SN&R’s 2016 College Essay Contest winners!

SN&R's 2016 College Essay Contest winners share stories of struggles, transformations and hope

Willow Muir

Willow Muir

Photos by Shoka

For today’s teens, it’s not all about selfie sticks and Snapchat.

In reality, high schoolers in the Sacramento region deal with all sorts of unique challenges—piled on top of homework and exams. Every spring, SN&R’s College Essay Contest reminds us of what it really means to come of age. And it’s a struggle.

We read about cultural barriers, illnesses, identity issues, bullies and broken homes. Yet, students always infuse their essays with hope and confidence in a better future.

We combed through nearly 150 entries and, in a blind-judging process, picked our first-, second- and third-place essays. The winners will receive cash to help with college’s ever-increasing costs: $2,000 for first place, sponsored by InterWest and Gilbert Associates; $1,000 for second place, sponsored by SN&R; and $500 for third place, sponsored by GiveBack2Sac.

Read on for SN&R’s 2016 College Essay Contest winners, as well as excerpts from our honorable mentions.

First place

Name: Willow Muir

Now attending: Ghidotti Early College High School

College attending: California Institute of the Arts

Plans to study: Photography and queer studies

Personal motto: “Do it for the experience.”

‘An entire mile of people like me’

It is Oakland in midsummer, and I am lying about where I am going. I tell my grandmother I’m taking a bus to lunch, but instead I take the subway under the water to San Francisco. One friend knows my whereabouts, and I decide it’s good enough; what I’m headed toward is worth getting myself lost in the maze of skyscrapers. Coming up out of the BART station, I walk almost six blocks through the Castro, holding my newly purchased piece of queer literature close to my chest: Coming Out Under Fire, a History of Gays & Lesbians in World War II. It feels illicit, and I plan to read it slowly, keeping it behind the other books on my shelf once I take it home.

Dolores Park is full of people, and I am instantly comfortable. I sit on the grass, and within minutes someone my own age approaches me, grinning shyly. They ask my name and pronouns, making me half-tempted to cry because for the first time I feel safe enough give them real answers.

At 5 p.m., the booths begin to pack up, and we start the march down Market Street to the capitol building. There are more people here than I had ever imagined, and they all look like me—not the same hand-me-down clothing, heavy boots and self-cut hair, but the same androgyny, whether intentional or not, and the same underlying anger. There are policemen all along Market Street, because while most of Pride is a celebration, Trans March is a protest. Only a few feet ahead of me someone is yelling, and slowly everyone around me is yelling. The caller is handed a microphone attached to an amp on the back of a bike: “I say ’trans,’ you say justice! Trans- ” and I am yelling “Justice!” at the top of my lungs, along with almost a mile of people. An entire mile of people like me, an entire mile of people who have come through the same things and are still fighting, still yelling.

I take my camera out, but the battery is dead. I want nothing more than to capture this, capture the anger and hurt on everyone’s faces and the way we are walking, keeping eye contact with the men in SFPD uniforms just inches away, across a line we may not put our feet over. The policemen’s faces are also intense, but a different kind of intensity. One man smiles awkwardly at me as I stare him down, and another openly scowls. We begin yelling about putting an end to police brutality, and the caller is reading names of transgender women killed by policemen in the last year. The list is longer than I expected it to be. The caller’s voice breaks into the microphone. I see one policeman mouthing the words along with us until his colleague catches sight of him and frowns. His hand is on the handcuffs at his belt. They both frown.

Everything in that moment is so powerful. There are news cameras on the sides at a few points along our route, but I know they are not seeing the same thing I am. They can’t see that we are holding hands with the people next to us, they can’t see that from the inside, this crowd is not angry. This crowd is in pain.

I want to show people truth through the lens of a camera. I want to show them the caller’s face when her voice breaks; I want to show them the person in front of me wearing a trans pride flag around their shoulders. I resolve to charge my camera batteries next time, and every time after. I resolve for there to be a lot of next times, an entire lifetime of them. I resolve to show people yelling for justice as long as there will be people yelling for justice.

