represent possibility, hope, and resilience.

You’re an outspoken advocate for low-income issues and higher education access—why is this an issue everyone should care about?

The vast majority of high-achieving, low-income students in America do not apply to the nation’s best colleges, despite being qualified. This amounts to tens of thousands of talented students each year who don’t apply to colleges that would be seriously interested in them. Of course, going to a top college isn’t necessarily the best or ideal path for everyone.

But for students who do want to go to college—and whose families cannot pay the high cost of attendance—the chance to get a world-class education, with generous financial aid, is life-changing. It alters the life course of that student, as well as her entire family. It is also transformative for our society, for the workforce, and in all kinds of positive social and cultural ways as well.

Through decades of working with QuestBridge Scholars, we’ve learned that the obstacles to getting there can be larger than they look at first glance. Most of our students are first-generation to college. They often don’t realize just how impressive they really are as applicants. They also often don’t know how to navigate the college admissions process, and have limited resources to find help. Even if they get in, they doubt their families could pay for it—not realizing the financial aid available to them. And, they often worry about fitting in, asking, “is there anyone like me on that college campus?” We try to address all of these concerns.

What are your hopes for your future and the future of QuestBridge?

On the future of QuestBridge, we hope to continue to deepen our reach into all of America’s communities, large and small, urban and rural, to find more high-achieving low-income students who can benefit from our programs. We are also developing innovative, exciting initiatives for our students during their college years and beyond.

As for myself, I feel that I have a dream job, and I am grateful to be here right now. I love the directions we’re going as a team and as an organization, and I feel lucky to be constantly learning and stretching each day.

What do you consider to be one of the most important aspects of your work?

One of the most important aspects of my work is simply paying attention: whether in a team meeting, with a student, a college partner, or an educator. I think this is one of the keys to understanding our students and partners, the flows of our work, and how to respond best to questions or situations when they arise.

I find myself feeling energized by nearly all of the dimensions of my work. I love the blend of working on strategy and operations with the team, collaborating to solve problems of college access with our partners, and spending time with our students in large and small groups. This combination keeps me grounded, challenged, and inspired.

How do you find inspiration and hope in the face of discouragement?

It sounds cliché, but I am inspired by both our QuestBridge Scholars and our dedicated staff. We have a team full of gifted, passionate staff members. Most of the QB staff are women—plus a few great men! I am constantly learning from our team and our Scholars, and their positive outlook and innovative ideas uplift me.

Sometimes when I’m discouraged or don’t know the best next move, I try to reflect on our underlying mission and goals. I am a big fan of reflection. Whether in the form of walking in nature, writing, doing yoga, or sitting under a tree and thinking, I gain a lot from quiet contemplative time. Sometimes I find that the answers to difficult problems have been there all along, and I just wasn’t seeing them. It’s a blessing to have an “a-ha moment” from time to time, and these seem to happen most when I have been reflecting for a while.

What’s an important lesson that you’ve learned since you started this work?

For QuestBridge Scholars, a common thread that we’ve seen is a strong sense of personal agency. It’s striking and humbling to see how these students’ own good, conscious, courageous choices have positioned them for success in spite of great obstacles. We meet our students at a time of their lives when they can put even more of those good choices into action. Our hope is to facilitate this, and help to empower the students, with our programs and community.

Do you have any advice for young girls who come from low-income households?

Here at QuestBridge, we often say: Dream big. You can afford it. In addition, I would say, believe in yourself—and in doing so, be bold enough to ask others to help you grow. Turns out, this is one of the keys to reaching your dreams. Genuine, authentic connections to others—especially those who stretch us to become better and stronger—can be among our greatest sources of “wealth” and deep fulfillment. We can develop these when we have the courage to risk, to ask, and to open our minds to new ideas, insights, and horizons.

You can learn more about QuestBridge on its website, Twitter, or Facebook.