SN&R’s 2012 College Essay Contest finalists



“Welcome to TJ Maxx. How may I help you?” a kind, friendly woman asked me as I walked up to her.

“Yeah, I was wondering if I could get a job application.”

“Yes, sure, here you go!”

“Thank you very much,” I said to her as I walked off into the distance. I came home and filled the application out for employment, and wondered if it would look better with a resume.

“Hmmmm…?” I said to myself as I chewed the end of my pen. I logged onto my computer and typed away!

Trying to find positive things to say about myself, I stopped and thought to myself, “Please, please, please, consider me.” I know in a small town such as this, in an economy where people are on the streets begging for money, and the fact that I was 16, finding a job wasn’t going to be easy.

I ignored the statistics, and turned in my application anyway. I applied to plenty of other places, but never ended up getting the phone call that I was so desperately waiting for. I ignored the fact again that nobody probably really wanted to hire a sixteen year old, so I applied again. Waiting for a phone call was like watching paint dry on a wall. I felt like I was never really going to get a call back, but one day as

I was studying in my room the phone rang. I got up to answered the phone thinking it was another one of those callers trying to get me to buy or donate something, or saying I’ve won some trip to the Bahamas.

“Hello,” I said in a timid voice.

A kind voice answered back and said, “Hello, is this Estefani?”

“Yes it is!”

“This is Melissa from TJ Maxx. We wanted to schedule an interview with you ASAP.” My mind filled with joy! “Finally!” I said to myself.

I scheduled an interview and realized that I had to look presentable to this interview. I bought a professional outfit, showed up to my interview a couple days later, and waited nervously for my shot with the manager. As I took each step to the manager’s office many thoughts were going through my head. What will she think of me? What will I think of her? How many questions is she going to ask me? My brain was pulsing, throbbing, and was filled with thoughts and thoughts and thoughts.

I arrived, and I walked up to this curly brown haired woman and said with excitement “Hello, nice to meet you!”

This woman was kind and introduced herself as well; we began the interview as soon as I sat down. As the conversation went on, she said “I’m aware that you are a minor, so if I hire you will you be able to obtain a work permit?”

In my mind I said to myself “I couldn’t have been more prepared!” I took out the work permit application that I had picked up from the career center at my school and showed it to her.

To my amazement, she started filling it out.

Again I thought to myself “Does this mean I got the job!?”

She finished filling out the work permit, and said “I’m glad you came prepared. We’ll be calling you in for your first day of work soon.”

The interview ended shortly after, and I called everybody I knew to tell them of my accomplishment. It was an adrenaline rush to have accomplished something at a young age.

Determination is what drove me to apply for a job. Determination is what got me the job. Determination is what drives me every day of my life. I go to school every day, and am determined to make it through the day. I am dedicated to life, and my future.

Months go by, and I’m working up at cashier. A customer comes up to me and asks, “I was wondering if I could get a job application?”

I looked at her and smiled and said “Yes, here you go.”

I watch her walk out the door and smile one more time before helping the next customer.

Estefani Rangel of Union Mine High School, will attend San Diego State University. [page]


Discovering Who I Am

In elementary school, I was surrounded by white faces with few minorities in the entire school. I was young and I never saw the color of a person’s skin. All I saw were friends and new people. Until one day someone said something to me that I would never forget.

My class and I were learning about Martin Luther King Jr. In the middle of the lesson, a girl leaned over and whispered “If this were back then, you would be cleaning my house.” I didn’t exactly know what she meant by it so I replied with “what do you mean?” when she said “because you’re black.” I was bewildered for a moment. I could feel myself becoming angry but I didn’t fully understand why. I went through the rest of the day feeling confused, curious and angry.

That night I went home and told my parents what the girl had said. Their expressions turned from attentive to furious the instant I told them. When I saw their reactions, I began to get angry again. I still didn’t understand why but somehow it felt like an instinct. I asked them why we were so mad and when they explained it to me, I finally understood and I welled up with rage. I went through a period of embarrassment. I did not want my dad to take me to school because I was afraid that people would say mean things because he was African American. If they did I knew I would get mad. I didn’t want to complicate my life at school.

Despite my efforts, I found that kids would still make the rude comments to me. It seemed like this was happening all of a sudden, but it must have been happening before and I just never realized it. I would hear the rude things people would say and they would make me want to prove to them that I am not the type of person that they characterized me as. I wanted to show them that I am proud to be African American but I am not like what they said. I wanted to prove to them that I am my own person.

