SN&R's 2014 College Essay Contest winners!

The winners of the SN&R's 2014 College Essay Contest

First place: Connor Nelson

First place: Connor Nelson


Sometimes it seems impossible to escape discussions about millennials. There are constant national conversations about their job prospects, their digital tendencies, their dating styles. And complaints that today’s youth are spoiled, lazy and entitled are all too common.

But after reading through this year’s entries to SN&R’s 2014 College Essay Contest, we beg to differ. The teens who submitted essays have faced enormous challenges, and yet they remain passionate and incredibly ambitious.

We read stories about death, abuse and poverty. We also read about cultural adjustments, disabilities and life-changing accidents. And about love for art, music, the environment, public service and activism. Of course, we also read about their stress.

It was a tough decision, but through our blind-judging process, we managed to choose our first-, second- and third-place essays. The winners will receive cash to help defray college expenses—$2,014 for first place, $750 for second place and $250 for third place, from SN&R and our long-running sponsor, InterWest Insurance Services Inc.

Read on for SN&R’s 2014 College Essay Contest winners and excerpts from our honorable mentions. And, perhaps, inspiration for your next millennial discussion.

Name: Connor Nelson

Now attending: C.K. McClatchy High School

College he’ll attend: University of San Francisco

Plans to study: International business

Personal motto: “If there is a will, there is a way.”

‘I started to realize my sexual orientation’

I didn’t start thinking about myself and who I was until fall of 2012. During this season, I was used to hearing the rustling of leaves, yet nowhere close to suspecting the expression of nature inside of me finally bursting out. I was contemplating actions I would make in the near future that would have a major effect on my life.

I was officially starting to identify myself as a gay individual and simultaneously completing my Eagle Scout project. I was conflicted by one major decision I needed to make: stay hidden in the closet—pretend I was straight—while completing my final steps in achieving the highest rank a Boy Scout can attain, or finally come out as gay and support the gay community in its desperate struggle for equality.

I started to realize my sexual orientation in late middle school and early high school. I swept these feelings aside, ashamed I could be anything deemed so horrible by society. But as time progressed, the feelings started to feel much stronger and prominent. I realized I was gay. Still, too terrified of the reaction my family and friends would have if I were to come out as gay, I began to form the idea that I could pretend I was a straight man my whole life; marry a wife, have kids, and it would all go away.

As time progressed and I continued to work on my Eagle Scout project, it became evident to me how prejudiced the Scouting community was. A petition on with over 400,000 signatures pressing to remove the Scouts anti-gay policy proved ineffective to changing the Scout leaders’ opinion. I was hopeless: If that many people couldn’t change the policy, I would be forced to stay in the closet or come out as gay and be kicked out of the Boy Scouts, something my family and I would be very disappointed of.

I’ve been involved in the Boy Scout community since I was 6 years old. This was something my parents and I were very excited about; it was a family tradition, and many of my family members had been in Boy Scouts and had become Eagle Scouts. Naturally, as I grew up, my family expected me to become an Eagle Scout. The one thing I feared most was that this developing self-identity would restrict my capability to complete this monumental accomplishment, something I had been practically working for my whole life.

The first time I had the courage to do anything toward fully accepting myself was when I met my first boyfriend, Eddie. He gave me the courage to come out, not only from his support, but also from the time I spent around him. I realized that he was well-loved by many people. He had lots of friends and was very successful in what I thought was a very “prejudiced” society, eliminating my main fear, that of not being accepted.

As time slowly drew closer to the completion of my Eagle Scout rank, I grew more conflicted by the different decisions I could make. Being a significant part of the Boy Scout community was a childhood goal and meant so much to me, but being truly myself seemed that it would impact my life in a stronger way. I wanted to embrace who I truly was and didn’t want to cover it up with a facade.

I’m proud that I learned from this experience to finally accept myself for who I am, and I have become such a happier person because of it. I was able to become an Eagle Scout on November 18, and successfully came out as a gay man the day after, something that I had always dreamed of doing shortly after embracing my true self. I learned from this event to always believe in myself no matter how hard the struggle is.

Name: Margarita Kovalchuk

Now attending: West Campus High School

College she’ll attend: Sacramento State University

Plans to study: Engineering

Dream job: Ms. President of the United States of America.

