SN&R’s 2011 College Essay Contest

Additional honorable-mention winners

Name: Kaitlyn Dwelle

Now attending: Bear River High School

College she’ll attend: undecided

Plans for study: engineering

The toaster

I sit on the floor of my room surrounded by scraps of wood, pieces of metal, and random tools. I look around for the rivets and start attaching the newly cut pieces together. It is strange to think that a week ago, I had a mostly built—but highly imperfect–device, and now I have a pile of pieces disturbing the clean lines of my ordinarily spotless room.

Odyssey of the Mind is a creative problem-solving competition where teams of five to seven students work together to create eight-minute skits that meet certain requirements. During my junior year, my team chose to compete in a problem that required a skit in which all characters were food items, and one food was on trial for allegedly being unhealthy. This was a performance-based problem, and while the rest of my team felt more comfortable with acting, decorating, and writing, I had always competed in technical problems. However, I saw our team’s potential and agreed to undertake a performance-based problem.

As I begin to put the device back together, it occurs to me how much easier it is to do things for a second time. Thinking of a new idea from scratch is the most difficult, yet the translation from an idea to a functioning reality is the most rewarding. However, it is impossible to create a perfect representation of an idea in the first build, no matter how many sketches and blueprints I draw.

Our team’s problem required a jury to be portrayed without human actors, and we saw this requirement as an opportunity to incorporate my technical abilities into this performance-based problem and set us apart from our competition. Therefore, it was decided that I would build a mechanical “toaster.” The jury would first appear as untoasted bread, hear the trial, then descend into the toaster. Later, the jury would rise from the toaster as burnt toast, signifying a guilty verdict.

It is satisfying to see a cleaner, more streamlined version of my toaster, but it is also frustrating to know that the hours of work on the original prototype now serve only as intangible guidelines for the newer version. Nevertheless, after five years of building devices for Odyssey of the Mind, I have realized how much more rewarding it is not to settle for “good enough.” Therefore, I spend hours of my winter break rebuilding a device from “good enough” into one that does justice to the original concept.

In addition to an opportunity for me to learn how to design, build, and create technical devices, Odyssey of the Mind has also taught me how to work with a team toward common goals. Although it was difficult in middle school to accomplish anything without conflict between team members, working with my high school teams has been a very gratifying experience. When every member of a team has mutual respect for the abilities of his or her teammates, working toward our goals progresses much more smoothly and efficiently. In my junior year, our team was able to complete our solution much more quickly than in previous years without compromising the quality of our solution because we were able to achieve true teamwork.

I look at toaster version 2.0 as I load it into my car to show my team the work I’ve done. Even though I gave up nearly all of my winter break to work on it, I realize that any amount of time would have been worth being able to present a reliable device to my team. Additionally, the process of taking the toaster all the way apart and putting it back together has allowed me the opportunity to come up with different and more creative ideas. For example, there are now two motors and two sets of toast: one untoasted and one burnt. This saves me from awkwardly trying to switch out the toasts’ decorations in the middle of our performance. Additionally, I have hooked up the switches to remote-control servos so that the toaster could be controlled from farther away. I realize that I am going to be late to our meeting and hurry to go show my team what I have accomplished.

When I look back on our completed solution, I recognize that our team had fully realized the vision of our performance we had imagined earlier in the year. For the first time, we were able to take an idea and transform it into a reality without compromising our original design. Even the ambitious set we had designed looked almost as beautiful as our original design, yet it was sturdy enough to tolerate months of abusive rehearsals. The same held true for other elements of our performance including the thought-provoking skit, beautiful costumes, and even my remote-controlled toaster prop.

We sit in the bleachers for the closing ceremonies of the World Finals 2010. As 6th, 5th, and 4th places are announced, I close my eyes and don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed when our school isn’t called. As anxious as I am to find out the results, I really want to go back to the dorms and sleep. However, as soon as 3rd and then 2nd place are announced I forget how ill I am and hold my breath while two more schools are announced; neither school is Bear River High School.

Now, four months later, I still vividly remember every phase of construction on our solution as well as our performance at World Finals, but how we placed still hasn’t sunk in.

“Food Court…Division III…First place…goes to…Bear River High School from Grass Valley, California!” We scream. We jump out of our seats, yet we walk slowly down to the stage to receive our award. I look at my team and see them all smiling and know that I am wearing a matching smile. “We really did it,” I think to myself as we take our picture as the 2010 World Champions.

