High school confidential

Victoria Korotchenko, first place

Victoria Korotchenko, first place

The college admissions process is highly competitive. Good grades, top test scores, extracurricular activities and long community service hours are all essential. But these days, top universities are under investigation for allowing well-to-do parents to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to coaches, faculty and exam administrators to guarantee their child’s access.

Despite these scandals, there are still young minds willing to put in the hard and honest work. SN&R found some of those students during the 10th annual College Essay Contest. The winners receive cash prizes to help with college expenses: First place gets $2,000 from InterWest Insurance Services, Inc.; second place receives $1,000 and third place receives $500, from by Tri Counties Bank, Sacramento Payments Co. and Gilbert Associates, Inc. Thanks to this year’s contest sponsors.

In the weeks to come, the winners will graduate and move on to UC Davis, George Washington University and other colleges. They will take the next big steps toward their educational goals and carve their space in a world that needs the next generation of young talent.

These students aspire to dance on Broadway, write the next great American novel or provide health care in underserved communities. They have also struggled with self-identity, with loss and their culture. These are the essays that resonated most with SN&R’s editorial staff, but we support any students who dream big.

—Steph Rodriguez

First place

Name: Victoria Korotchenko

Now attending: Folsom High School

College attending: University of California, Santa Barbara

Plans to study: English and history

Any fun summer plans? I’m visiting the British Isles and France with my family!

Dream job: Editor

What’s your personal motto: Adventure is out there!

‘Language doesn’t have to be a barrier’

English was a fiend. Every vowel, a villain. Every consonant, a dragon. That was my family’s perspective, anyway. They were the ones struggling with the language when they immigrated, trying to pass night school while conquering the American Dream.

When I was born, English became a destroyer of culture, of the past, of familial connection. Learning English led to forgetting my native Russian. My parents feared that they wouldn’t be able to understand my mile-a-minute speeches, especially as I started speaking multisyllabically while they were still embarrassed of their spy-esque accent.

But I was in love—English freed me from surrounding turbulence. Beverly Cleary got me through my dad’s incarceration. Harry Potter was there in the lonely middle school. Charlotte Brontë guided me through the high school crowd.

My love of the English language, however, deepened the rift between my family. For me, Russian equaled stuttering and miscommunication. I didn’t want to speak to anyone in my foreign first language.

This is what my family must feel like.

Each side had their struggle, and instead of helping each other, we preferred quiet oblivion. Before, I had missed out talking to my great-grandmother about her experience in World War II and the USSR because of naive fear. But this realization, this newfound relatability prevented me from making the same mistake.

Instead of silence, I helped my grandfather with “knight” and “night.” My grandmother described histories and superstition: Never whistle indoors if you want to keep your money. My past was filled with doomed romances and bloody battles straight out of novels—but instead of fiction, it was my own story.

English is a friend, and so is Russian. Each vowel, a unifier. Each correct consonant, a lesson in family.

I can’t read Dostoevsky in his original language, nor will my parents give me essay advice, but language doesn’t have to be a barrier. Communication comes in many forms, and while words are powerful, so are connections formed from interactions. Every story, every Skype call to Russia and every messed-up sentence brought my family closer together, even if these interactions were in broken verbals.

Second place

Name: Riley Burke

Now attending: McClatchy High School

College attending: George Washington University

Plans to study: Mass communications and journalism

Any fun summer plans? I’m traveling to London and Paris after I graduate for a couple weeks!

Dream job: Something in journalism or just communications in general. Writing for a major publication like The Washington Post would definitely be a dream.

What’s your personal motto: You can’t laugh and be afraid at the same time. (It’s a Stephen Colbert adage that’s always stuck with me.)

‘The children of 555’

Riley Burke, second place

The sun was about to rise over Washington, and Sofia was telling me about how much she loved Bob Dylan. We had stayed up all night. In the dawn, I told her that I felt healed. I was no longer alone in the universe: I was many. I had 20 brothers and sisters.

Four years earlier, my parents told me about the donor. I had no idea that my dad couldn’t have kids. I suddenly became a foreigner in my own body. What was known became unknown as I began the tedious process of unlearning half of my DNA. I looked in the mirror and suddenly did not know who looked back. I spent many days in a kind of haze. The world became big and distant. Too many people could have been my dad. I spent many nights Googling, wondering about the identity of the donor.

My mom later gave me a manila envelope labeled “555”—in it was all that we had of him. My biological father donated his sperm in Fairfax, Virginia, 2,731 miles from where I was conceived and born. Donor number 555 has small ears like I do. The shape of his eyes are the shape of my eyes. His face is my face. He likes art museums and doing technical theater and making movies just as much as I do. The sperm bank sent us an audio file with an interview he gave. I got goosebumps the first time I heard his voice. He felt familiar, in a strange way. I made it a point to carry around the flash drive it was on.