Second place: Margarita Kovalchuk


‘I started speaking up for what I believed in during class discussions’

No. I’m not talking about the drink. Yes. I’m referring to my name. I’ve had plenty of teasing about it, to say the least.

I was raised in a family of immigrants from the USSR. Coming into school, my English was broken, and I struggled making friends with the other children: They talked too fast and laughed at things I didn’t think were funny. Soon enough, a few kids realized that my name was plastered on bottles in their parents’ liquor cabinet. “Was your mom drunk when she named you?” “Did your dad name you after his favorite drink?” They taunted. I talked my teachers into calling me by the anglicized derivative: Margaret. Whenever substitutes read out the roster however, a handful of students ended up snickering. I cried to my mother: “Why is my name Margarita? It’s the name of alcohol!” She sat me down and explained it to me.

I learned that the word “margarita” means “pearl” in Greek, one of the original languages of the Gospel of Matthew. One of my parents’ favorite verses likened people who cherished their faith to a “merchant seeking beautiful pearls, who, when he had found one pearl of great price, went and sold all that he had and bought it.” My parents grew up Christian under an atheist Soviet regime. Though my mother was at the top of her class, she was given an “unsatisfactory” citizenship mark at graduation for abstaining from the Young Communist League. No university would have a Christian taint its ranks. Both she and my father had acutely felt the cost of their faith. In turn, they chose to name me “Margarita” in honor of the “pearl of great price.”

As soon as I understood how precious the name “Margarita” was to my parents, I began to embrace it myself. That understanding gave me confidence in everything. I stopped caring about the fact that I sometimes roll R’s midsentence because Russian is my first language. I started speaking up for what I believed in during class discussions. After all, my practice came from politely disagreeing with adults! (Please, call me “Margarita” instead of “Marguerite.”) My name isn’t standard. Neither am I.

I’ve won the Distinguished Young Women of California talent award by performing a melodic right-hand-only piano piece because I broke my left hand two weeks before the show and didn’t want to back out. I’m a mathlete who adores wearing glitter ballet flats and sequined sweaters to meets. I’m a calligrapher who uses paper quilling techniques from the 16th century to make my friends’ birthday cards. I do not turn on the radio while driving because my thoughts keep me occupied. I’ll become the first female president of the United States, solve Fermat’s last [theorem] without using the modularity theorem, or maybe discover a completely renewable energy source though my work in engineering. My plans aren’t finalized, but I realize college is the stepping-stone toward all of them.

Name: Elizabeth Robinson

Now attending: C.K. McClatchy High School

College she’ll attend: Bryn Mawr College

Plans to study: Biology, pre-med

One goal for her freshman year: Eat the best Philly cheesesteak.

‘My anxiety attack hit me like a slap in the face’

Third place: Elizabeth Robinson


My mom had always told me to live day by day when I would complain about my busy schedule for the following week. I never thought I would be that kid. That kid who everyone cranes their neck to see amongst the ambulance and fire truck. I had made it this far. Why now?

My anxiety attack hit me like a slap in the face. Chills, sweats, tingling sensations and heart-attacklike symptoms snuck up from behind and took me as victim before I had any time to protest. As the symptoms began in fifth-period Spanish, so did my mind in its direction down the slippery slope.

I have the gross habit of biting my nails. I am known as a worrywart. However, when senior year started, I wanted to make a conscious decision to ease off of the gas. I was afraid of burning out from going full-steam ahead with community service, cross-country practice, jobs, AP classes, college and scholarship applications—all while maintaining relationships with my family and peers. Sleep was frequently sacrificed. Whenever my schedule was especially hectic, I told myself, “It’s all worth it in the end.” It must be, right?

This mentality carried me through my last month of high school. My mind had proven stronger than my body, which had made its limits known. The medics summoned by the school administration took my blood pressure, heart rate and blood-oxygen levels and concluded that my vitals were functioning normally. Thus, this physical reaction was due to something mental. This left me feeling powerless and confused. I couldn’t understand how something that felt so physical was due to anxiety. And, even more oddly, due to worrying about wanting to perform well. I felt weak. I didn’t understand where this weakness was coming from. I had always prided myself on being able to be tough and get through things. In the weeks that followed the panic attack, I searched for reasons why this physical toll occurred.