Occasionally, when I am sitting in my room listening to music, I will glance up at my bulletin board where my 1st place medal hangs. It never fails to overwhelm me that we were able to take an idea from a rough storyline to a true performance. The hours I put into my toaster as well as the work I did outside of my comfort zone (decorating backdrops, acting, set design) were recognized not only by my team, but by judges at the highest level of competition. I think back on the entire process, and I am satisfied to know that I did my part to help my team earn 1st place in the entire world.

Name: Maddison Easley

Now attending: Nevada Union High School

College she’ll attend: California Polytechnic University

Plans for study: agricultural science

Staying steady

Steady. Deep breath. Thum-thump. Stay steady. Stop shaking. Breath-in, pull slowly, and prepare yourself for the recoil. Remain steady. These thoughts flood my mind as I purge into the moment before the shot, the calm before the storm. I am a hunter who embraces every aspect, every detail, and every moment of a hunt. Hunting is not simply a sport or even purely about putting meat on the table; hunting is a source of release and a core act that allows one to discover and develop important personal qualities. Hunting, in combination with the rural atmosphere I was raised in, largely contributed in molding the person I am today. The agricultural way of life my parents brought me into has taught me to be strong, hardworking, steady, and true to myself. These qualities and experiences that I have accumulated during the past 18 years have motivated me to have clear future goals, beginning with the continuation of my education immediately after high school graduation.

Patience, hard work, and determination are virtues that I embrace. I can distinctly remember the very first time I went hunting with a bona fide gun, which resulted in my realization of the importance of patience and determination. My age was nine, my gun was a .410 shotgun, and my heart was pounding as fast as a rocket headed into space when I was tracking those wild turkeys, with my father guiding me. My speedy heart dropped like a rock when the flock bolted, due to my not-so-quiet steps. Instead of returning home empty handed, we followed the gobblers across a vast meadow and I quieted my steps, slowed my breathing, steadied myself, and shot my first turkey. That first experience was one of my most memorable hunts because it was filled with lessons and realizations. The following key ideas have lingered since that first childhood hunt: it is essential to be capable of steadying yourself, in any situation, and oftentimes patience, not haste, serves to meet the goal most efficiently.

Living on a ranch with over thirty head of cattle, along with an array of other farm creatures, I have acquired countless lessons and truths about life. Coming from an environment that literally requires one to work with the earth, I have learned to respect the land. Waking each morning to the bawl of a hungry steer, the never-ending fence fixing, and the routine vaccinations have made me conscious of the work and responsibilities involved in life. Instead of being bitter about the hard work that I must endure, I have embraced my duties to create an opportunity to develop a worthy work ethic. Agricultural life has allowed me to grasp the awareness that hard work will pay off and that the land is a true treasure we must cherish.

“My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there,” said Charles F. Kettering. My past experiences and knowledge gained have influenced who I am today and the goals that I have set for myself, but the future is my playing field where I have the potential to fulfill these goals. This fall, I plan on attending a secondary school to start my specialized education, with an intended major of Animal Science. My long-term goal is to become a large animal veterinarian. I realize this plan has many stepping-stones that I must cross before landing safely on the other side. Fortunately, my journey thus far has allowed me to gain many essential qualities previously stated that will aid me in my future expeditions. Of course I understand that many helping hands will be necessary to reach my destined targets. As I end this chapter of my life, I am confident in taking the next steps to attain those goals I have set.

My family has pushed me to be a strong person through the rural lifestyle they have raised me in. During my 18 years of agricultural life, the following lessons have been recognized: patience is rewarding, determination is vital, hard work is satisfying, and steadiness is an essential part of life. With these tools at hand, I feel prepared to launch into the future to begin the rest of my life. Steady. Stay Calm. Focus. Remain steady.

Name: Ashley Stidham

Now attending: Cordova High School

College she’ll attend: University of Montana

Plans for study: photojournalism

Summer road trips

Its late afternoon, and the sun is starting to slip towards the horizon. The clouds are reflecting the orange tinge into the sky and I roll my window down to let the warm summer breeze in. This is my favorite part of the two-week road trip that my family takes every summer, the search for somewhere to spend the night right as we’re all ready to eat dinner. As we pass through countless charming little towns, I see little glimpses of other people’s lives—an old couple sharing a milkshake in a ’50s style diner, teenagers piling into the bed of a pickup truck as they head to the movies … I leave both of my cameras, an old film camera and a new digital one, sitting on my lap all day, waiting to capture shots of these little glimpses of lives other than my own.

