SN&R’s 2017 College Essay Contest winners!

SN&R's 2017 College Essay Contest winners share brave stories of hope during dark times

Sydni Sheff

Sydni Sheff

Photos by Anne Stokes

The honorable mentions have been extended to their complete length from the excerpts that appeared in our May 11, 2017, issue.
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Today's high school students have lived through some gut-wrenching news: Police brutality. Mass bombings in Syria. The rise to the White House of a man accused of sexual harassment and worse.

On top of all that, they've got to worry about pop quizzes.

These students are living the reality of our anxious era while going through puberty. This year, SN&R's College Essay Contest shows us just how enormous that struggle is. With all of their grace and strength, these students are up for the challenge.

We combed through more than 100 entries from high school seniors and, in a blind-judging process, picked our first-, second- and third-place essays. The winners will receive cash to help with college's rising costs: $2,000 for first place, sponsored by Gilbert Associates, Inc., and InterWest Insurance Services, LLC; $1,000 for second place, sponsored by GiveBack2Sac and Risk Strategies Company; and $500 for third place, sponsored by SN&R. Read on for SN&R's 2017 College Essay Contest winners, as well as our honorable mentions.

First place

Name: Sydni Sheff

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: UC Irvine

Plans to study: Biology

Dream job: Obstetrician-gynecologist

‘They see me in halves or parts'

Mirrors show us what we look like, not who we are. Similarly, when I look into the faces of others I know they see me, but not who I am. They see parts of me, the halves—the half-black half-white skin, the half-straight half-curly hair—and they are unable to put the pieces together to see who I am. Most visible is my skin tone and eyes. My skin radiates the color and consistency of warm caramel. Brown eyes usually accompany caramel skin, yet my eyes are green or gold, reflecting whatever is around, not the typical result of a black dad and white mom. Then there is my hair: an odd mixture of curls and straight, brown and blond that even I don't understand. Pulled straight it reaches down my back, but left alone it curls up to just below my chin. I'm told many things: “You are exotic; you are Middle Eastern; you are black; you are mixed; you are weird,” and so it goes as people label me based on my parts, certainly without knowing who I am.

I am African-American and white, but mostly society refers to me as black. Next, the assumptions begin about me based on my parts. At my first high school there weren’t many blacks and very few of us were in AP and honors classes. On the first day of most semesters my AP and honors class teachers suspiciously asked, “Do you need help? What class are you looking for?” All while the Asian and white kids were greeted with, “Welcome to my class. I’m excited to see what you have to offer.” As I took a seat I was asked for my name so I could be “verified in the system,” before roll was even called. They only saw what I looked like and assumed I shouldn’t be there. They didn’t see who I am, which is an excellent student and leader.

I live entirely with my white mom, who I look nothing like; my dad—he’s nowhere to be seen in my life. Because I live in a white household I take up the stereotype of being “white washed.” I get called an “Oreo” or an “honorary white person” because I like to conduct myself with class, and I make education my number one priority, something the name callers think black people are apparently incapable of. I’ve never understood this because it is other black people calling me these names. They see me in halves or parts, and think I don’t act black enough, or maybe don’t act enough like them, but really they just don’t know me.

I’ve always quietly paid attention in class, my brain a sponge absorbing the lessons. People notice I don’t eat lunch with my friends. Instead, I spend lunch in my AP calculus classroom, dedicating myself to learning the language of math that used to be foreign to me, but is now natural. People often assume because I’m focused in class and I study at lunch that I am shy or reserved. They can’t see another part of me who is very social and loves public speaking in front of groups big and small. In fact, I was privileged to write and beautifully deliver my eighth grade promotion speech, albeit with shaking hands, in front of 700 people. People see the quiet, studious and dedicated part of me and don’t see that I am also outgoing and social, dedicated and focused.

I am strong and confident and embrace all the halves and parts of me. When I look into the mirror I see these many parts and I see who I am. I urge people who look at me to look a little deeper.

Rasa Forati

Second place

Name: Rasa Forati

Now attending: Vista del Lago High School

College attending: Johns Hopkins University

Plans to study: Molecular and cellular biology, psychology

Dream job: Physician who both practices in an office and performs surgery, because I’d get the best of both worlds. And maybe after spending my day saving lives, I’d be a hip-hop dancer by night and teach classes. So all in all, my dream job is a physician-surgeon-dancer.