I am grateful for the way I was raised. My parents always supported my education and aspirations. I was given all of the tools I needed. The panic attack made me feel guilty because it showed that I buckled under the desire to do well, not because I didn’t have enough food to eat.

The week of the panic attack entailed two interviews, track practice, community service, and two major senior presentations, amongst the knowledge that the following week was the beginning of AP testing. The month before graduation was said to be the most stressful, but this schedule redefined stressful into meaning unmanageable. I always believed myself to be a busy person with a self-imposed busy schedule. I just never thought my body would react the way it did in response.

My desire to perform in all aspects of my life stems from my knowledge of my potential as a person. This led me to feel compelled to take advantage of every opportunity in high school, both academic and social. Pressure came from external sources, but truly developed internally. I only made my problems worse when I spent time thinking about them.

As time went on and the panic-attack symptoms lingered, I was given advice from just about everyone. I was told, “Don’t stress,” and, “You’ve had so much on your plate.” While these words are comforting, they only temporarily alleviate internal pain. What I really needed to hear was advice only I could produce.

I began writing in a journal and reading nightly, even pushing homework aside to prioritize creating the perfect entrance into a circadian rhythm of sleep. I feel better, not because I get better grades, but because I make the effort to calm my life down. I am determined not to make Xanax my best friend. My body will appreciate it, and I am confident that by avoiding the “succeed or fail” mindset, my mind will appreciate it, too.

Name: Kassandra Paredes

Now attending: Visions in Education

College she’ll attend: Cosumnes River College

Plans to study: International business or writing

Favorite thing about Sacramento: All the history.

Honorable mention: Kassandra Parades


‘I lasted 30 minutes on that floor’

I was 12-years-young. I was laying on the cold, hard concrete floor, feeling the rivers of warm blood slowly drip from my nose. As I layed there, almost unconscious, I reflected on the mistakes I had done. Wondering if was doing the correct thing. Did I make the right choice? That’s all my mind kept churning as I tried to ignore the glaring waves of pain running through my body. I was12-years-young when I decided to quit the gang I thought was my family.

When I was in sixth grade I let the issues and stress from home become my excuse to do something I knew in my heart was wrong. I was persuaded by the assurance of a second family. The thought of a group of people “having my back” no matter what, assured me that this was the thing I needed in my life. The initiation process to ingress this primitive tribe is quite excruciating: I had to let them beat me senseless without defending myself in any way. They do this to examine how strong you can be. Their definition of strength is how long you can go without collapsing while they kick you, punch you, and even spit at you. I lasted 30 minutes on that floor. That cold, hard concrete floor.

In eighth grade I had enough. I realized that I wanted to be someone in life, someone who can make a difference. Not just another gravestone filled with unaccomplished dreams. I contemplated the idea of quitting hard before unearthing the courage to actually do it. I knew that freedom would come with a cost. But I decided that it was worth all the pain. I realized that my body could heal, unlike my pride. The process for relinquishment was even more painful than the initiation: They saw it as betrayal, therefore making each blow extra afflictive. Again, I was on that floor. That cold, hard concrete floor. But this time it was different. As my blood flowed away from my wounds, I felt my will become unbreakable. When they were finally finished, they just left, leaving me behind as residue of the past. Even though I was bleeding and had my eyes swollen shut, I no longer felt the pain. As I got up, I smiled. I stared at the buffet of stars and I realized I had made the right choice. After walking home, hugging my mom, and opening my pre-algebra book, I discovered the true meaning of the word “strength.” I concluded that my true strength wasn’t in how much beating I could take, it was on how I was able to pick myself up and walk toward my future.

I am now a high-school senior, looking forward to whatever journey life will bring. I know there will be many roads ahead, but I trust that I will choose the right one. Since I was little, I’ve dreamed of going to college, and that dream is finally becoming a reality. All the things I’ve been through, all the obstacles, and all the mistakes were not enough to stop me. I am determined to keep myself on the path of success. I am as strong as my father’s shoulders, who breaks his back to provide for us. I am as resilient as my mother’s will, who does not let her children go hungry.

As I am sitting here, typing up this essay, I think back to all those times I was told I was worthless. All those people, including myself, who only knew how to humiliate and suppress are now distant memories of lies. I do not know what the world has in store for me, or where it will take me, but I do know that wherever it is, it will not be a cold, hard concrete floor.