We drive on the highways of America all day almost every day for two weeks, stopping at historical sites, gas stations, and scenic turn-outs. It’s the highlight of my summer and I look forward to it all year. In the spring, my mom and I pull out our giant Rand McNally atlas and pick a state. Montana: let’s stay in Glacier National Park. Washington: let’s wander along the coast. Idaho: let’s explore Sun Valley. The days until the trip in July are spent buying tons of food that we can easily pack, getting our tent trailer ready to be lived in for two weeks, and making sure everything is ready for our adventure. Though we usually plan out our meandering route through the states, to me it feels like two weeks of spontaneously driving around America and living on the edge until we feel our hometown pulling us back.

The experiences I’ve had on these trips have definitely had a profound effect on me. One year, we passed through a disheartened-looking city in northern California and the homeless population seemed infinite. Under each overpass sat gloomy, hungry people with all their belongings in a pile next to them. But as we drove under another highway overpass, I saw one man sitting by himself with all of his worldly possessions in a backpack. He was laughing so hard that he was crying, smiling as wide as he possibly could, and I smiled to myself as we passed him. This, I thought, is optimism. My parents told me that he probably wasn’t just optimistic, that it was more likely that he was on drugs, but it didn’t matter to me. Here was this man, with nothing but the clothes on his back and the things he could fit in his backpack, starving and probably starting to get cold, yet he was still smiling. This changed something in me, and to this day I try to see the world with a positive perspective and take nothing for granted.

On another trip, this one in Montana, my family stopped along the highway so we could all pile out of the car and take pictures. We met a man with a camera that was one hundred times better than ours, and he was taking snapshots of the same flowers I was planning to photograph. At first I felt insignificant as he focused the lens on his high-tech, name-brand SLR camera with at least 24 megapixels, and I was standing there with a plastic, digital compact camera with about 8 megapixels and popsicle stickers all over it. But then he told me about his passion for photographing anything and everything and I felt inspired. I had always loved taking pictures, and all of a sudden I had a new goal. I decided that someday in the future, I would be able to see something astonishing, then take a picture that would capture its essence just right, and then be able to tell the world its story. From that moment on, I was set on following my dreams just like the man had; I wouldn’t let anything get in my way.

The following summer, my family and I were camping in Washington. We were stopped near a bathroom in a state park, waiting for everybody to use it so we could start the day’s adventure. I saw some forest servicemen working on constructing a new bathroom out of logs and they were using a weird tool to cut the logs, and I got curious. Without a second thought I hopped out of the car and walked over to them. “What are you doing?” I asked them, and they told me that they were shaving down the logs so they would fit together better so the new bathrooms wouldn’t be as drafty as the old ones. I had suddenly discovered a new part of myself—spontaneity. Still feeling curious, I acted on impulse and asked if I could try it. To my surprise, the men said yes. So I then learned the proper techniques of shaving down logs by hand by the men who had spent a big part of their lives doing it.

Moments like these and so many more just like them are what have changed me. My goals and dreams have come to include photography, writing, and simply telling and knowing about tons of different things. I have come to be optimistic, determined, even spontaneous, and I’ve discovered small pieces of me from every one of the little moments I have on the vacations I share with my family. All these years, I’ve learned more and more each summer as I get to see little hints of lives—not only the lives of strangers, but also of mine and my family member’s. Riding in a car with the windows rolled down on a warm summer night, with both of my cameras sitting on my lap, I found myself.

Name: Esumi Fujimoto

Now attending: Davis Senior High School

College she’ll attend: New York University College of Nursing

Plans for study: nurse practitioner program

Found in translation

Silence drapes itself over the entire village: the lips of each small wooden house are sealed shut, their rice-paper doors remain closed, and rock gardens untouched. Despite the fact that the tiny fishing village has become my home—all 120 residents akin to family members—I announce myself each morning like a true American: noisily. The Pacific Ocean murmurs in the background as the sound of my footsteps against the damp pavement engulf the lonely street in song. Every step untangles the anxiety of another day lost in translation at Esumi Village Elementary School; the comfort of taking these first few strides overwhelms my initial desire to retreat back into my own quiet house, a safe-haven free of Japanese. Gradually, these daily strolls to the house adjacent to mine have become a chance to collect myself before becoming immersed in an entirely foreign world.