Second place

Name: Brett Furtek

Brett Furtek

Now attending: Da Vinci Charter Academy

College attending: University of Connecticut

Plans to study: Undecided

Dream job: Building homes

‘Someone by their side at all times’

I was happy to have my grandparents move into our home seven years ago. I loved to listen to my grandfather’s stories and eat the pancakes my grandmother made. I would give anything to have them back the way they were when they first moved in. Dementia, however, has taken my grandparents and they only surface in spectacular moments. Those moments keep us going.

We did not understand the magnitude of how our family would have to adjust and grow to fit our grandparents’ needs. We have changed our home to adapt to their physical disabilities, canceled vacations and put our social lives on hold, all in the hopes of offering my grandparents the best final years of their lives. As they have grown sicker, they need someone by their side at all times. That responsibility is divided up between my mother, two siblings and me.

Keeping my grandparents safe and showing them compassion are the most important jobs I have as caregiver and grandson. Listening intently to a story I’ve heard my grandfather tell 100 times before is one way I show compassion. Thanking them for chores they think they’ve done—which I actually did—is another way. The doorknobs, coffee pots and dishes they break can be easily replaced. The confidence that is lost by my grandparents when they make these mistakes is harder to replace.

But then there are the good moments. The moments when I am gardening and my grandpa tells me he is proud of my garden, a compliment that I take to heart because he taught me this skill. The moments when I am cooking, often recipes I’ve stolen from my grandma, and she tells me I will have no problem finding a wife given my skills in the kitchen. Or the times when my grandparents show up to my football games wearing my number over their countless sweaters needed to fend off the cold. (Most of my games were played in 75 degree weather.)

I have immense respect for my grandparents. They have given me perspective on how much I have to be grateful for and that nothing comes without hard work. My grandfather tells me vivid stories of his youth and how hard both he and my grandmother worked to change their lives. Both my grandparents worked their way through the Great Depression as children, he as a sharecropper and she as a bootlegger’s child. Later, he supported his sister, mother and his own family of four while attending night college. No one in their families went to college, but they did. They understood that education changes lives.

I still think of my grandparents as the unstoppable people who helped raised my siblings and me. But these days, they can’t understand their surroundings and they overestimate their abilities. They loved our family and supported us through hard financial times and it’s only fair that in their time of need we do the same.

As time goes on, I see that what my grandparents have taught me far outweighs the sacrifices we make for them. They’ve taught me patience, loyalty, compassion and gratitude. They’ve also taught me perspective, to focus on the big picture and let the little things go. Broken dishes and canceled dinner parties aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. What’s important is to be a good grandson, a helpful caretaker and a respectful young man.

I have truly been blessed by having two amazing people in my home. Our family didn’t let adversity destroy us. It brought us together. I cannot envision life without my grandparents. It hasn’t always been easy living with them, but all the spectacular moments—even though they are growing fewer and far between—keep us going.

Third place

Name: Layla Al Asadi

Layla Al Asadi

Now attending: Elk Grove High School

College attending: UC Davis

Plans to study: Human development

One goal for freshman year: Create many connections through clubs, internships and community service

‘Terrorist attacks were commonplace’

My story begins in Iraq, and it continues today in the United States. My family journeyed here when I was 12 years old. In 2005, we lived in a small, 900-foot house in Al-Adel, Baghdad. Our family room was a jumble of my dad’s electric belongings—an assortment of broken appliances, piles of project reports and a combination of rivets lying on the ground—alongside a small space for my parents’ bed and three small cribs for my sisters and me.

My lifestyle was much like our bedroom—a mixture of disorientation and confusion. Yet, the blur I was surrounded by, the reality of war, never prevented me from having hopes and seeing my dreams come alive.

I recall the countless nights I waited by the window for my dad to come home. And the one time he did not, there was a terrorist attack. Terrorist attacks were commonplace, but never had I anticipated that my dad would be a victim. We had no news about my dad. The roads were blocked, cellular connections ceased and the attack was under investigation. Every aspect of my life, physical and mental, seemed pointless that day. The thought of my dad no longer with my family swam in and out of my mind, and once again, I found myself waiting by the window wondering if he might never come back. We finally heard from my uncle the following day: My dad was alive. My dad had to stay at my uncle’s house that night so that he would be safe. I was immensely relieved, but I was back to reality, where the haunting fear of losing everything—my dad—was not a possibility but a harsh reality.

