An Island of Success: Zhi Yang “Wouldn’t Be Where She Is Today” Without Minds Matter SF


Nearly three years ago, Zhi Yang was 16 and a high school junior at Thurgood Marshall in San Francisco's Bay View district. She claimed to Huffington Post that the most exciting moment in class that year was finding out what books they were going to read in English class.

She was always a diligent student. At that time, Zhi, pronounced "Zee," was taking three science classes that year: Chemistry, Physics, and Biotech, along with Advanced Placement United States History, and Pre-Calculus. Holding a rigorous academic course load, she was also Junior Class President, cross country runner, football and baseball manager, and volunteers for numerous other organizations.

Needless to say, Zhi doesn't get much time off, waking up at 6:30 a.m. and sometimes going to bed at 1 or 2 a.m., depending on homework.

But that didn’t stop her from joining Minds Matter SF.  

Originally, Minds Matter, the San Francisco-based non-profit, striving to narrow the achievement gap by increasing college graduation rate of low-income students, visited Thurgood Marshall to recruit their newest class of high school students.

In fact, Zhi applied to Minds Matter after her mom had mentioned to her that her family couldn’t afford to pay for college or SAT prep.  

“I remember my interview,” she said, “I gave one-word responses and was so nervous. It was the first time I interviewed for anything. I was intimidated but knew I had to go for it. The test prep and summer trip sounded cool.”

“Actually,” continued Zhi, “when I didn’t hear from MMSF after a few weeks, I emailed them to follow up and to ask if I could join even though I wasn’t selected. My first day at Minds Matter was the second week of the program. I’m so glad I sent that email.”  

Meeting Her Mentors

The first time Zhi met her mentors, Sean and Isaac, she remembers one thing very clearly: “They asked so many questions.”

At that time, Zhi admits to being very timid, but after seeing her mentors every Saturday, the ice thawed, and the trio started to talk more about her school work, challenges, and passions. They felt like friends who had gone through the process and could provide some valuable insight and guidance.

“Sean and Isaac were the most optimistic people I’ve met, and it really helped to be around them because I was pretty anti-social then.” Zhi cites their enthusiasm as the element that helped her get into the material and her homework. 

Zhi, Sean and Isaac’s mentorship deepened over the years. After attending summer programs at Andover and Princeton, funded by MMSF, Zhi said she was much more open with her mentors because her summer trips were opportunities where she learned how to connect with others and put herself out there.  

“I grew up believing I had to do everything for myself. Slowly, but surely, I learned how to ask for help,” she said. “There was a lot on my plate – with school, extra-curricular activities, family life, etc. At first, it was difficult to go to my mentors for guidance or assistance when I felt like there was so much to do. It was a huge lesson to realize that I sometimes couldn’t do it all by myself. If anything – I need community.”

The College Application Process

Zhi never really thought about college aside from the fact that she wanted to go.

“Nobody in my family had gone to college, so I had no idea what the process entailed or what I needed to do. I didn’t even know what different types of colleges there were outside of CSUs or UCs,” she said.

“At times, it was really overwhelming,” she continued. “There were so many decisions to make, and I remember wanting to have as many options as possible, but I knew I didn’t want to go to a big school.”   

With Sean and Isaac’s encouragement and guidance, Zhi explored colleges she would’ve never even considered.

“Both my mentors went to Gonzaga, so they were pushing that,” Zhi laughs, “and while I wasn’t interested in Gonzaga, it inspired me to look at private and smaller liberal arts schools.”

Through MMSF, Zhi also realized that she didn’t have to take the SAT, but the ACT was another standardized test option. It was more suited to her learning style. In her tutoring sessions, she developed the test-taking strategies necessary to earn a competitive score.

What was probably most challenging for Zhi was writing her college essay – it wasn’t just the numerous drafts and edits she developed or the late nights, but also a moment of breakthrough and reckoning with her past:

“Writing my college essay was the first time I really processed and discussed my father’s schizophrenia with anyone. My mentors were incredibly supportive throughout the process. It felt like a huge risk to finally be open about it and think deeply about how I felt or its impact it had on me. I know I grew immensely from the experience.”

Making the Choice

Come senior year, Zhi applied to 19 schools, most of them in-state because she never thought she’d go out of state. However, Zhi applied out of state to open up her options. She was accepted to a majority of her schools, and her final choices were three liberal arts schools… Middlebury, Kenyon, and Hamilton.  

Hamilton came out on top. Zhi remembers the college admissions counselor picking her up from the airport and driving an hour to make sure she arrived safely to her on-campus tour. Getting that type of individual attention was extraordinary. Then, Zhi learned that Hamilton was going to cover 100 percent of her tuition. Because of Hamilton College’s scholarship programs, Zhi will only have a small loan after graduation. Plus, if she works 150 hours at an internship this summer, she’ll receive a $2,000 summer stipend.

Often times, Minds Matter sees more financial aid from private, liberal arts schools than from high caliber public universities, but because of a lack of awareness around these programs, fewer lower-income students decide to go to private schools. In Minds Matter’s mission to increasing college graduation rates in low-income students, the non-profit also urges students to find the right school for their learning style and financial fit.

Discovering Grit and Growth Mindset

Looking back, the investment and hard work were life changing.

Every Saturday, Zhi woke up before 7 a.m. to take a long commute from the Bay View district in order to get to Minds Matter. For hours, she along with her fellow peers, would tune into college prep courses, critical thinking exercises and connect with mentors to think deeply around goals, setting a vision of success. 

Despite being timid in her earlier years, Zhi made some incredible friends along the way, overcame her shyness and found camaraderie with diverse students throughout the city who shared the same motivation to get accepted and graduate from college.

“What would I have been doing otherwise?” Zhi asked herself during a Facetime interview in the Hamilton Student Union. “I would’ve probably just watching TV all those Saturdays. Despite my passion and hard work, I know I wouldn’t be where I am today without Minds Matter.”

Zhi always had the grit and determination to grow, she just didn’t know it until she discovered it for herself when she tapped into the Minds Matter community.

Today, Zhi is finishing up her first season of Midterms at Hamilton as a college Freshman. The weather is getting colder, but she’s enjoying the change of scenery and all her classes – Psychology, Sociology, Chinese, and Writing about Diversity. 

Zhi Yang was an “island of success,” demonstrating to her friends and younger peers that she could make these strides when given the right tools and resources. Because of Zhi, more and more students from Thurgood Marshall high school joined the ranks of Minds Matter. Today, Minds Matter’s impact and numbers are growing, helping us drive our mission to narrow the achievement gap and college graduation rate for low-income students.

Want to meet Erica Chan who was inspired to join Minds Matter because of Zhi? Read what’s on her mind.