My feet stop before my heart has the chance to slow down, and as I peek my head into Mrs. Ogura’s shop, I spy the usual arrangement: bottles of sake stacked from floor to ceiling, the cashier desk barely visible among the chaotic array of liquor and boxes. Just slightly beyond the clutter sits Mrs. Ogura, peacefully sipping her morning cup of green tea in her tatami mat-laden living room. I need not even attempt to speak her language, to awkwardly utter a mispronounced “ohayogozaimasu,” because my feet speak for me as they run to my beloved neighbor, resting themselves before her—a special kind of “good morning” that only we understand. Nearly the entire summer was devoted to refining this idiom and learning its capacity, but because I cannot speak Japanese, nor she English—Mrs. Ogura’s signature “Esumi-chan, you grow!” has limited possibilities for daily conversation—we speak to each other in smiles and ways of folding our legs. I kneel in front of her, and she smiles as usual, responding by beginning to braid my hair. Sometimes, she sings to me, teaching me old Japanese folk songs that are perfect for occupying the mind during the many indecipherable lectures I must sit through at school. But often, on mornings such as these, we speak to each other only with ourselves. When she gives me a gentle nudge with her ankle, I know to uncross my legs, smile sweetly as only an eleven year-old can do, and dash out of the shop so as not to miss the morning exodus of all thirty school children in Esumi village.

Years later, even on an early Sunday morning, the streets of San Francisco are far from empty. The footsteps of the masses ricochet off of towering buildings and flood my ears with a song so loud that my own contribution to the music, the work of my own legs, is unrecognizable. Although my legs ache from hurriedly dashing across Amtrak and subway platforms, the city’s orchestra, a reminder of the hundreds who forge their way up the monstrous hills in front of me, inspires me to walk further. In some ways, the brick church perched atop the hill where Ellis and Taylor Street intersect is like the village elementary school of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, teaching its students the fundamentals of love and spirituality. At fifteen, I am a kindergartner in the school of Glide Memorial Church, far from fluent in its language of faith, self-love, and compassion. Yet my lack of knowledge does not prevent my limbs from carrying me forward in my ongoing quest for self-education, which is the driving force behind this solo journey I embark on week after week. Upon reaching the tall oak doors each Sunday, my feet ignore my mind—which screams, “You are out of your element!”—and direct me to a different pew so that I can understand every sermon from a new perspective. Beside me sit fellow pupils—sometimes, a family of French tourists squeezes into the wooden pew, and occasionally, the homeless man (“John from Louisiana!” he declares proudly) and Street Sheet salesman, parks himself to my left. Regardless of the seating arrangement, my classmates never understand my internal dialect, nor I theirs. After all, this is a city that is fluent in the language of anonymity, a language that I am beginning to understand. The Reverend Cecil Williams delivers a distinct message with every sermon, but the service always concludes with the entire congregation belting out the final song—appropriately titled “We Shall Overcome”—whose purpose remains forever universal, no matter who I share a pew with. We do not attempt to awkwardly mispronounce the other’s vernacular, to judge or misinterpret one’s reason for attending that Sunday’s service, but instead hold out our hands for the other to take—for we all have the natural ability to be proficient in the language of unity.

The cultural barriers that my legs have traversed during my various pedestrian journeys—from the deserted streets of the Japanese village for which I was named, to the congested avenues of the impoverished Tenderloin District—have broadened my personal lexicon of experience by leading me to discover the treasures of raw human interaction, unblemished by a shallow understanding of someone based only on a shared nationality or common background. Now, as I stand prepared to step into the next phase of my life, I remain confident that the independence and faith developed from all of my past adventures will eventually teach me the one unique language which I have yet to become fluent in: the language of myself.

Name: Jemmy Vang

Now attending: Valley High School

College she’ll attend: University of San Francisco

Plans for study: biology

Courage to succeed

Family; something I never thought would ever disintegrate. Family is like a beautiful Hmong copper bracelet until it is bent crooked, something that you can bend to form a similar shape but will never look as perfect as the first time.

It all started between my mom and grandma, my father’s mother, who had misunderstandings with other. My mom had always told me that my grandma was greedy about everything she had and she never loved me and my siblings because my mom is a poor orphan. On the other hand, my grandma says that my mom doesn’t love her and my grandpa so she doesn’t want to live with us. Every time they talk, they always end up arguing about the same thing over and over again. My grandma has the same issue with my auntie, which is my grandma’s second son’s wife. Knowing that my mom and auntie don’t get along with my grandma makes everyone from my grandma’s side hate my mom and auntie. This is where everything starts to tumble down.

The death of my cousin and my grandpa amplified the problem between everyone. On September 27, 2008 my sister received a phone call from my auntie that my cousin, Tshuaj, was driving home was shot to death and crashed into an intersection pole. Then on June 7, 2009 I received an early phone call from my sister that grandpa had stopped breathing. The funerals were the only thing that kept the family together. After my grandpa’s funeral my aunties on my dad’s side cut off the family relationship. Ever since I was a little girl I’ve always seen everyone together but things changed. There’ll be no more family gathering and no more visiting each other. It aches that the family isn’t as one anymore. I felt like I fell apart too because family was everything to me.