In spite of the constant adversities of war, the roadblocks, gunshots and danger of getting from one place to the next, my dad worked persistently, and he encouraged me to do the same. He worked as a project engineer for an American corporation, Bechtel. In 2009, my family was granted the opportunity to pursue a more comfortable life in the West due to my father’s efforts in helping our local community and interacting with our global society.

My dream became reality on October of 2009, when I arrived on the sands of what I now call my home. I recall stepping onto my elementary school campus in sixth grade; the buildings seemed magnified, people seemed more intelligent and everyone had the freedom to circulate as they wished. Little did I know, I was staring into the realm of my own massive possibilities.

My experience in two different worlds has taught me to look beyond physical and mental constraints, even when reality tells me otherwise, like war did in Iraq. My story motivates me and instills in me a notion that I must carry with due diligence into the future: to change the world through my magnifying lens, learn more about the world everyday and lessen the sufferings of others. Through my lens, I wish to leave a humble legacy of love and hope for others as they build their own communities in this global society.

Honorable Mention

Name: Andrea Hinojosa Villalobos

Andrea Hinojosa Villalobos

Now attending: Elk Grove High School

College attending: UC Irvine

Plans to study: International studies and business

Summer plans: Move to Southern California

‘I didn’t want to move to America’

Although I’ve been living in the United States for nine years, there’s a part of my being that refuses to let go of where I am from. No matter how many times I hear “you’re in America, speak English,” I’m extremely proud of my culture and ethnicity. However, moving from Mexico to the United States has been a defining experience in my life because it has allowed me to see the world from two different perspectives.

I lived the earliest years of my life in a small town called La Joya de Calvillo, Mexico. La Joya has a population of about 1,000 people. The people of this town are humble, mostly because they lead simple lives without any luxuries. Like many places in Latin America, most people from my town face poverty. When I was younger, I would see trucks filled with men leave and not come back for years. I remember peeking through my window and seeing the men clutching photographs while holding back tears. I would ask my mom where they were headed and she would always respond by saying “El Norte.”

These men were traveling to the United States in search of a better lifestyle, leaving their families behind in order to give them the best life possible. I never really paid much attention because I always thought it would never happen to me, until it did. … One day he told us he would prefer if the family moved with him to the U.S. I didn’t want to move to America. My life was in Mexico and I knew that it would be difficult to assimilate to a new way of life.

My life has been divided between two countries. My home town in Mexico helped me realize from an early age that if I had aspirations and goals, I had to work my way to where I wanted to be. Seeing those men leave their families brokenhearted, ready to risk their lives for their loved ones, made me realize that I will make sacrifices in life. I think that the sacrifice many parents have made for their children, including mine, is even more apparent from this side of the border. On this side I am inspired by the perseverance of my people to strive to achieve my goals and where I want to make sure my parents’ sacrifice was not in vain. As I strive to achieve my goals, I’m proud to be part of a new generation of hardworking Latinos.

Honorable Mention

Name: Jamie Meneghetti

Jamie Meneghetti

Now attending: Folsom High School

College attending: UC Santa Barbara

Plans to study: Sociology and education

One goal for freshman year: Learn to surf

‘I lost control’

Breakfast was always six thin slices of an apple (30 calories). For lunch, 12 more (60 calories) and an orange for a snack (80 calories). Dinner was a piece of toast with peanut butter, a whopping 200 calories. Patterns and routines were everything to me, from the symmetry of the protruding ribs to the constant calorie count of 370. Everyday was the same monotonous cycle of wake up, exercise, go to school, exercise some more, and sleep. I excluded friends or family from that cycle; I expelled eating from my routine. My biggest concern stemmed from perfecting my life, especially my appearance.

I always viewed my mother as beautiful and flawless; I envied her tall, slender physique, and I unintentionally harmed myself in hopes of becoming as perfect as I had perceived her to be. I meticulously counted calories, crying whenever I overate. I started walking to school and doing 1,000 situps every day, hoping to obtain the perfect body. I didn’t know this would take such a toll on my brain’s chemistry, and I lost control of my sleep schedule, my happiness and my emotions in a void between a half-death and partial life. One, two, three … 24. I sat and counted my now protruding ribs. They were beautiful, but I was not. The closer my body approached my unattainable idea of perfection, the farther I grew from those around me and the more out of sync with my emotions I became.