‘My expectations of America'

The U.S. Embassy officer switched her focus from my father to me: “Why do you want to come to America?” I stood up on my tippy toes—a skill that I had mastered in ballet class—peeped my head over the counter and responded in a very thick accent what my father had taught me to say in English: “I want to go to Disneyland.” I was 7 years old, after all, and upon coming off the plane I imagined what the rest of my life would look like—in other words, I was certain that my family's first priority in America would be, without a doubt, going to Disneyland: the place where dreams came true.

I had a stable life in Iran. I went to a private school, played tag with my friends at the park and danced; I couldn’t ask for anything more, nor did I see any need to. So when I heard my parents talk to their relatives about the great opportunities that America would present to my brother and me, I didn’t understand the extent to which that was true. However, as I grew older and watched my family abroad struggle in their failed attempts to gain better lives, I became aware of the limitations that the confined borders of my native country presented, specifically for women. I learned how discrimination pervaded Iranian women’s lives: the inability for women to file for divorce against their husbands, the inability for women over 12 to take dance classes, the government’s quota against women entering the medical field.

Remaining in Iran would belittle my goals of becoming a doctor as well as silence my love for dance, my creative outlet and mode of self-discovery. I would not have been allowed to be the ambitious person I am today as a result of the opportunities that have been presented to me, such as challenging myself with advanced courses, which are not offered in Iranian secondary schools. I would not have gotten the chance to volunteer in my community or shadow doctors and ask questions or express my political opinion and listen to others express theirs. I would have had to do so discreetly, in the same manner that many Iranian women currently do.

When I actually did visit Disneyland, eight years after our arrival in the United States, I was underwhelmed. I had believed it to be a grand, magnificent place that would be exploding with fireworks and smiles and magic; instead, I found it to be a place with long lines and swarming children. In a way, this paralleled my expectations of America, as I believed success simply came as a side effect of being here. However, I learned through the few extra hours I spent each day on English homework that this was far from true. America may be the land of opportunity, but those opportunities mean nothing if they are not taken advantage of.

My mother once told me about her American-educated doctor who periodically saw patients in Iran. People had the utmost respect for her; she not only reaped the benefits of an American education, but also maintained her Iranian culture. Ultimately, this is where I see myself. It is where I have always seen myself, using education as a tool to help those around me, near and far. It will be my way of making use of the opportunities I have been provided with, my way of giving back to the people of Iran with knowledge and aid, my way of fighting against the oppression many women face today. The diligence and perseverance that I obtained in America will drive me forward in this journey, starting with gaining my doctor of medicine degree—but where I come from is what will drive me with unwavering purpose.

Third place

Name: Aisha Aslam

Now attending: Natomas High School

College attending: UC Davis

Plans to study: Pre-med, psychology

Dream job: Pediatric psychiatrist

‘I vow to make their voices heard'

I have never seen anyone, much less a small child, die before.

But there he is in front of me on the small LCD screen of my phone, desperately gasping for air, until his body finally gives way to the sarin gas coursing through his system. I quickly set down my phone, repulsed at what I have just seen, yet the animated news reporter jabbers on.

“… As many as 100 said to have succumbed to the deadly gas … Government said to be responsible …”

Still groggy from the night’s sleep, my mother tells me it is time for our early morning prayer. Fumbling around for a scarf, I drape it over my head before joining my mother in Fajr, the first of the five Islamic prayers of the day. I linger for a few minutes after prayer and say a silent invocation that the civil war in Syria is put to rest.

The sun has risen, which means school will be starting soon. I wonder if the children of Syria are able to attend school without the fear of being blown apart at any given second. Arriving to class, I take a seat. Several discussions taking place at once meld together into a pleasant drone before my teacher walks to the front and everyone quiets.

“So, any news?” he asks, like he does every day. A few hands shoot up, and the latest celebrity antics are revealed, governmental happenings are described and lighthearted banter is thrown back and forth. I wait for someone to speak up about the sarin gas attack. However, 15 minutes pass by, and there is no mention of it.

He throws in a feeble sentence about the Syrian attack and that’s that. He moves on to other news. A lump in my throat, I look around, expecting to see the physical manifestations of horror or disgust on my peers’ faces. However, their glazed-over eyes and slouched postures convey a message better than any language can: namely, they don’t care.