I was raised in a large, poor family. Growing up, I didn’t have many things like other children. I did envy them but as I grew up, I understood what my parents were going through with money. It saddened me that I did not get things I yearned for, but then it taught me something special. It taught me to be a better sister to my siblings, giving them what they wanted, and to be a better person, appreciating everything I have. At age sixteen, I got my first job working with children from ages six through twelve. With the money I earned I was able to help out my parents and I was able to get things for my four younger siblings and my only brother. My two older sisters were also employed so they didn’t need me. Being an older sister and a staff member, I was able to be a role model for younger kids, teaching them from right and wrong. Even though my parents were struggling financially, it never stopped me from trying to do my best in school. I took advantage of what was given to me. Despite the fact that my dad’s side of the family isn’t part of my family anymore, we are still able to do well without them.

The exquisitely made bracelet can never be bent into the original design but it will always be a Hmong, copper bracelet that can never be broken completely.

Name: Shelbi Tooley

Now attending: Granite Bay High School

College she’ll attend: Oregon State University

Plans for study: nursing

Number one fans

Silence takes over the stands and heart beats rise as the umpire screams out the three two count in the last inning of the game. The first basemen repeats that there are two outs and the play is to first, last pitch, crack! The ball is hit past the fence and once quiet fans display enthusiasm with yells of “Home run” and “Go Charlie!” Charlie is my little brother and that moment was relayed to me over the phone; he hit the homerun to win the game on a full count with two outs and I, one of his biggest fans, missed his shinning moment because I was at my end of the year lacrosse banquet.

My family consists of my parents, and my two little brothers, Noah and Charlie. Since we could walk we have all been playing sports. Between the three of us we, have tried everything; from football to tennis; we have done it all. Throughout every season, not only have I been my brothers’ older sister and biggest supporter, but I have also been the main person they look up too.

Sports have taught me how to be a leader, work through difficult situations, and manage my time, but more importantly they taught me how to be a role model. It took me a while to realize that how I act during my games shows my brothers how they can act during their games. I was the first person that they saw in person playing a sport and I also was the first person they saw get extremely frustrated at a referee or with a teammate. When they began playing highly competitive sports, I saw my actions being replayed by them. My parents always told me that I was supposed to be the example for them, but I never thought that they watched me so closely in my games.

This led me to have a better attitude during sports events because I know that my brothers will be there watching and I do not want them to pick up bad habits because of me. Once, in the midst of a basketball game I had gotten into an argument with a referee over a series of bad calls on my team in a very important home playoff game. As I persistently drilled the official on his calls I looked up into the stands and saw my brothers also yelling at the referee and screaming about how horrible he was, at that point I knew that my frustration was rubbing off on my brothers and that I needed to calm down.

Moments like these also led me to begin making proactive decisions in my social life early into high school. I knew that if my brothers ever found out that I made poor choices it would make it alright for them to do it too. High school brings a lot of peer pressure and everyone has their own way of dealing with it, mine was with my brothers. Every time I would be invited to a party which I knew would not turn out well I thought of my brothers and what I wanted to model to them and I would choose not to go. I did not want to give into the typical teenage pressure because I wanted to show my brothers that when they got to high school they too could stand against the norm. Therefore, when my mom received a call on her cell phone telling her that Charlie hit the homerun to win the game and we were not there, I was devastated. I wanted to be there to cheer him on and give him a hug after the game. I wanted to be there for him so much more than I wanted to be somewhere for me; I always tried to model the importance of family and this night did not effectively display my dedication.

My entire life has been lived through sports and through sports I have grown in a close relationship with my family, particularly my brothers. My family always comes first and we all call each other our “number one fans” because we all try to go to all of each others games even if they are out of town or inconvenient. This bond I have with my family, as well as the influence I have on my brothers will continue as I go to college and become a young adult. This will drive me to be the best I can be at any time in my life because I know that the decisions I make will somehow affect my brothers and I want them to have the best examples to look up to so that they too will make decisions that will make them the best that they can be.