I eventually lost so much weight that I didn’t have enough body fat to continue menstruating. Learning that my ability to have children was ripped from my arms crushed me: the power to create a pure, beautiful life was no longer mine. Worst of all, I did this to myself. Through rivers of tears, I consulted my mother and spilled the secret of my unhappiness. She gave her best to help me, but the only person who could cure me was myself. That summer I began to see eating as less of an undesirable necessity, but as a communion with others. I once viewed eating as personal and private, but eating with those that I loved made me realize that being with them and enjoying life is what makes a person happy, not physical beauty. I had to get my priorities in check and decide whether I wanted to mentally and physically work myself to death or live a sincerely happy life. I chose the latter. It may seem like an easy decision, but when the demon you are fighting is yourself, it is not as simple as it seems.

Through my own misery, I learned that the pure bliss of truly living a healthy life is the best gift I could ever be given. Losing the ability to find joy in everyday actions allowed me to truly appreciate the beauty of emotion; I now know how precious life is and the difference between surviving and actually living. I am proud of myself for defeating the monster inside and have come to understand that in the case of health and happiness, less is not always necessarily more.

Honorable Mention

Name: Anthony Hackett

Anthony Hackett

Now attending: C. K. McClatchy High School

College attending: Stanford University or Harvard University

Plans to study: Global health and women’s, gender and sexuality studies

Summer plans: Catch up on all that missed sleep from the past four years

‘Sacrifice did not come without cost’

Some of the kids that I knew had a favorite swing at the park or ice cream flavor at the neighborhood parlor. I, however, had my favorite nook at Scott’s Burger Shack, my father’s restaurant, where I could frequently be found beside a stack of reading materials. I sat perched atop the back freezer, thumbing through anything and everything I could get my hands on. When my eyes wearied from reading, I intently observed my parents jockeying about in the building not much bigger than a breadbox. Their movements were coordinated and rhythmic, like a dance they had long been rehearsing. Hardly able to take a breath, they hustled to and fro for hours upon end as they took dozens of orders.

I remember vividly a particular evening sitting on the floor of the kitchen looking up at my mother. As chicken crackled and spat in the cast-iron pan, my eyes were fixed on her dexterous hands. Slack-jawed at her ability to move so deftly, I inquired, “Mom, why do you work so hard?” She set the pan down and cocked her head at me, brows furrowed. As if dazed by my question, she remarked, “Well, I want you to have it better than I did, and your father and I are doing our best to make sure that’s the case.”

It’s only after much thought that I’ve really come to understand what those words really meant. For them, it meant skipping college and taking over the family business because it was expected. For them, it meant working 12 hours a day and then hurrying home to relax briefly before resuming their duties behind the grill in the morning. For them, it meant sacrifice. And this sacrifice didn’t come without costs external to their own fatigue.

Once I finally reached the age when I could stay at home alone, I had to learn to rely on myself more than anyone else and find ways to spend the monotonous hours in their absence. In their wake, I found myself longing for adventure and risky encounters with the unexpected. And so I turned my efforts to the outdoors and imagined myself as one of the marooned boys trying to build a civilization in the dystopian fantasy that lay at my bedside. Pushing away giant oak leaves, I donned a fanciful pith helmet and began slashing at the slender vines of the Amazon to clear my path for exploration.

As I plucked wriggling potato bugs from their earthy habitats and named each of them Carl, I examined their hard exteriors and documented my “findings” in a leather-bound journal. It was through this process of curious inquiry that I grew to understand the world around me and test the limits of observation.

Although I’ve stashed my pith helmets and moon-inscribed purple capes, I often find myself chasing that genuine thrill of discovery embodied perfectly in my backyard escapades. Whether I’m swirling phenolphthalein in a glass test tube or blowing the blankets of dust off of decades-untouched books of French philosophy, this desire to learn by my own hand remains an intrinsic aspect of my educational pursuits. The sense of independence I acquired through my parent’s absence taught me the value of self-creation and implored me to leave no stone unturned.