That following Sunday, I walk into my classroom and am attacked from all sides by the overwhelming amount of hugs my giggling students wish to inflict upon me. As a Sunday school teacher at the local mosque, I note that they are too young to understand that some of their counterparts in Syria are not worried about the test they just failed, but where they will receive their next meal. My students do not understand that their religion is the most feared in America. They are not aware that just a few hours earlier, an explicit message was found scrawled on the brick walls of the mosque by a not-so-well-meaning stranger, the fresh paint dripping red splatters onto the concrete floor and spelling out: “YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.”

As they grow older, I hope these children realize how privileged they are, no matter what a few disillusioned individuals do to abuse the reputation of one of the largest religions in the world.

Growing up in America, yet staying true to my heritage, impressed upon me that we do not choose our birthplace, yet it is factors such as this that dictate how we continue to live our lives. The civilians of Syria did not ever dream they would be suffering such atrocities, yet they are caught in the middle of a long-standing, bitter war with no way out. I had previously taken for granted that I have the right to pray alongside my mother while my neighbors are excitedly awaiting Santa’s gifts, or lighting menorahs or even sleeping in. However, what I perceive as normality, others in war-torn countries view as a utopia of sorts. Although the rest of the world has decided to watch the people of Syria and other countries facing similar fates suffer in silence, I vow to make their voices heard to anyone who is willing to listen.

Junet Bedayn

Honorable Mention

Name: Junet Bedayn

Now attending: Nevada Union High School

College attending: A dual bachelors program between Sciences Po in France and Columbia University in New York

Plans to study: Public policy and environmentalism

Summer plans: Backpack the three-week-long John Muir Trail with friends and attend Alasdair Fraser’s Sierra Fiddle Camp

‘There is little time to squander'

I started my freshman year of high school three days after I sat with my family and held my dad's hand as he passed away. His death wasn't unexpected, and, in fact, it was a relief to all of us, including him. The years leading to his death forced my family to adapt to a fraught lifestyle—complete with a collision of my father's dementia, my mother's menopause and my own adolescence—and required me to examine my vulnerabilities and develop my strengths.

When I was 9 years old, my dad was diagnosed with frontotemporal degeneration, and it was difficult, as a young girl, to grasp what these long words meant. As time went on, however, changes in my dad’s behavior became more prevalent, as did changes in the way that we lived; I struggled to both understand and cope with our situation. I worked on compassion, thanking him and smiling, as I battled my annoyance when he frequently repeated the same compliment on my haircut. I developed patience as I fought frustration and embarrassment, when at a local cafe he poured his smoothie onto a bagel, and I had to explain to him that he no longer needed to eat the food he held, wet and dripping with mango. I found gratitude for the kindness of my cousin, who simply began cleaning up the mess. I confronted my own anger and fear one day when, late for school, I had to chase my father down our road, begging him to follow me home. He had run away, believing that someone was trying to kill him.

Experiences such as these, painful as they were, taught me that life is unpredictable, and that what we do matters. While my dad continued to regress, I found myself maturing. I learned to solve problems and stay levelheaded in stressful situations. I practiced negotiation, working with dad to convince him of his safety. I easily communicated with adults because our house was filled with a community of friends who provided us with caretaking, meals, rides, music and kindness. I learned to be gracious and accept help, while at the same time I saw opportunities where I could be of service.

With these new skills and a deepening appreciation of the generosity of my community, my activism was a natural outcome. When I started my freshman year, I joined in a grassroots effort to lobby city officials about the environmental effects of plastic bags. I became a leader, modifying legislation, organizing youth, giving presentations and executing press releases. When our city council passed our legislation, I realized I had just become an effective community organizer.

Back at high school, my passion for activism continued. Two friends and I formed the Environmental Committee of Nevada Union (EcoNU). During my sophomore year, I led EcoNU’s campaign to raise $27,000 to purchase sturdy recycle bins, and established a partnership with the special education career training department. We have now managed to implement cafeteria composting, local meals on Thursdays, hydration stations throughout campus and an annual Earth Day Festival. The Social Justice Club became a special interest of mine, and I worked with students and the administration to eliminate bias in our dress code. I joined the Site Council and served as vice chairperson for two years to bring student concerns to the attention of the administration. I have worked on adjusting the District’s budget, been involved in our school’s accreditation, and served on the selection committee for the new assistant principal. This year, I am the chairperson of the Site Council, the first student ever in this position.

Following my dad’s death, I grew from being a naive child to an engaged young adult. My dad’s decline taught me that life can be fleeting, and there is little time to squander. I hope to honor his memory, and my community, with dedication to activism and service.