Name: Amber Le

Now attending: St. Francis High School

College she’ll attend: UCLA

Plans for study: psychology and neuroscience

Amber vs. death

I was on the tip-toe verge of death. The funny thing is, a person never knows when his or her life will end until he or she is smack dab in the middle of a deadly situation with no knight in shining armor or secret trap door to escape through. What is even worse is that I had willingly put myself in this very dire situation completely aware of the tragedy to ensue. My heart impossibly pounded against my chest; the piercing pulse infiltrating my ear drums; thump thump thump. The rhythm increased, growing ever louder while competing against the noisy, senseless chatter of the crowd. There had to be over 300 people in the stuffy, crowded room; 300 pairs of eyes all excitedly waiting for the speeches to begin, like tribal cannibals waiting for the human sacrifice. My eyes nervously darted around the room, glazing over each face that anxiously stared up on stage, looking for the nearest escape route. Maybe I could set the sprinklers off; it would be a perfect getaway and no one would suspect a thing. Or maybe I could …

“And next we have Amber Le running for Student Council Vice President!” Too late. It was my turn to take center stage, grab the microphone, and die. As I slowly walked across the stage, which took almost five hours, a cold sweat assaulted my body and sent a fury of butterflies into the pit of my stomach. I had two options: give up or throw up. I took neither.

“Hi! I’m Amber Le and I want to be your senior class vice president. Okay, I know what you’re thinking, ‘Why should I vote for her?’ Well, good question!” It really was a good question. The answer? I didn’t have a single clue. My whole entire life, I have always been deadly afraid of embarrassment. My fear has kept me out of the play’s spotlight and off of the soccer field. I have always wanted to be involved in many activities like sports, acting, and singing but I have never possessed the courage to try them due to fear of embarrassing myself in front of others. Running for student council my senior year was probably one of the riskiest things I have ever done since it required making a speech in front of my entire class and risking public humiliation. I knew the risks but the possible outcome greatly exceeded them. I was tired of allowing opportunities, and essentially my life, to pass by while I watched from the sidelines as a spectator. I wanted to be involved, to take a chance, to live life. So I did.

Although I did not win the student council election, I do not regret the experience. For once in my life, I finally threw caution to the wind and overcame my fear of embarrassment. It taught me the importance of living life without regrets and to seize every opportunity despite the risks. The experience taught me to be proud of my accomplishments as well as my failures. As it turns out, I also learned that failing isn’t all that bad; at least it gives one a good story to tell.

Name: Melyssa Astorga

Now attending: St. Francis High School

College she’ll attend: University of the Pacific

Plans for study: pre-dental major with plans to become an oral surgeon

No quick fix

“Thank you for fixing our hearts.” Those were the final words in the letter that Isabel wrote me at the end of my 2010 summer service trip. Isabel was one of the many children I met while volunteering at Saint Bruno’s Day Camp in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco, a camp that provided for local families who could not afford day care. Most of the parents spent the day trying to find work, while their children were at the camp. It was my group’s job to cook and serve lunch for the children, supervise and play with them during recess, and afterwards, clean up the facility. For many of the children, the meal we prepared would have been either their only meal for that day or their most nutritious.

Before the trip, I had heard the dire statistics on poverty and lack of healthcare access in the United States, but like many people, I never took the time to think of what these numbers truly mean and of the daily struggles that they represent. Recently, the United States Census Bureau reported that in 2009, the national poverty rate reached 14.3 percent, which amounts to roughly 43.6 million Americans, 35 percent of whom are children. Furthermore, nine million children continue to live without health insurance coverage. I remember seeing these statistics as headlines in many newspapers, and Isabel’s face and her words came to mind. While I had been inspired by her gratitude, it seemed to me that the time I had spent with her at the camp would only qualify as a band-aid on her heart, not a complete fix. And, as is well-known, quick fixes seldom last. Volunteering at St. Bruno’s, I could make sure that she received one healthy meal a day. However, my volunteer work there would neither ensure she did not suffer from the effects of undernourishment in the long term nor ensure her access to adequate healthcare. It left me wanting to do more to help her, to make a real difference; but like the constant media stream of shocking statistics, it seemed to me that for Isabel and other children like her, what I alone could do would never be enough.

Later in the summer I found myself at my dentist’s office, spending the Saturday afternoon, as I have on many occasions over the past two years, volunteering in the clinic. I shared my experience at the camp with my dentist, as well as some of my concerns. Many of her weekend patients she saw on a need basis, volunteering time to treat the families in her local community of Rocklin, CA, who in the recession have lost jobs and along with them, dental coverage. I shared with her that working at the day camp had offered me a glimpse into the lives of children who live below the poverty line, and that the experience left me feeling I could have done more. My dentist smiled at me and simply told me that what I had done was enough for that week, for that moment. She said, “I used to feel like that sometimes, but at the end of the day, I know that I have helped another person to smile and beautifully at that.” And I have come realize that she is absolutely right. Isabel told me so herself, in her letter, though it took me a while to understand. It starts with the willingness to do what is right, to take the small steps and eventually the bigger ones. The band-aids I have left behind on the hearts of those I have ever worked with were enough at those times. And, with the skills and knowledge I will gain from higher education, I will be able to do more in the future.