Name: Allison Pepper

Now attending: Vista del Lago High School

College she’ll attend: Azusa Pacific University

Plans to study: International business and athletic coaching

Personal motto: “Never let fear or setbacks keep you from pursing your dreams.”

‘My dream fell, crashing around me’

Honorable mention: Allison Pepper


Everyone has a dream—a dream to graduate high school, a dream to become a doctor, or a dream as simple as winning the championship soccer match. My dream was to play college soccer. Ever since I was a little girl, I dreamed of playing soccer in college and spent twelve years working endlessly for that goal, but the odds begin to stack against me starting my sophomore year of high school. I tore my ACL, anterior cruciate ligament, on July 14, 2011, and faced reconstruction surgery with a nine-month recovery. While I was devastated, I was not discouraged because I knew if I worked hard, I would make it back for my junior year, the prime time for college recruitment.

I came back strong with my future bright and my hopes high. After a full summer back, I headed down to Huntington Beach for a collegiate showcase over Labor Day weekend—hoping my dreams of becoming a college athlete were still within reach. As the weekend progressed, my team advanced to the quarter finals, where I scored the only goal, sending my team through to the semifinal game. It was during the semifinal game when I was passed the ball, and I cut back to get it. Just as I planted my foot, my knee popped. I fell, screaming, and my dream fell, crashing around me. I tore my ACL again. Thoughts began flooding my head as my leg started to shake uncontrollably. My goal of playing college soccer vanished as I knew there was a chance I might never be able to play again.

Yet I was not going to let doctors, coaches, statistics, or even myself proclaim my dreams were unattainable. They were. All I needed was a little hard work, sweat, determination and perseverance. So on October 1, 2012, I had my second ACL reconstruction surgery. I rehabbed, I pushed, I persevered and I trained. I met with four college coaches, yet while they said my recruiting video demonstrated that I was a great player, they had already finished recruiting for the class of 2014. The chances that my dream would come true were beginning to look very small—but I was not finished. I was not giving up.

I continued to email and call coaches, sending off my recruitment videos and explaining my situation. Yet I never heard back. However, on August 30, 2013, I got an email from Azusa Pacific University offering me a tryout. As I read the words, I could not believe it. I was invited to try out for a college soccer team. My family and friends were ecstatic, but my hard work and dedication were not over just yet. I had a tryout to prepare for. I rigorously trained for six weeks, and on October 11, I went to my tryout. I was offered a spot on the Azusa Pacific women’s soccer team—proving to myself and many others that nothing is impossible if we just believe, persevere and work hard. Yet my hard work is far from over—though it was not the path I intended to take, through the hardships I endured, I have grown and matured into the person I am now. I have learned to always work hard, never give up, and follow my dreams no matter how high the obstacles seem to be. Most of all, I have learned to never run away from my fears and always attack them head-on.

Name: Sophie Osborn

Now attending: C.K. McClatchy High School

College she’ll attend: UC San Diego

Plans to study: East Asian studies and music

Fun summer plans: Traveling to Sweden and Japan

Honorable Mention: Sophie Osborn (left) and Shea Backes


‘I can revel in my chaos’

Next to my bed is a pile of books. Stacks on stacks of sci-fi paperbacks; unopened used bookstore poetry anthologies; a copy of Harry Potter in French, dog-eared partway; hulking AP textbooks that could be used as murder weapons; and on the very top, the only item I ever pick up lately: a ratty notebook with half the pages already torn out, its inner folder flap sticking out at an odd angle.

This is what I consider my journal at the moment. My journals are never as sophisticated and intellectual as I want them to be. I always get these intricate notebooks from grandparents at Christmas, the kind from Barnes & Noble that have exotic cloth covers and magnetic flaps. Occasionally, I feel like I should be creative, so I pick up one of these notebooks. Yet every time I place the tip of my pen on their expectant pages, I feel constrained, believing I can’t possibly mar their pages with any thoughts short of genius. I try scratching out “deep” insights about life, only to end up looking immature and unqualified against the background of their specially crafted papyrus from India.

My trusty Office Max notebook, however, is completely judgment-free. Every scrawl of kanji practice or rant about my parents looks intelligent inside its plain college-ruled lines. This notebook is happy to even be written in at this point. Its curling plastic cover doesn’t care how often I gouge swear words onto its paper, how indelicately I scribble flowers in the margins, how illegible my ramblings are. I can write whatever I want in it.