Meghan Bobrowsky

Honorable Mention

Name: Meghan Bobrowsky

Now attending: Davis Senior High School

College attending: Scripps College

Plans to study: Politics, philosophy and economics

One goal for freshman year: Write an article for my college newspaper that makes a difference in the community

‘My life lacked the most important cliché'

My friends noticed my messy hair and asked about my home situation. I told them the simple truth: “My mom isn't home right now,” and left the interpretation up to them. That was the first time I kept something to myself instead of seeking out the solace of my friends. It was a private matter, and I did not want to share it until I was sure of my newfound motherly feelings. I felt an obligation to protect my sisters from harm, and that meant rumors that might spread if people found out. Until then, my childhood had been filled with cliché moments—celebrating my first birthday and bringing my sisters home from the hospital. But my life lacked the most important cliché: parents who loved each other.

My parents, Jay and Michele, seemed a comparable fit at first. Jay was a full-time office guy who worked in a cubicle, and Michele was a stay-at-home mom taking care of three girls. But between the soccer games and talent shows, the two started to grow apart. I passed off their constant bickering as normal, but the feelings of hostility grew progressively more problematic until I was 10 years old. Then, it was over in a flash. Michele stormed out of the house yelling, “I’m done! You take care of the kids if it’s so easy.” That was the last day I lived in the same house as my mother. Instead of mom packing my lunch of peanut butter and jelly sandwich with no crusts, dad left the crusts on and was invariably late picking me up from school.

I learned resilience. There was nothing about the situation I could control, so it did not make sense to ponder the “what ifs.” Instead of sulking, I threw myself into my school work and finished fourth grade with all As by staying up late studying. But my sisters interpreted the failed marriage more harshly. They cried together frequently and asked repeatedly, “When is mommy coming home?” Instead of telling the truth and breaking their innocent hearts, I took on the role as “new mommy.” I cleaned the hard-to-reach spots behind their ears and read them bedtime stories until they fell asleep. I embraced my new role as caregiver of the house and tried to do my self-appointed job to the best of my ability. I remember once when my dad made the mistake of adding ketchup to my sister Sarah’s hamburger. She looked up at me with tears in her eyes, and I eagerly switched burger, condiments and bun with her when my dad’s back was turned.

Tending to my sisters’ needs was about paying attention to the little things that were now absent from their everyday lives. But taking on that motherly role meant becoming more mature and leaving behind playtime recess. The strength of a person cannot be measured until a problematic situation presents itself. My strength was tested, and I prevailed.

Years later, we moved to Davis. I was still the mom figure, but another woman threatened to take over my leadership position. Valerie was the first woman since my mother to show compassion towards my sleep-deprived dad. I was hostile at first after being in charge for so long. It was not until my dad reminded me that I was still a kid that I remembered what it felt like to let someone else take care of me. After that interaction, I opened my heart to Valerie.

Initially, we only talked about school. Then I found out about a column she wrote for the local paper that I was interested in interning for, and conversation never ceased. Now, I am 17 years old, in my senior year of high school. I am confident that I can handle whatever situations I find myself in because I have already learned two critical life skills: self-reliance and maturity.

Robb Viens

Honorable Mention

Name: Robb Viens

Now attending: Bella Vista High School

College attending: Stanford University

Plans to study: Microbiology, biophysics

Personal motto: I live by my curiosity, driven by my humanity.

‘I learned to define my own potential'

I stood solemnly in the kitchen beside my mom, who was covered in spaghetti. As I watched noodles slither down the side of her face like scarlet-colored snakes, we cried in silence. The image of pasta in projectile motion, soaring at me, carrying all the spite of my father, imprinted in my mind. So for the next 10 minutes, as I plucked tomatoey pasta and shards of ceramic plate from my mom's hair like spiny cotton from a field, I could only dwell on my mistakes.

Dinner was never an easy time of day, with my father especially irritable after a day of work. Mom had told me repeatedly, “Think before you act, Robb, because if you don’t … well we never know what will happen.” And she was right; to provoke my father was to provoke the unforgiving unknown. It happens that this time, my punishment for being too loud at the dinner table was a plate of spaghetti, thrown directly at me. Looking back at Mom, I saw that the blood on her forehead from where the plate hit her had finally clotted, effectively separating the blood-marinara sauce mixture. Just so did my feelings toward my father congeal in the wake of the most tragic food fight of my youth.