I have gradually learned that there is not a quick fix to the problems of poverty and limited access to healthcare. However, I have also learned that the solutions and progress come through individuals, each with minds open and sleeves hiked up, willing to take the small steps and create the change for the millions of Americans who have been unjustly left behind. Progress comes in the form of providing one nutritious meal to a child like Isabel, or spending a weekend afternoon to provide routine teeth cleaning to a struggling family in one’s community. In this time of ongoing debates on tax policy and healthcare, it is not solely legislation, but the efforts of everyday people that will give rise to incremental progress in the fight to decrease poverty and improve access to healthcare. For me, this has translated into my desire to pursue a career in the healthcare field, and to continue working with disadvantaged and impoverished people in my community. I am ready to take on the challenges of college knowing that I will emerge more capable in these endeavors. Isabel believed I could do it and I know I will not let her down.

Name: Lauren Hearne

Now attending: Grant Union High School

College she’ll attend: California Polytechnic University

Plans for study: biology and kinesiology

Hard work pays off

It’s three minutes into the first quarter, and it is the first game of the season. The crowd is stomping and clapping, shouting out “Pacers! Pacers!” I sub into the game and my heart is beating a thousand beats per minute. I know I have to hustle up and down the court to show I deserve to be a freshman on varsity. The opponents extremely competitive and I am not ready to back down. On a fast break play the ball is flying out of bounds, and I jump to save it. The referee runs past and I try to avoid him. I save the ball, but as I come down from the air I come down on my knee and all I hear is POP! Rolling back and forth, holding my knee, the pain was so bad I couldn’t utter a word. I knew my basketball career was over.

Having reconstructive surgery on my knee was probably the set back of my life. From my injury I was left with a huge leg brace and a heart full of hope waiting and wishing to play basketball again. Basketball has been my life since I was in the second grade. Until I got hurt I have almost never had a day when I didn’t playing. The doctor said I would have to not play for six months which was the rest of the basketball season. When I heard this news I completely broke down.

I went to every game and every practice to watch my team play basketball. With each game that went by tears came to my eyes. After watching the first couple of games, I changed my defeated attitude. Instead of always thinking as there was no hope I looked at everyday as one day closer to me being able to play basketball. I knew that if I didn’t have a change in my attitude that the process to reaching my goal of playing basketball would be difficult. Every day as soon as I woke up I worked out all day long trying to get my leg back to health. Wishing I could hang out with my teammates or go to school, I was still back at home working out my leg and trying to be able to walk again. As about month went by I slowly began to progress. As I was stuck in a room with a brace that suffocated my leg, I kept repeating to myself never give up never give in.

Three months later I was back on the court playing just as hard as before. I was trying so hard to show that my spot should remain on the varsity team. I wasn’t going to let any injury hold me back from my dream to be basketball player in high school and in college. Now more than ever, I never take not only basketball, but life for granted because I know how it feels to almost have something important to you in danger of being taken away.

It’s the Semi-final game and The Lady Pacers are up by thirteen points against number one St. Francis. The crowd is screaming “Pacers! Pacers! ” My heart is beating a thousand beats a minute, and I’m ready to put in all that I’ve got. I scored three lay-ups back to back in the last game of the season of my freshman year. I come out with a new attitude. The attitude of a winner, the attitude of a person who never gives up in her toughest moments, the attitude of a true champion.

Name: Megan Saeteurn

Now attending: Luther Burbank High School

College she’ll be attending: San Diego State University

Plans for study: nursing

I am a bridge …

I am a bridge that fills the gap between the two different worlds. I am not one or the other, but I stand in between. I am the new generation.

I was born and raised in the Bay Area until the fourth grade when I moved to Sacramento. My family has always been an important part of my life and my parents worked really hard raising and providing for me and my three siblings. I was also really close to my grandparents, especially my grandmother. She was actually one of my best friends because she was always there to comfort and cheer me up, although she was ill and had certain disabilities. Living with three grandparents with different disabilities shaped me into having characteristics such as being caring, helpful, respectful, and patient, but most of all loving. I got to experience life through a different perspective and learned to be gracious toward others rather than only focusing on myself. Music was also another important part of my life growing up. I learned to appreciate different types of music and its art form. Growing up being bilingual was challenging because I only knew enough of my native language to speak to my parents, but not well enough to converse with my grandparents and the older generation. I always had to include a few English terms whenever trying to converse in Mien. However, when I realized how important and valuable my native language was, I began to speak more Mien at home. I gained more knowledge and respect for my culture.

