About a year ago, on April 11, 2016, I was horrified and saddened by the tragic news that a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, named Olivia Kong, had committed suicide that morning by jumping in front of a train at the 40th street subway station near campus. I learned that like me, she had grown up in Philadelphia, graduated from my high school, and had come from a low-income immigrant family. Even though I didn’t know Olivia, I took the news of her death very personally. It brought up flashbacks from two decades ago of how close I had come to ending my own life in college. Olivia’s story could have been my story.
Only a few months earlier in January 2016, I finally broke my silence about my struggles as a low-income first-generation college student. In my post “Poor and Traumatized at Harvard,” I shared about how at 17 years old, I was left on my own to make the transition from inner city Philadelphia to Harvard. Being unprepared for the culture shock, I spent most of my time feeling like a complete failure compared to my classmates and beating myself up for not being able to keep up with them. As my mental state deteriorated, suicidal thoughts compulsively dominated my mind. I starting having panic attacks because I had no idea what I was supposed to do after graduating from Harvard. Unlike most of my classmates, I was completely alone to figure out a way forward. Since life felt so out of control, my mind seemed to derive a very strange form of relief from the fact that I could control my own death.
The turning point for me came when I learned that my brain was impacted by developmental trauma (now often referred to as complex PTSD). While it was a devastating thing to learn, it made me realize that it was pointless for me to compare and benchmark myself with my classmates. I forced myself to accept that because of my background, I was not on an equal playing field with my peers and that my survival and healing required me to summon the courage to carve out a unique path for myself. The remainder of my time at Harvard was still especially lonely, but I managed to develop mind-hacking techniques to tame the nightmarish voice in my head and pull through the darkest period of my life.
Looking back, I still think of it as a miracle that I graduated from Harvard jobless and yet somehow ending up building a successful business career. At the time of graduation, I was clueless how to think about building a career mainly because I had had zero exposure to a corporate work environment. When I returned to Philadelphia, I contacted a temp agency and simply took whatever assignments they gave me to pay my bills. I did things like manning the reception desk at a law office, filing paperwork at a financial planning office, and data entry for the programming department at Comcast. Many of the people I worked for were pleasantly surprised to get a Harvard graduate to fill their assignment. They knew they were getting more than their money’s worth.
Luckily, I had friends from Harvard who convinced me that I had what it takes to be a good management consultant and then coached me through the recruiting process. Somehow in the fall after graduation, I got an offer from the Monitor Group. For most of my first year, I was like a deer caught in headlights. Slowly, I learned from closely watching my peers how to dress, act, and talk like a management consultant. It was only after I built a solid reputation for doing good work that I started carrying myself with more confidence.
Over the years, I slowly came to realize that it is not uncommon for first-generation college students who make it through college to stumble in building a career. Many of my siblings, cousins and friends graduated from college without securing jobs that match their degrees. A few settled for minimum-wage jobs because they didn’t know how to break into a professional career path. They didn’t have any one to open doors or make connections.
Back to April 2016, I was in the process of building a social enterprise called Calm Clarity through which I share the mind hacking techniques I had developed over the course of my life to heal my brain and build a successful business career. The program was having a profound life-changing impact on participants by helping them build inner resources like resilience and executive functioning. However, the news of Olivia’s tragedy made me see that Calm Clarity wasn’t enough.
The tragedy reminded me that students need a strong social support system and compassionate, caring mentors to help them navigate college and gain a bigger picture perspective on how their college experiences (both good and bad) fit into a larger life journey. Through my interactions with students in the Calm Clarity College Scholar Program, I learned that many disadvantaged college students today still find themselves alone in making the transition. Despite the fact that there are many, many programs that focus on getting high school students into college, there are still very few programs and resources to help these students thrive and succeed in college. Those that do exist generally apply very selective screening models and only serve a tiny fraction of students.
I felt compelled to develop a new solution. Since it is impossible for me as one person to fill a mentorship role for tens of thousands of college students from disadvantaged backgrounds, I saw the need to build a platform that would enable more people to get involved. So I began to collaborate with our College Scholars and with caring professionals (many of whom were also once first-generation college students) to develop a new nonprofit to fill this gap.
Therefore, it is with great pride that I announce the launch of the Collective Success Network, a new non-profit focused on increasing college success. We are building a community of professionals to support, mentor and empower college students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The Collective Success Network is infused with three key aims:
- to neutralize the stigma associated with coming from lower income backgrounds and having parents who didn’t go to college.
- to emphasize the strengths that students from disadvantaged backgrounds bring to the table such as courage, grit, resourcefulness, responsibility, compassion, and altruism.
- to empower students to take active leadership roles in which they inform, guide, and drive programming and support fellow students. (Our model is unique in that our steering committee is composed of both professionals and college students.)
Initially, our geographic focus will be the Greater Philadelphia area, understanding that the model we build has potential to be replicated in other cities. In our first year, we are supporting student leaders to build campus chapters at our first two pilot sites: the University of Pennsylvania and Drexel University.
To learn more, please visit our website, collectivesuccess.org. I hope that you will sign up to join me and support this new initiative.
About the Author:
Due Quach is a social entrepreneur who grew up in inner-city Philadelphia, graduated from Harvard College and the Wharton School of Business, and built an international career in management consulting and private equity investments. Having started life in poverty as a refugee from Vietnam who suffered severe trauma, Due created Calm Clarity to share the powerful neuroscience-based techniques she developed to heal PTSD, master her mind, and become her best self. Her book, Calm Clarity: How to Use Science to Rewire Your Brain for Greater Wisdom, Fulfillment and Joy is one of Fast Company’s 7 Best Business Books of 2018.
Due also founded the Collective Success Network, a nonprofit that collaborates with the wider business community to increase socioeconomic inclusion by mentoring, supporting, and empowering low-income, first-generation college students to successfully navigate college and enter professional careers.
After living and traveling all around the world, Due is once again a proud resident of Philadelphia, her hometown.