Sometimes I just need to write down what’s swirling around behind my eyes, before it becomes a confused brown swarm. I know my friend Emily never has to write things down. She functions by talking out loud, or thinking in her head on the spot. That’s why I always lose arguments with her. If only I could pause time when we argue, whip out my notebook and construct my counterattack.

Still, I don’t perceive my reliance on a notebook for coherence as a weakness; rather, I take an odd pleasure in it. My notebook’s lack of expectations frees me up to explore the swarm in my head. I can revel in my chaos. Rantings twist with song lyrics, reminders and rhetorical questions flash with urgency, memories and temptations hover in front of my train of thought. They build in speed, pressure, moving too fast to capture: I must release them onto paper.

Once I’ve released my thoughts, I feel powerful. The English essay that had once roadblocked me then whips along, the term paper thesis falls into place, the perfect metaphor for a story materializes. I can harness my chaos on my own terms with my notebook.

Name: Shea Backes

Now attending: Natomas Charter School Performing and Fine Arts Academy

College she’ll attend: Occidental College

Plans to study: Sociology, social justice or critical theory

Dream job: Dr. Who companion and patriarchy dismantler.

‘I didn’t choose to live here’

I stare at it. The red blob doesn’t move. I scoop into it with my spoon. It jiggles menacingly. I tentatively bring it to my lips. It has a strange texture, which can probably be attributed to the fact that it is part Jell-O, part fruit and part various seeds. It’s good, sweet, tangy. It’s delicious, actually, which is shocking. Normally, common meal desserts are mediocre at best, and all the teens still cringe when anyone mentions a particularly memorable strawberry shortcake that tasted like a rock which someone found while wandering in the forest and inexplicably topped with sugarfree soy whipped cream. It’s difficult to have good food in a community where people have such strange dietary needs. And it’s strange that I’m used to eating meals cooked by my neighbors. It’s become so routine that I don’t even realize that it’s exceptional anymore. When the dinner bell rings, I walk over to the common house where members of my community, young and old, are lining up to fill their plates. I sit down at a table with the rest of the teens, and we spend the meal comparing schools, complaining about our parents, making fun of each other and reminiscing about our childhood. Some nights we go home to our respective homework, but some nights we don’t. Some nights we climb on top of the common-house roof, bare feet treading softly over rough roof tiles, and sit for hours staring at the stars and talking. Some nights we raid the common-house pantry and sit up in the teens’ room playing nonsensical board games.

I know that the world I come from makes little sense to most people. I’ve been trying to explain the concept of a “common meal” and a “common house” to people since elementary school, and eventually, just started telling people I live in a hippie commune. I don’t. I live in Southside Park Cohousing, an intentional community made up of 24 houses and 50 people ranging in ages from 2 to 80. The idea behind cohousing is simple: create a community where neighbors work together by consensus and rely on each other. We have individual houses but shared facilities as well: lawns, a playground and the common house, a building that we use for group activities and common meals. Every adult in the community has to participate in running the community and cooking common meals, which anyone in the community can sign up to attend.

Students probably aren’t supposed to admit that they got help on their essays. You’re supposed to sum up your personality in a neat 650wordsorless package and send it off to the admissions officer. And it’s supposed to be yours and yours alone. But this experience isn’t mine alone, which is how I ended up spending a Sunday evening in November with two other teens comparing personal statements and laughing. As I sat in the sitting room wearing someone else’s shoes, it dawned on me that this was what cohousing was. It was friends, shared memories and shared hopes. It was a sense of community. It’s difficult for me to talk about how cohousing has affected me because I’ve never known life without it. I didn’t choose to live here. I didn’t look at the studies or think about the impact. All I knew was that I had friends that I could always call on that I had an entire group of people who supported me and each other. In a country that values individualism above all else, it’s important to have people who still value fellowship and helping others. I want to take what I’ve learned in being a member of a small community and apply it to being a member of a global community. And I want to use my values of cooperation and acceptance and my experience living those values to do that.