I grew older. I stopped seeing my dad. I started high school.

Then, in the springtime of 2017, I was put in a group chat with 20 brothers and sisters. It was my oldest brother who had found us all. He had spat in a tube and used one of those DNA websites to find out he had half-siblings. He found us online and brought us together: The children of 555.

We found the donor soon after. It was so simple. One of my brothers found him on Google. I had not looked hard enough. The world was small again. I knew my father. I saw a picture of him for the first time, and all I could think was “huh.” He was smaller than I had imagined. He looked sort of lonely. He was not God, nor the answer to my late-night Googling sessions attempting to gain back the missing half of my DNA. He was just a man who looked a little sad.

I told Sofia this in the early hours of our last morning together. She agreed. She’s from Florida and I’m from California. Yet, there we were speaking in hushed tones so we wouldn’t wake the others—20 of us in one house on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. for two days in the dead of summer.

I live in a quiet city, on a quiet street, in a quiet house, with only my single mother and a dog to keep me company. I spend my nights alone for the most part. But for two days, a handful of hours, I was many. I was Ben’s eyes and Robin’s ears and Olivia’s smile and Sofia’s sense of humor. I was Emily’s dislike of berries and Kylie’s nose and Derek’s crooked pinky finger. I was all of them. And we were loud.

I told Sofia that I was starting to think maybe I didn’t need half of my DNA back, a donor to take the place of an absent father. That all I needed was a room full of 20 siblings, with my ears and eyes and nose, laughing together. The same loud laugh.

Sofia smiled and nodded. The sun had risen.

Third place

Name: Jimin Moon

Now attending: Davis Senior High School

College attending: Penn State University

Plans to study: Musical theatre

Any fun summer plans? Working as a TA for Artsbridge Summer Arts Intensive in Minnesota.

Dream job: Target model

Jimin Moon, third place

What’s your personal motto: Work hard, have fun and do you!

‘My struggle with my identity as a person of color is not over’

Bananas are a wonderful fruit. The flesh provides potassium that relieves aches and pains and the peel provides an assortment of benefits (for health and comedy). The problem I see with bananas is that the fruit is two colors—yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Just like me: Asian on the outside, Caucasian on the inside.

Growing up mixed Korean-American was difficult. I was perpetually embarrassed of my dad and his thick Korean accent. The stinky foods he would eat—kimchi and gochujang—made me gag. I refused to learn the Korean language. I complained when Korean food was served, and I was horrified at the dining mannerisms. I thought all these behaviors my dad exhibited made him uncivilized and, by contrast, the white-tablecloth Italian restaurants and my mom’s uber polite public persona made the white-half seem like the normal half.

So for the first 14 years of my life I would laugh and say thank you when my friends at school would call me a banana. I believed that being seen as white on the inside was the greatest compliment and, so, I completely cut my Korean heritage from my public persona.

When I was 14, my dad mentioned he had heard me call myself a banana and found it hilarious. We were both chuckling about it (my chuckle was mostly from nerves) when I heard my mom say, “Jimin you’re pretty white on the outside too.”

I stopped cold. I was furious that my mother didn’t see me as Asian and I couldn’t figure out why. Nevertheless, I ran around the San Francisco airport terminal asking every worker what ethnicity they thought I was. (Side note: If you are thinking of using airport terminal workers to test what ethnicity you present as, rethink your experimental process. It doesn’t work. I have never been stared at with so much confusion in my life.) While the data I collected during that airport jaunt is by no means statistically sound, it was the catalyst for my personal racial revolution.

I have spent the last three years actively working to accept every part of my identity and, although more self-love would be ideal, I’ve learned to cherish my Korean half. I discovered leftover bulgogi bibimbap is perfect for lunch and kimchi is a delicious, magical cure-all.

More important than Korea’s culinary mastery is the respect I gained for my father. I finally took the time to learn the details of his life and, when I did, he became my biggest hero. From being born in extreme poverty in the South Korean countryside to finishing his master’s in engineering in only one year, he epitomizes the American Dream. My father, who grew up in backwoods Korea where being gay was not even a possibility, accepted my sexuality the second I told him. And he enthusiastically supports my theatre and dance aspirations, which allows me to be fearless in all artistic ventures. Basically, he’s the best.