I poured my heart into my schoolwork and my other activities. I was so determined to prove to every kid in the school that I can be whatever I wanted to be. I focused and studied hard. One day my parents told me how proud they were of how well I was doing in everything I was involved in. I told them how I was on a mission to prove all the kids in school wrong about me. They told me that I shouldn’t do well in things just to show other people, but to show myself what I am capable of. I realized that all the work I was doing to make other people see me for something different, made me feel better about myself. I also realized that I should not worry what other people think of me. In doing this I discovered I really enjoyed the subject of science and I knew one day I would go into the field of science.

That one comment during elementary school helped me realize that you can’t let things in the world affect who you are. You shouldn’t strive to prove others wrong, but to prove to yourself that you can be a better person and dream bigger. Now I motivate myself to do better in everything. I am still in a predominantly Caucasian school, and I still hear the same comments, but I just stay focused on my studies and what I want to do and who I want to be in my life.

Jasmine M. Hawthrone of Woodcreek High School will attend UC Berkeley. [page]


My Big Brother Ryan

One particular day in second grade, I get home from school and am wasting away watching a Treasure Planet for the fourteenth or fifteenth time. Just when I think I’m about to die of boredom (as my second grade mind thought could actually happen), my older brother Ryan pops his head in with his big red afro and tells me to come downstairs. I don’t even need to ask why; anything can satisfy me at this point. As I hop down the stairs two at a time, I see what looks like a tiny city, laid out across my front room floor.

“Wanna build this computer with me?” he asks as he smirks at me from the center of the mini city.

“I’ll never be able to do something like that!” I say back at him. I mean really, how could an eight-year-old like me build a computer?

He carefully takes me through each metal part, explaining how to identify them and what they do. I am intimidated at first, but then something changes. Some switch flips in my head and I start soaking up every word he says. I am in a trance taking in all this information when all of a sudden he questions me with,

“Can you build it now? Each part will only fit in one place. Just play around and see if you can get them all in.”

I go straight for it. The switch in my head is still on. I take each part carefully, the way he told me to, and place them in their respective slots and sockets. This part goes here, that part goes there. And then stop. What did I just do? All of a sudden that miniature metal city is condensed into a plastic case. Had I done it?

I call Ryan over and he tells me to press the power button. “BEEP!” The computer screeches as I press the power button. Fans turn, lights flash, screen lights; it’s working.

That day changed my life. My brother taught me something I never thought was possible. I didn’t know it at the time, but from that day, when given the chance to teach someone something amazing, I go for it. I want to learn as much as I can so I can pass my knowledge to others. When my classmate is struggling with a new programming language; when my friend needs help setting up a website; or even as simple as when my parents need to download their pictures from their camera; there are many opportunities to help. So many people never try something new or uncomfortable because they think it isn’t something that they would be able to do, but I want to show them they can. I want to see others amaze themselves by doing things they never thought they could do; just like he saw me, that fateful day in second grade with my big brother Ryan.

Brandon Jarvinen of Vista del Lago High School will attend UC Santa Cruz. [page]


Knowing When to Leave

I was sweaty. I was really sweaty. I was even shaking a bit. But I had to do it: I had to quit drumline. About five months earlier, in November of my freshman year, at the urging of a couple saxophonist friends of mine, I had joined the school’s winter percussion line. I liked the idea—even if the school had no orchestra for me to fiddle in I felt I should branch out and try new things.

It was definitely new: never had I had to play music so precisely, never had I really played music with other people, and never had my wrists and forearms ached so forcefully. More importantly, though I’d played violin for a few years, I hadn’t really understood music. Now, through focusing solely on rhythm, what had often been a garbled aural mess became quite literally sweet music to my ears—a beat, a bar, a phrase, a movement, it all fell together in fragrant fractal form.

But despite these novel wonders, the saxophonists had neglected one small detail, one that was really cramping my style: Drumline was a cult.

The drum instructors, a full foot difference in height, were kings of that stuffy band room, a sinister Laurel and Hardy of the beat. To them, nothing mattered more than To Drum, and then To Win at the Saturday competitions that frigid spring. Forget your life at home or at school, you had 20 hours of drumming to do!