Honorable Mention

Name: Olivia Lynn

Olivia Lynn

Now attending: Antelope High School

College attending: UC Irvine

Plans to study: Undecided

Dream job: Singer-songwriter

‘The happiness of my pretend world did not last’

The only significant memories I have of my parents are of them fighting. Their constant yelling and disapproving looks toward one another never ceased. But the best memories that I have of my childhood, and the only thing to overshadow my parents’ destructive marriage, was my sister Felicia. Unlike most households, our fun games did not consist of playing Barbies or hide-and-seek, but of making mock music videos or doing photo shoots for a made-up magazine.

My favorite game out of all of them was the music video. We would empty out the garage, set up our boxes to make a makeshift drum set, grab the ice cream scoop for our microphone and tune my sister’s acoustic guitar. Lights, camera, action. Instantly my young mind would be engulfed in this pretend world where I was a rock star. I was on top of the world, my lyrics and my voice mattered! I imagined so vividly that it almost seemed real; the huge stage and the enormous sold-out stadium with the fans screaming so loudly you could barely hear yourself singing. Even at the young age of 9, I knew that this was my dream. But the happiness of my pretend world did not last.

A couple of years after my parents’ separation, I became overcome by this dark cloud of depression. I was unhappy and could not find joy in even the smallest of things; I felt as if I was not even truly alive but that I was stuck in this type of hell where nothing could bring a smile to my lips. The one thing that pulled me out of the funk was that feeling I had when I was a kid, of music and how it made me feel free and how I could conquer anything that came my way, even depression.

I remember about a year ago, Felicia and I were having a conversation and reminiscing about all the fun videos we used to make and she said something that stuck with me so strongly. She said, “The reason I would have all of us sisters make these music videos and do the fun photo shoots was to distract you from the harsh reality of our parents’ marriage, you guys were too young to be exposed to it.” In this moment I realized if it was not for my sister Felicia, who was eight years my senior and could have easily been caught up in her teenage problems, I would have never found the love that I have for music today. I would never have come out of depression, and I would never have wanted to become a singer to share my voice with the world through the art of music. I am lucky to have been able to find this outlet of expression where others can find none. When I am up on a stage, it’s a whole other world, I am a whole other person. I feel confident and sure of myself. When I hear the applause after a performance I know I can make a difference with my music. I aspire to be the best singer, songwriter, and artist I can be, but it all began with my childhood in that garage.

Honorable Mention

Name: Jaskirn Khangura

Jaskirn Khangura

Now attending: Antelope High School

College attending: UC Davis

Plans to study: Biomedical engineering

One goal for freshman year: Make as many friends as possible

‘Because I’m a girl’

Clink, clink, clink.

My hands feel raw and dry from the dish washing soap. I still have to dry all the dishes, clean the kitchen, and vacuum the house. As I glance over the kitchen counter, I see all too well the image of my father and brother relaxing on the couch. Today unlike most days I have to study for a final exam, but I can’t. I have chores. Although most of the time I gladly accept the opportunity to help my mother when she isn’t around, today I feel a bit overwhelmed.

If I ask for help, I know my plea is surely to be ignored.

If I complain to my mother, she’ll most definitely reply with, “That’s how the way things are.”

For as long as I could remember I’ve had more responsibilities than my brother even though he is five years my senior. Not because I’m more reliable that he is, but because I’m a girl. I have to take care of everything from the housework to my parents’ stress levels while my brother lazily slouches on the couch.

Now, this I contribute to a cultural phenomenon. Although Indian sexism is a bit of a taboo, it still subtly sneaks its claws back into the minds of many. Some temple committee members even try to defend this practice by justifying it as tradition. They say a young woman’s goal should be to become the best homemaker she can be and aspire to someday be a wife and mother.

Yes, this is nice in some regards, but not in many. This type of ideology was the same that prevented my mother from pursuing higher education. The same ideology that labeled my mother as fat and ugly to all the suitors she befell.

In order to break from such repulsive beliefs, I constantly try to redefine what I can and “cannot” do. Junior year I took a risk, and joined Engineering, which is a boy-dominated class. After enjoying the first class, I became more interested. A few weeks ago I even learned how to cut metal with a circular saw, which, by the way, is the most fun thing ever.