Learning how to read the time was another challenge I faced growing up. In the third grade, I was taught how to read the time on a clock, but never actually learned until I entered high school. I learned to not give up.

One time I had to sing for a special holiday event that was held at a church. I was really nervous and contemplated on whether I should sing or not, especially since I was given the opportunity to sing a solo. I was honored, but afraid at the same time. Since I was too used to singing with a group, it was certainly something out of my comfort zone. Eventually, I overcame my fear and took the chance of performing by myself. It was one of the best feelings I ever felt after I performed. I felt like I was on top of the world.

I see myself being successful in the future. I hope to graduate from college with a degree, and have a career that I enjoy and gives a good pay. I want to attend college not only to further my education, but to be able to provide and give back to my parents and grandparents; and fulfill my filial duties. I also hope to have my own place and a nice car.

Moreover, I would know that I’ve accomplished my goals, specifically when I’m able to support my own family. Knowing that I am financially stabled would definitely be a big step towards being successful, as well as staying in touch with my family and being there for them. Most importantly, it would mean being independent and giving back to my parents.

My plans for accomplishing my goals of being successful include continuing to serve and volunteer in the community. I also plan to graduate within the top 10 percent of my high school senior class. Afterward, I plan to attend college and obtain a degree because I believe that having a certain degree gives much more opportunity to people in search of good paying jobs. People with degrees also gain more respect and it’s definitely something I wish to gain. I want to inspire and set a good example for my nephews and cousins. I plan to continue working hard and preserving through high school and college by making sure I complete all assignments and meet all deadlines and requirements.

The lessons I learned from my past, like my first solo performance was to take a chance and face my fear. I learned to just have fun and not let my nerves take control. I also learned that when opportunities come your way, you should not hold back or waste it, but to take a chance and have fun. Overall, I learned that if you believe in yourself, others will too. When I am faced with a challenge or an obstacle, such as not being able to converse in Mien, I learned to overcome the situation by improving what I lacked. In this case, I practiced and turned the challenge into something that will aid me in becoming a better person. I learned to accept who I was rather than trying to fit in. I am the new generation, not fully Mien or American. I am a bridge that fills the gap.

Name: Shaitra Ken

Now attending: Grant Union High School

College she’ll attend: Sonoma State University

Plans for study: English

Surpassing their expectations by living up to my own

March 8, 1995, Tajane, my niece, was born to her fourteen year old mother, Lovely.

April 21, 1996, Damon, my cousin was born to his fourteen year old mother, Portia.

January 19, 1999, Taveana, my niece, was born to her seventeen year old mother, Lovely.

November 24, 2002, Tamia, my niece, was born to her fourteen year old mother. Tina.

Finally August 2009, my niece, Taniyah, was born to my sister Kadessha, and yes, she too was only fourteen.

Teen pregnancy has plagued a great number of my close relatives. The only expectation set for me by my family was to get pregnant in high school and give up any plan for a future, too. At family gatherings I would hear, “Pregnant yet? Wow, someone made it to fourteen without being pregnant. Won’t be long now. You’re going to be just like the rest of your siblings.” I would normally stick up for myself and fight back with my words, but then I had learned that actions were the best way to show how amazing they thought I wasn’t. The fortitude I possessed after each insult and each knock down only grew more passionate in showing how I will be better, how I will do better, and how I will learn from those who made such mistakes.

I have seen all that my sisters and cousins had to give up: school, a social life, childhood, adolescence, freedom, and who they were for responsibility of another life, for the changing of diapers, for depression, for all the reasons they thought were worth it and later regretted.

Every day I was determined not to give into the expectation. I stayed focused, and in some way I let my future become my pregnancy. When the progressing trend was to get pregnant, I impregnated my mentality with the desire to get good grades. When mothers my age were going to doctor’s appointments, I was checking up on the advancement of my academic career through community service. When anxiety came for the baby to come, I was getting nervous over SAT scores. Finally when the baby was born and all anxiety was over, my final grades for my junior year were announced. When their healthy baby emerged, my bright future was in the palm of my hands. As they see their babies grow I will see my opportunities open up, my mind expand, and my experiences shape and mold me into the person my family said I couldn’t be.

In the end of all of my hard work I learned that everything depends on me. I couldn’t allow myself to plummet to such low expectations because that would have been the fall of my potential greatness. I can let someone influence me and make my decisions or I can be my own person by setting out my plan and surpassing their idea of me. I had refused to follow the cycle. I had refused to be the person that my relatives became a victim to. And with that understanding I can walk into the depths of adulthood knowing there will always be critics on my shoulder, but I don’t need their approval because I know my capabilities therefore, I will set myself to that standard.