“Don’t be afraid to look into options you aren’t considering because you might not like it or you don’t think it is possible."
Daniel, Vassar College

Daniel Espino

Hometown: Mesa, AZ

Vassar College

From a young age, Daniel Espino of Mesa, Arizona, learned an important life lesson: how to figure things out by himself. Because neither parent finished high school, Daniel realized that his parents could no longer assist him academically starting around the 6th grade. “I learned how to learn on my own,” he says.

The sense of initiative that is now apparent in Daniel, a rising junior at Vassar College, is rooted from his early years. His parents moved from Mexico to the U.S. in the ‘90s and created a new life for themselves. The selflessness and drive of his father influenced Daniel to aim high, even when he felt alone. Elementary school teachers saw his academic potential and inspired him to become a high-achieving student. While they didn’t push him to attend a top college at that young age, they gave him the confidence to expect more for himself.

As Daniel headed into high school, the transition was “a little rough.” It was the first time ninth graders were being integrated into Dobson High and the school was figuring out how to add 600 more students to an already large school. Adrift in the shuffle, Daniel had to continue fending for himself and navigating his academic life on his own. Typical for many big public high schools, the majority of the students either went to community colleges or the large state school, Arizona State University. Almost none ventured out-of-state for college.

When it came to applying to college, Daniel admits he was pretty lost. Through his counselors and a career assessment program at his high school, he started learning about different programs at colleges. He never really made the connection that “I could be doing that.” “I didn’t even know what the college application process was,” he recalls, “I didn’t know what the Common App was. I was totally lost. I didn’t even know when you were supposed to apply.”

Though his parents were always exceptionally supportive of him, they never pushed him to attend college. They preferred that he work after high school and stay close to home.

From College Prep Scholar to College Student

College started to become more of a reality the day Daniel received a mailing from QuestBridge in his junior year. After doing more research on QuestBridge, he applied to become a College Prep Scholar and was invited to the National College Admissions Conference at Stanford. He didn’t tell his parents about the conference until he was invited, but as usual, they were very supportive. After a 14-hour drive from Arizona to Stanford (his family’s first trek to the Bay Area), Daniel attended the conference with his dad.

“That [day] had an impact on both me and my dad…my dad got information on all the great schools and QuestBridge…while I saw all the presentations and started to look at it as a ‘real thing’.”

The biggest takeaway from the conference for Daniel and his family was that they could actually afford to attend a great college. Previously, their biggest fear was paying for it, but once they saw real examples and compared them to their own situation, they began to see college as a real possibility.

The college process was a bit of a lonely endeavor for Daniel. He recalls it as a “long and hard” process, and he couldn’t talk to anyone in his immediate friends and family circle about it. Most of his friends were not college-bound and couldn’t relate.

As he went through the process of ranking colleges, he compromised with his parents to rank only the non-binding colleges since they had reservations about him leaving home for college. He didn’t match, but went ahead with Regular Decision, which he says “gave me the chance to easily apply to more schools than I would have otherwise.” Though his interests are in math and technology, he added Vassar to his list because he read that the students seemed very passionate and happy, and that the campus is beautiful.

Carlos, a QuestBridge Scholar from Amherst who served as his mentor through his college application process, also encouraged him to apply somewhere that was not in his comfort zone. He took the chance, applied, and got in.

When weighing his college options, Daniel says, “Vassar was definitely the better option all around…it had a better reputation, and it was actually going to be way cheaper than ASU,” even though he was offered the highest scholarship opportunity available at the state college.

That’s when his parents – who were once reluctant to see him leave home — said to him, "go ahead, go across the country.”

Transition to college

As a first-generation college student, moving from Arizona to New York was not easy. “Everything is completely different: the weather, the people, the difficulty of the classes.”

A math whiz in high school, Daniel found himself bombing his first multi-variable calculus midterm, receiving “the lowest grade I’d ever received.” But he quickly found his footing and realized he could no longer cruise through school as he once did. “College was the first time I really had to sit down and learn how to study.” By end of the first semester, he figured out what worked best for him, and raised his grade considerably.

The QuestBridge Scholars Network also provided him with an immediate group of people who shared similar experiences. From the very first meeting, he met some of his closest friends at Vassar.

“It’s helped me see that I’m not the only one like this here, I have other people to relate to,” he says.

Daniel has recently found another purpose through QuestBridge: helping younger students apply to college. After serving as a Conference Group Leader for the last two years, Daniel kept in contact with his group of students, helping them with their college applications. Seeing them get into college is when, Daniel says, “I started to see that I have that potential to help other people…that even giving a little feedback can mean a lot to them.” Daniel has also enjoyed working on the executive board of his college dorm, doing planning, communications, and community building projects. In the summer of 2016, he served as a Data and Technology intern in the QuestBridge headquarters in Palo Alto.

Now a Computer Science major with a probable double major in Math, Daniel has grown academically and strengthened his critical thinking skills, which he finds applicable in all parts of his life. As he reflects on his past, he wants students who are like him to “not be afraid to step out of your comfort zone.”

“Don’t be afraid to look into options you aren’t considering because you might not like it or you don’t think it is possible. You'll be surprised to see how many doors open if you try. There's a limited amount of time to take advantage of these opportunities, so please take advantage of as many of them while you still can - you'll thank yourself later.”

Interviewed July 2016