After the winter competition season had ended, I felt I had stuck through a challenging ordeal, applied myself well, and could finally lay down my sticks and hibernate. Not so: that was only the beginning, for now it was on to “Chops Season,” then summer practices, then fall season, then winter again, and on into infinity.

So I did the courageous thing: I turned tail and ran. Eventually.

For two more weeks I diddled fearfully on, until I finally got it in me to average the heights of the two instructors and meet them at eye-level. I shuffled towards them moistly and mumbled something about not having a ride home anymore. After being berated and guilt-tripped for leaving before being told nothing was forcing me to stay, I left.

I didn’t differ with them on the fundamentals. We all loved music, and understood that constant practice is what leads to improvement, and thus further enjoyment of the art. I simply disagreed with their way of going about it. To them, you either gave 100 percent 100 percent of the time, or you failed.

I am no such absolutist. I am also not fiercely competitive: I do things more because I am interested in them, want to know more and improve, not because I want to be better than somebody else or gain their approval.

And though I might be a better drummer and musician if I’d stayed, I hope I’m a more fulfilled person because I left.

Spencer Nyarady of West Campus High School will attend UC Berkeley. [page]



Scratchy, itchy, red bumps. No matter how dreadful I felt having the chicken pox, I knew it did not compare to what my dad was experiencing nearly two-hundred miles away. While I was sick and could not go to school, my dad was in San Francisco undergoing brain surgery.

I remember staying home in the rain as I awaited news that my dad’s ten hour surgery was over. My chicken pox would scab up and go away with no effect on the rest of my daily life, but the scars left on my dad would change our future for years to come.

“I will get through this but not ever will I get over it” (Mary Beth Chapman). There are very few life-altering events throughout a person’s life where this statement applies; however, it fits perfectly with an event that changed my life forever. Having a parent go through brain surgery only to be later diagnosed with cancer affected me in a way that I never anticipated.

This journey began when my dad underwent brain surgery when I was in the eighth grade. I experienced many times of uncertainty and fear as he trekked through weeks of radiation and chemotherapy. These times left me wondering what our family’s future would hold. After experiencing months of treatment, my dad experienced daily struggles with memory loss, headaches, and understanding conversations. Seeing my dad have these struggles continued my uncertainty; each month seemed to bring different problems to our family and I never knew what to expect. Even though my dad’s struggles have continued throughout my middle and high school years, I have been able to see some positives through this event in my life.

Although I wish my dad did not have cancer, there are some opportunities that my family has been given that we would not have otherwise had. Since my dad began working less due to the affects of surgery and treatments, he had more time to spend with his family. He was able to support me at each of my tennis matches, while many other parents were still at work.

Also, the struggles that I have been through made it easier for me to connect to children with special needs while I volunteered at Camp Barnabas and as a Teacher’s Aide in high school. Although their struggles were different than mine, my experience with my dad gave me additional compassion towards them. This life-changing situation has begun to shape me into the person I am today because of how I view my dad’s cancer each day.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “For every minute you are angry, you lose sixty seconds of happiness.”

This echoes my perspective that I aim to maintain throughout my life.

Do I wish that my dad was not ill? Of course I do. However, I have realized that I am equally blessed by the abundant smaller joys and friendships that resulted from my experience.

Brendon Hillier of Cosumnes Oaks High School will attend Biola University. [page]


Stepping Stories

As I walked down the hallway, I heard jazzy music and the sound of shoes scraping wood. Butterflies flitted in my stomach as I clutched my brand new tap shoes, the fresh patent leather squeaking as they rubbed together. I paused before opening the door, wondering what would greet me today and every Wednesday thereafter. As I entered the room the instructor smiled at me and said “Welcome to beginning tap for teens and adults.”

Teens and adults, however, is not what I saw as I glanced around the room.

Instead I observed only adults: a group of older women who could have teenage grandchildren of their own. Thoughts raced through my mind. Should I drop the class and take one with kids my age? Will I have anything to talk about with these fellow classmates? I realized it was too late to head for the door, so I took a deep breath, sat on the bench, and laced up my shoes.

As the night progressed I found I had nothing to fear. We were all united in a common goal: an attempt to learn a new skill. In the months that followed, these women became like an extended family, the kind aunts that ask how your classes are going or what you’re planning to wear to the winter dance.