Name: Sahira Rizvi

Now attending: Laguna Creek High School

College she’ll attend: Cosumnes River College

Plans to study: Computer science

Fun summer plans: Coding her own website

‘Get girls around the world excited about technology’

Honorable mention: Sahira Rizvi


My household has always been a peculiar mix of religion, ethnic and societal culture. In particular, the women in my family have chosen a range of roles from doctors and scientists to stay-at-home mothers to high-level executives, and all of them identify as Muslim Pakistani-Americans. Surprisingly, this mix in cultures did not create a clash among their beliefs and traditions, but instead fueled them to become leaders in their own regard.

Naturally, my leadership ability spawned at a very early age from the influences these women had on me. Growing up and still now, many of the children at my mosque looked to me to set up youth activities as well. One of my most significant accomplishments was to organize multiple parallel services at the mosque in different languages to better tend the needs of our growing community.

Much of my high-school career was spent in the same fashion: I took up leadership roles in existing clubs and went as far as co-founding and developing new ones. I knew by the time I became a junior, I had a stellar résumé with varied experience and was ready for college.

Only I wasn’t.

I was perplexed at how I would later use my leadership skills in college. I want my college experience for me to be much more than the stress of an upcoming final or project. I want to spearhead my way into uncharted territory and be a pioneer in a new environment—one that would make the women in my family proud.

The summer before my senior year, I was admitted into a program called Girls Who Code. I learned about Girls Who Code through a friend, and it immediately caught my interest. I applied for the eight-week-long summer-immersion program at UC Davis and was one of 20 girls accepted in the greater Sacramento area. The program was an intense course covering the basics of Web and mobile development, engineering, and computer science. The program was one of the most challenging that I have completed. Not only were the assignments frustrating and time-consuming, but they were very fun, and at the same time, rewarding.

Most importantly the Girls Who Code program placed a great importance on the presence of women in technology. I met women that strived to get girls into technology and close the gender gap that exists in the technology sector. Every week I was excited to listen to a new guest speaker and visit a new company. All of the people I met spoke about their journey into their current positions as executives, programmers or analysts. I was reminded of the women in my family and saw parallels between these women and the ones that I grew up with. I graduated from the program with a new sense of excitement, but most importantly, a purpose.

I expect my college career to be filled with term papers and midterms and finals, but my ultimate goal in college and once I graduate would be to get girls around the world excited about technology. And not only introduce them to it, but also inspire them to pursue other areas of study that have been dominated by men.

The positions the women in my family are in now did not come easy. They came from a “traditional” culture, but were encouraged by their friends and immediate family to overcome stereotypes and embrace their careers and schooling. As I prepare for college, I look to these women for strength on the quest that I am about to take on. I am excited, but also nervous as this is still new for women, but I can look to my roots for the strength to succeed.

Name: Andrew Carducci

Now attending: Placer High School

College he’ll attend: Seattle University

Plans to study: Mechanical engineering

One goal for freshman year: Get an internship at Boeing.

Honorable mention: Andrew Carducci


‘I slowly went unconscious’

My senses were numb. I was lost in a world engulfed with pure whiteness and a constant ringing. It was a terrifying, surreal feeling of being lost, unable to think, unable to open my eyes. Finally, a man carefully lifted me onto a stretcher. I opened my eyes to see rotor blades of a helicopter spinning vigorously. The blades put me in a trance, and I slowly went unconscious.

I was a junior, an excellent student and avid tennis player. That day was supposed to be routine, a typical walk to lunch with my best friend. However, en route my friend received a phone call—a change of plans and, unfortunately, a changed life. We jumped into a packed Chevy Trailblazer. I jostled to get comfortable and failed to click in my seatbelt. As we hastily merged onto the freeway, fear overcame me, fear that was well justified. The next sounds were crunching metal as a semi-truck sideswiped us. Our car flipped twice, and at some point, I was ejected out the side window.

I gained consciousness in the emergency room and was transferred to neuro trauma ICU. I had multiple skull fractures, brain shear (traumatic brain injury), almost complete hearing loss, brain fluid draining from my torn ears, and nerve damage causing me to be completely cross-eyed. I was paying the price for a momentary lapse of judgment. It didn’t take long to realize I wanted my old life back, and I was determined to get it.