Of course, my struggle with my identity as a person of color is not over. Thankfully, I live a very privileged life and I am so grateful I live in a community where my identity is celebrated. However, I still rarely see myself in mass media, which has sparked my life goal: To create entertainment that gives every child the opportunity to see themselves as the hero. Especially in our modern political climate where the color of someone’s skin can incur so much discrimination, it is more important than ever for the arts to step up and scream to the universe that we may all look different, but inside we’re biologically one species. Humans are just bananas.

Honorable Mention

Name: Zoë Senter

Now attending: Davis Senior High School

College attending: Boston University

Plans to study: Psychology with a pre-med focus

Summer plans: Catching up on sleep!

Dream job: Providing mental health services to underserved communities.

Zoë Senter, honorable mention

What’s your personal motto: What’s the worst that can happen?

‘This is what it means to love. This is what it means to be strong. ’

To the house on the corner of 2nd and Bassett:

The first letter I tried to write to you began, Aunt Daisy is doing OK. She lives in a foggy coastal town now, near family, so she is safe. For her 92nd birthday, we brought her to China Buffet. I guess I felt you deserved an explanation for my great aunts’ sudden flight, but it never came out the right way. What words will relieve an empty house’s sorrows? I know that the King City skies are dry blue above your roof, but sometimes I think you might even see rain before you see my aunties again.

Here’s another way to say it: All houses begin as skeletons. The full organism is the result of the peopling, the years of Polaroids and family recipes and stacks of letters by the couch. All houses return to bone. I’m sure I could pinpoint the time you grew the first sinewy muscles on your frame. It would have been the 50s. Maybe Aunt Alice had clipped the first wet clothes to dry on the lines near the shed. Maybe Aunt Daisy first arranged those red stools around the dinner table, enough for my father and all his siblings and cousins, then children, to sit at. Or the first nasturtiums sprung from the corners of the garden. On my last visit, we shipped decades of forgotten things to the dump in a U-Haul.

Here’s another way to say it: throughout my life, I have held you close in my heart. Maybe it’s not my place. Your walls were storied long before I made my first drive down south, and my lifespans only a small portion of the time my aunties resided in King City. But my aunties taught me the role that history plays in identity. As they had with my father’s generation, they were determined to instill an understanding of my Chinese heritage in me. I remember sitting at their dining table, counting out pennies in Cantonese. Following Daisy’s hunched figure through San Francisco Chinatown. Winter-night drives down south for Chinese New Year, knowing brightly lit rooms awaited me crowded with aunts and uncles, cousins and second-cousins—people I didn’t even know were related to me—all watching as my aunties miraculously procured from their tiny kitchen a feast to feed dozens. …

I remember observing the gentle concern Alice kept for my family; how even in her last years she’d crack jokes, encourage us, listen intently to our stories; thinking: This is what it means to love. This is what it means to be strong.

These are the tiny drops of moments I’ve managed to hold onto, while time like water slips fluidly through my hands. My memory is not without its gaps. My life felt tumultuous when we realized my great aunts, at 88 and 98, were no longer able to take care of themselves and had to be moved out of King City. I let myself retreat into my mind. When my family would visit Alice in her care home far from King City, I steeled my heart against the stress, and everything else around me. But now the memory of my last visits with her are clouded with frustration and apprehension. I can’t recall the sound of her voice.

Over the years I’ve learned the value of attention to detail, the love intrinsic to paying attention to your surroundings. Now, when I visit Daisy in that coastal town, I make sure I’m fully in the moment. I read the calendar my aunt keeps for her. Listen to the sound of Daisy chuckling at us again, always remembering to ask how you are, how the weather is in King City. I tell her: The house is fine, but it still hasn’t rained. As she laughs, I watch the hands, wrinkled and delicate as rice paper, that raised two generations of my family.

Honorable Mention

Name: Michelle Lin

Michelle Lin, honorable mention

Now attending: Luther Burbank High School

College attending: University of California, Berkeley

Plans to study: Health science and nutrition

Dream job: I want to be an anesthesiologist.

What’s your personal motto: Enjoy the present ’cause we are never coming back.

‘Cooking is my way to connect with my Nai-Nai (Grandmother)’

I came to California at the age of nine, and it was a struggle for me because like all other parents my parents are extremely busy. We are a low-income family, which means that I need to be a small adult in my family. I played the role of both being the sister and tutor for my brother, who is just three years younger than me. During that time, I was too young to understand the pressure that my parents bore, but I could feel their tiredness and exhaustion after coming back from work. I knew that I had to take care of my brother.