Beyond friends and new tap skills, I gained something more. As we shuffled, brushed, and step-ball-changed together my classmates would share stories and adventures from their youth. From the apprehension of performing Cold War-era nuclear drills to the exhilaration of getting a color TV for the first time to our teacher’s tales of tapping with legends like Gregory Hines, each story gave me a new perspective on the world and served as a window to the past.

At first I worried whether or not I would have fun with people so different from me. By stepping out of my own generation and spending time with these women, I was able to expand my outlook. My classmates taught me that age is just a number and that it is always the perfect time to discover something new: whether tap dancing in retirement or while still in high school.

Now I look forward to the opportunity to meet even more people in a diverse college community. This time, the pursuit of knowledge, not dance steps, will be the common ground. College, like my tap class, will be a chance to broaden my horizons and gain new perspectives.

I do not know what is in store for me in college, but the possibilities excite me because I know that new relationships and knowledge can come from the most unexpected places. My teenage friends have heard of my tap dancing class and ask me, “There are no teens in that class? How do you have fun in a class without friends?”

I think about sharing stories, laughs and tap steps every Wednesday and respond with a smile, “I do have friends in that class.”

Kyra Skye of Davis Senior High School will attend UC Berkeley.


Her Legs

Light-hearted laughter and copious smiles erupted from the room down the hall. Peering inside, one could see two youthful girls sitting side-by-side on the floor, tears streaming down their faces from the mere hilarity of life. The girls began to gasp for air as they exclaimed a progression of incomprehensible words before bursting into yet another stream of zealous laughter.

For some, having a friend with cerebral palsy might pose too demanding a situation and seem unfeasible. Lugging the wheelchair up and downstairs, being limited in one’s activities, and feeling obliged to tend to every one of the friend’s needs…all things very inconvenient. But my friend Lexi didn’t let the wheelchair hold her back, and I loved being her “legs”.

Until I met Lexi, I was incredibly shy. As a toddler, I would cry at the sight of most adults, including neighbors; cover my eyes while on stage in ballet; and sob endlessly when people sang me “Happy Birthday.”

I had a fear of people, but Lexi helped me conquer it.

In second grade, we had a class American Poetry performance. That day, all the kids’ parents crowded in the classroom to see their little angels perform. After a month of rehearsing, memorizing, and singing, we were now ready. We rose from our cold, metallic seats. Shuffling feet, nervous laughter. We hovered in an awkward semicircle as everyone took turns stepping to the microphone to recite a few lines from a poem.

Soon it was Lexi’s turn. Arms shaking, I pushed her wheelchair to the microphone and lowered it down to her level. Silence. The crowd was growing restless. Lexi’s breathing increased and she began to hyperventilate; first with nervous laughter, but seconds later, she was in tears. She lost control.

I wrapped my arms around her, telling her everything would be okay, and I carefully took the microphone from its stand and recited her lines of the poem. The crowd cheered as parents wiped tears from their eyes.

Though terrified of public speaking, I had overcome my fear to help a friend in need. I hadn’t hesitated at all. It seemed second nature to be there for my friend and to help her avoid a traumatizing situation. Everything became less about me and my fear and more about doing the right thing for someone else.

Ever since that day, my mom says I became a different person. I’ve gained confidence in myself and I’m proud of my willingness to be selfless and help others. Lexi taught me that we all have weaknesses, and she helped me overcome mine. Though I was her legs, she was my heart. Together with our handicaps we took on the world, and forever I will remember her and the joy she brought to my life.

My shyness has slowly dissipated over the years, and I have my friend Lexi to thank.

Jennifer Golditch of Whitney High School will attend UC Santa Barbara.


A Part of Me

I was deathly afraid of my sixth grade promotion—not because it was my first graduation ceremony, nor because I feared tripping and falling, or even because I would be leaving some of my friends behind forever. It was because of a silly reason. I was afraid of the reaction my classmates would have towards my family.

My friends had never met my parents; I evaded as many school events as possible. I made sure that they were first to arrive and first to leave at Open House, that they only stayed for a couple of minutes at parent-teacher conferences, that they picked me up from the front of the school, never making their way inside. I never showed pictures either. The image of my parents was built from my stories, which I tried to make as Americanized as possible, hiding the fact that my mom covers her hair and my dad has an Arabic accent.