Over the next weeks of rehabilitation, I accomplished many great things. I went from second-grade addition to complex word problems that even stumped my occupational therapist. An amazing team of people helped me learn to swallow, walk and mentally focus. I also had incredible support from friends, family and the local community, all of whom motivated me to work hard and never give up. When I returned to school, I knew to get my life back I had to study every possible minute and relentlessly practice tennis.

First, I concentrated on academics. After forty absences, I was eager to turn my F’s into A’s. My mind could focus, but I was still cross-eyed with double vision, which necessitated wearing an eye patch for the next six months. I heard a lot of pirate jokes during those six months, but jokes were easy to laugh off, because I had goals on which to focus. Each day, I spent hours completing missing assignments and studying for make-up tests. My grades steadily improved, and by semester’s end, I returned to straight A’s.

Next was tennis. Playing with an eye patch removed all depth perception, however, many people patiently practiced with me, especially my coach, and I eventually adjusted to my impaired vision. Months later, after countless hours on the court, intra-team varsity challenge matches were held to finalize the team roster. Miraculously, I won every match. Also, every time my high school played an opponent, they thought it was a joke that our coach placed a kid wearing an eye patch as the team’s top singles player. But my determination had paid off: 1-0, 2-0, 3-0 … 14-0. I finished the season undefeated and was awarded the league’s most valuable player.

This past year’s experiences have fostered a sense of giving within me beyond the typical community volunteer. I now give to others on a more personal level, such as giving one of my eye patches to the kid with a lazy eye who wanted to play tennis, or speaking at the Walk for Brain Injury to give others hope. All of this has cultivated a sense of pride and sincerity. When I think of the accident and my long journey back, I realize I did not make it alone. Others had a tremendous impact on my recovery, and I am now determined to help others as they have helped me.

Name: Riley Griesenbeck

Now attending: C.K. McClatchy High School

College he’ll attend: UCLA

Plans to study: Biology or environmental science

Favorite thing about Sacramento: The trees.

Honorable mention: Riley Griesenbeck


‘A chance to lose myself’

The most amazing things in life, to me, are the ones you don’t need an iPhone or TV or radio to experience. They are the sands of the Lost Coast, the pounding drops of water of a waterfall in the Trinity Alps, the snowy peaks of Tahoe, the trees of Desolation Wilderness, nature, in general because, more than anything, nature awes me. Without it, I’d be aimless. I’d be smart, I’d be athletic, I’d be sociable, but I wouldn’t have a passion. Nature, my world, gives me that passion.

This is my world: sitting outside listening to the birds shriek as the hawks fly by, backpacking, exploring nature, but more importantly, appreciating it and the way every single thing within it works. I can’t remember a year when I did not spend a week backpacking or camping, surrounded by nature, letting my senses focus only on the light breeze cooling my neck, the soft scent of pine, the powdery sand under my feet. Being outside gives me a chance to lose myself for a little bit, to stop worrying about the term paper that’s due in twelve days, my work schedule the upcoming week, and to think only about what I’m seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and feeling around me.

This love of nature has turned into a desire to understand it. It’s the main reason I do well in my science classes. I want to be there. I want to learn about how photosynthesis works, because I see and breathe its results every day. This desire has always been in me, but it was rejuvenated whenever I opened a biology or psychology textbook this year. As I started learning more about myself, from the most basic cellular level to the way in which my brain processes the things I see, and the world around me, I realized that this interested me more than anything else. But I also realized that I’ve always been most fascinated by nature and its processes, my wonder just manifested itself in different ways. The pang of sorrow I felt as I walked past a piece of driftwood with a rattlesnake riddled with bullets strewn onto it stemmed from my fascination with animals and their place in the cycle of life. My enjoyment listening to the birds chirp frantically as the hawk flew by came from this same place. Being immersed in backpacking, camping and hiking has fed my desire to learn how exactly the things around me function so seamlessly.

I want to be someone who understands why the gazelle depends on the cheetah, why Nigeria needs its mangrove forests, why we need our mirror neurons, how somebody can stimulate the immune system to destroy harmful cells without harming productive cells, how to eradicate invasive, nonnative species without damaging the local species. I wish there was an environmental-science-medicine field because it would allow me to help people appreciate the world they live in and do research to make the world they live in help them, too. People always say many of the jobs of the coming century haven’t been created yet, so hopefully I’ll get my chance to create “Environmental Science Doctor (no Ph.D).”