As a sister, cooking is a necessary skill that I needed to learn. I cook two to three times a week for my brother when my parents are gone to work. My signature Chinese dish is Chinese noodle filled to the brim with love and delicacy. I use my hands to roll and fold the dough, then I pull it into pieces of thin strings. I enjoy its soft texture and elasticity. Just from touching it, I instantly know when to start cutting the dough into thin strings. But most importantly, cooking is my way to connect with my Nai-Nai (grandmother) that I lived with at 8 years old. My Nai-Nai used to be a chef in a local restaurant in China. She worked as a chef for more than 20 years. Nai-Nai retired due to the knee and back pain, but even though she retired from the restaurant, her passion for cooking did not fade away. I will go purchase the groceries for Nai-Nai, and I will watch her cooking process, from washing the ingredients to cutting the un-fresh part and then cooking the ingredients in the pot. I can still picture Nai-Nai sitting in the kitchen humming her favorite old Chinese song and picking the beans or washing the cucumbers.

In my heart, Nai-Nai is my inspiration, she is the person who developed my passion and my talent for cooking. She is my master chef because, despite the simple ingredients she uses, it always tastes stunning at the end. Nai-Nai and I cook four meals per day. In the kitchen, I’m her assistant as I dice garlic and stir the pan as she needs. She teaches me to cook like a “MasterChef,” and cooking is fun. My first attempt at cooking, when I was nine years old, was Chinese noodles. I followed Nai-Nai’s recipe: Don’t over-pull the dough, rest the noodles for ten minutes and season the soup before you serve. I am not confident about the taste, but my insufficient confidence melts away like butter as my mother joyfully yells “delicious” after trying my Chinese noodles. You can’t imagine how happy I was!

I’m proud to have cooking skills because it connects me to my Chinese heritage … it’s the food that I present and prepare that brings back the taste of old-fashioned China and the taste of Nai-Nai into the home. My food is brimming with a Chinese flavor and my passion for cooking, but most importantly, memories. Memories that come back as I present the dishes. Memories that bring smiles to every face touched by the intoxicating smell. Memories that bring Nai-Nai’s warm presence into the room. Memories that make me have this cooking skill.

Honorable Mention

Name: Catherine Choquette

Catherine Choquette, honorable mention

Now attending: Davis Senior High School

College attending: University of California, Davis

Plans to study: Food science

Dream job: Author

Personal motto: We are who we choose to be.

‘I want to do this forever’

Age 6.

I stay up for hours reading stories and trying to write my own, writing about whatever I want, not caring about my bad grammar or rambling plot. I have dozens of ideas, and the possibility of putting them to use as a writer excites me. I want to do this forever. …

Age 10.

My stories are accidentally deleted. But it’s OK. I can create new ones. I have a new computer, and it works faster. I open up a new document, and the blank page represents endless possibilities. I want to do this forever.

Age 14.

High school approaches. For once, I have to think about my own future and not about a character’s. Suddenly, I don’t have time for stories. Anxiety dominates my mind as school dominates my time. In the rare moments when I am free, I try to write. I end up staring at a computer screen and wondering why the ideas don’t come as quickly anymore, and decide that this path must not be for me. The blank page represents an end. I can’t do this forever. I can’t do this at all.

Age 15.

I’m diagnosed with unspecified anxiety disorder. It makes sense. I’m worried about what will happen in the future every moment of the day, and worry constantly about my potential career choice, wondering why I want to be a writer when hardly anyone can succeed in the field and when my writing never seems good enough. I become afraid of trying new things, too worried that I’ll somehow fail.

Age 17.

At my school, there’s a literature magazine called Spoke. I pick up a copy one day and read the stories within. Then I read the next issue. And the next. Inspiration returns. I think about submitting something short, but become anxious about the idea immediately. “What ifs” surface in my mind, the most anxiety-inducing one being, “What if people don’t like it?” I wrestle with the thought for a few days. I think that in order to be a good writer, in order to show my work to anyone, I have to be extraordinary, fantastical, perfect. That way others can’t compare me to other people. That way others can’t judge me.

I think of the girl I used to be. The girl who wrote with wild abandon when she was younger, not having a care in the world about originality or word count or the expectations and criticism of others, and even though I’m not the same person now, I realize that I’ll only improve if I allow myself to make mistakes and be criticized, if I show my work to others, if I let out the ideas I lock up in my head, if I recognize that I’m deciding someone’s opinion about my writing for them before they even have a chance to see any of it.

So I sit down. And I write.

I manage to write something short, only a few paragraphs. I read it a few times and edit it a few more and know it still needs rewriting. It’s not extraordinary. It’s not fantastical. It’s not perfect. And I’m not the kid I once was anymore. I do care about my bad grammar and rambling plot.

But I want to keep writing. I want to do better. And for the first time in a long time, I think:

I want to do this forever.