My family was always different. We celebrated Ramadan and Eid-Al-Fitr, we dressed modestly, in long dresses, our food was infused with intense spices, and our accents are heavy, sharp, with sounds not recognized by the English alphabet.

As far as I knew, different was weird and unacceptable.

The day of the ceremony, my friends worried about hair and make-up while I worried about what my parents would do. I remember asking my mom if she could wear pants and a nice shirt instead of her usual dress. Her smile faded into a disappointed frown. Yet she did not lecture me on culture as she normally would; instead, she kindly agreed.

It would be another four years, after I had publicly started wearing a scarf like my mom, for me to come to the realizations I should’ve made then. After volunteering in my little brother’s class, I asked him why he was so quiet during the day.

Reluctantly he asked, “Nada, why do you have to wear that thing on your head?” and I understood.

At that moment, a sense of déjà vu overtook me, and I felt the tides shift as I was placed in my mother’s shoes. Even though I was never popular, never had I thought I was different, never had I believed I was an outcast. But that was how my brother saw me—how I used to see my mother.

I realized that even though I had gone out of my way to be like everyone else, no one had gone out of their way to be my friend. Nobody noticed. I was just another of the many who existed.

Thus, my belief in individuality emerged. I no longer cared about trying to mimic those around me, especially when it was inhibiting my happiness and hurting my family. I realized that the culture I had so easily discarded had allowed me to be unique. I was neither just American nor just Arab, but rather, Arab-American; no longer was I going to chose between two parts of my life that I loved.

Now when someone asks me why I cover my hair, I do not sweat as I frantically try to come up with a response; instead, I say I wear this hijab for modesty—it’s a part of my Egyptian culture, and a part of me.

Nada Sayed of Monterey Trail High School will attend UC Davis.


When One Dream Ends, Another Begins

“What do you want to be when you are older?” is a question that I have been frequently asked growing up. During my adolescence, I considered numerous professions: a singer, an archaeologist, a lawyer, and so on. Throughout high school I have asked myself and my reply has become the unimaginative “I do not know.” My aim is living a happy life doing what I love, but what is that?

Only earlier this year did I truly realize my answer to this dilemma; my future aspirations finally began to crystallize in my mind with these life-changing events.

It is an ordinary school day and I am sitting in my seat when a substitute teacher asks us to take out paper for note-taking, triggering groans as students pull out their notebooks. After an hour long lecture, he passes a newspaper around the room, containing a photograph of a man with a sad expression on the front page. Just by viewing the picture, one cannot help but be moved by it. The photo definitely caught my attention because my father was laid off a few years ago and is currently struggling to find work.

The substitute leans back against his desk, piercing into the eyes of every student. “All the dreams that you have built up will most likely shatter,” he says with definite affirmation. Shock rose among us, and he then illustrates that “life is never fair.” Disappointment will eventually come to every person, like the man in the photo. The inevitable truth is that you will not always get what you want. Sometimes your future is in the hands of others, but it is each individual’s decision as to how he/she handles the situation and moves on.

With just a minute of class left, he imparts his last words of wisdom: “Whatever you think your dream is now, it will change later. Do not be afraid to fail.” In 2007, my family was affected by unemployment, like the man in the newspaper photo. Since then, my father worked various jobs but all have been temporary. It devastated him and slowly fed into the idea that he was not good enough for work, for the vocation that he was passionate about. Although being jobless crushed him, my father decided to get up and do something with his life. He directed his energy towards volunteering at the local food bank, and from then on, he created new dreams.

A while ago, I was unsure of which career to make my profession. I desire to be numerous things, but had never set my mind on one because of the fear that the path I choose will not lead to success. I worried that if failure did occur, then it would identify me as a disappointment, a letdown to others and myself. However, from this lesson I realize that if I do not attempt my dreams, I will never know the outcome of them, whether good or bad.

From my father’s experience, I understand that what will truly define me is how I pick myself up, learn, and grow.

These happenings motivate me to seek the vision that I have today: to be a journalist. If I fail, I will not let it stop me from achieving and fulfilling my life goals. Even if my aspirations change during the years that I attend college, I will form new ones to strive after and aim for greatness.

Dreams do not always come true and may bring us down, like my father, but it is not the end of the road. When one dream ends, another begins. So this is my objective: to go to college, further my education, and pursue my never-ending dreams.

Helen Nguyen, Cordova High School, will attend UC Davis.