Some people in my community might not appreciate my indifferent attitude towards certain cultural events, however, I never try to be indifferent to the children in my community. I lead younger girls in my community by showing them the ropes of education, because with an education and an open mind, girls and boys can realize that gender norms and roles are not acceptable and that everyone is equal regardless of who they are.

I hope to continue to be the same role model and friend to all I meet in the coming years. I also aspire to push traditional social norms to become the best version of myself.

Honorable Mention

Name: Camille Larsen

Camille Larsen

Now attending: St. Francis High School

College attending: University of Virginia

Plans to study: Business management

Personal motto: “Don’t go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

‘My destiny was in my hands’

A nostalgic scent—the smell of Christmas—caught my attention today, making me reminisce about my childhood in Mexico. Arriving at my grandma’s small, blue house during the holidays, I was welcomed by the aroma of roasted tomatoes, garlic, and onion, all waiting to be cooked for my family’s enjoyment of the secret, three-generation-old baked spaghetti.

I can hear—alongside the romantic songs of Luis Miguel’s Christmas album—the quick chopping of almonds and olives for the Bacalao dish, the satisfying bubbling of the tomato sauces, and my grandma’s orders orchestrating the kitchen for the perfect symphony.

But the kitchen was messy and not always full of harmony. True chaos came from my mother. Friction that she brought to the kitchen on the holidays echoed the tension she created throughout the year.

My mom left a stain in my life that would never be erased. We were not close to begin with and, as time went by, we grew more distant. I came home every day to find empty liter bottles of Bacardi and a powdered substance on the edges of her credit cards, which prevented a normal mother-daughter relationship. It went beyond the harm she was doing to herself; she was destroying any chances we had to have a normal relationship.

My life at 13 was hell, and I felt trapped. Five-hundred-and-forty-eight days—the majority of sixth and seventh grades—were filled with disappointments and hardships. But I had an epiphany. I knew that I was not in control of my mother’s situation and accepted that I was never going to fix her. My destiny was in my hands; all I had to do was fight for it and succeed.

It turned out to be harder than I thought. It took months of begging, PowerPoints, guilt trips and tough love to convince my mother that she had to let me go, and she finally yielded. Although by making this decision I felt like I was running away from my problems, I learned lessons from my experience in Mexico and matured.

I moved to California when I was 14 to start a new life in a safe environment with my uncle and aunt. It was the healthy start of a new life. I left behind my family, my culture, and my language, but also I left behind an obstacle—a mother with addictions—that would impede me from having a bright future.

It was a gamble, but I took the risk to adopt a new life and pursue my happiness. I was frustrated many times but learned to work hard, to communicate my feelings and to question what I did not understand. I recognized my mistakes and assumed a new attitude for future obstacles. I do not fear challenge; I embrace it. The idea of coming to the United States and attending college never entered my head when I lived in Mexico, but I have earned this dream that is now my reality.

In my mind, I step back into my grandma’s house again, hearing the banging of plates as the table is set for dinner. I see that young girl who devoutly followed the recipe. I can taste the soft pasta; the hot, melted cheese; and all the flavors of my culture mixing together.

I perceive my experiences, both past and present, as positive and essential tools that have helped me shape my future and my happiness. I dare myself to believe in the impossible and accept who my past has made me. Without the challenges I faced, I would not be the optimistic, hardworking, and motivated person that I am today. Accepting the challenge of coming to America has allowed me to strive for a college degree and a future where I can make an impact in the world.

Honorable Mention

Name: McCall Fellows

McCall Fellows

Now attending: Folsom High School

College attending: Brigham Young University

Plans to study: Finance

Summer plans: Intern for Kuwait-America

Foundation in Washington, D.C.

‘High school is not solely an academic institution’

Currently, counselors are overloaded with hundreds of students, and school psychologists are even harder to come by. This needs to change. High school is not solely an academic education, but a social, and emotional one as well. In order to produce well-rounded, stable students, our public school system needs to start looking out for children on a deeper level. A therapy system that targets all students, not just the most obvious, will help us step closer to this goal. New football stadiums and finicky technology need to be put on the back burner of school districts’ budgets, it is time for personal and professional help to come to the forefront. It may be less glamorous, but it is necessary if we want to assist a broad audience of students who are craving help.

Editor’s note: At the request of the writer, SN&R published a short excerpt of this essay instead of the full version.