Before that night, living with my father was my only true phobia. And it was clear that the emotional stability of the entire household was precariously perched upon his ever-wavering happiness. Shoes, water bottles, books and now plates of spaghetti were, to me, missiles ensconced in a veil of domesticity. Accordingly, safety was a feigned sentiment, and it was decided in tacit unanimity that anything that might provoke my father was prohibited. For the most part, I abided by this golden rule of the household. Everyone did, because everyone had to. However, by spending my afternoons alone, adorning Polly Pockets with rubbery, fuchsia scarves rather than racing toy cars, I unknowingly broke this rule. His words to my mom in response to seeing me were unforgettable: “God damn it! You gave birth to a gay idiot!” Thus, until the night of the pasta incident, I lived with the belief that the truth of my very being was invalid. It had been instilled unto me with his words that my personal nature was its own fallacy.

I now suppose that something about a plate of pasta being jettisoned across the dining room must have been incredibly inspiring. I’ve always known that the pasta was intended to hit me rather than my mother, but the remarkable thing was that it did not. Although my father was the one who had directed that plate of spaghetti where to go, the spaghetti did not obey. It was marvelous! In one sense, I learned to behave like the spaghetti. The flying pasta taught me that my father’s paradigm for me was not my own destiny. The flying pasta taught me true self-determination. In essence, I learned to define my own potential.

It is for this reason that I try to paint my childhood as something other than a tragedy. Perhaps counter-intuitively, I cherish the bruises left on my arm. I admire the insults targeted at my identity. I treasure my abusive upbringing. And although the hardships of my youth are not of the most auspicious nature, that phenomenal display of soaring spaghetti provided me with a monumental revelation: To dwell on misfortune is in and of itself unfortunate. Recognizing that every scenario may serve as an opportunity for self-discovery has proven to be invaluable; and I know that this skill will help me to succeed and persevere, regardless of the challenges that my future may present. It is no secret, then, that I wholeheartedly accept and appreciate my daddy issues.

Maya Brady

Honorable Mention

Name: Maya Brady

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: UC Santa Barbara

Plans to study: Sociology and black studies

Dream job: Someplace where I’m helping people with complex social issues unique to them and have a big spinning office chair

‘Speaking up for the voiceless'

As a gay African-American woman, I am at the intersection of a hotbed of movements for social justice and am absolutely impassioned by all of them. The formation of my deep interest in the struggle for civil rights stems only partly from my identification in the groups previously described and is instead mainly due to the actions and reactions of those who are less accepting of marginalized communities. My freshman honors world geography class was one such example. The course name appeared to be a misnomer because we, for some odd reason, learned exclusively about Europe and North America (sans Mexico, which was even more telling). Every other student appeared outwardly unfazed by the purposefully selective choice in curriculum, and that was perhaps the worst part: The history taught to the incoming generation was exclusionary and polarizing to the soon-to-be-majority minority.

Now I was always aware of the pervasive nature of racism in our society; however, I was unprepared and admittedly too meek to confront it directly, so instead it sat nestled, biting away in the back of my brain. I had typically been the quiet student, continuously urged by my teachers to speak up more, and that never really bothered me up to this point. I knew that if I did not say anything, then no one else would, and I could not morally stomach the thought of that.

A few months later, an opportunity arose in my honors English class in the form of a final speech with directions vague enough for me to attach my grievances upon. With my hands shaking as much as my voice, I spun “What I Would Like to See More of in Schools” into a critique of euro-centrism as well as the dire need for a more hospitable school environment for LGBT+ students to the encouraging nods of my pleasantly surprised English teacher and questioning glares of my largely indifferent classmates.

Afterwards, I assumed my unexpected raving would be easily forgotten by my reluctant audience, so I was amazed to discover that upon meeting my now best friend the beginning of sophomore year that she had already known me as “speech girl Maya”. It was absolutely remarkable to me that my peers had not just heard me, but truly listened and remembered me. That was when I realized that speaking out about more sensitive topics actually made an impact in how people perceive the world, and that was exhilarating to me.

Starting as someone who would never speak unless spoken to and then evolving into someone constantly stretching the five minute speech limit taught me that I may be taciturn in small talk, but I am unapologetically loud when speaking up for the voiceless.

Michelle Villanueva

Honorable Mention

Name: Michelle Villanueva

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: Sacramento State University

Plans to study: Nursing

Dream job: Touring the world, singing my own songs

‘A familiar stranger'

“How many people do you have in your family?”

I always answered five.

“No, you have four,” relatives would correct in their thick Tagalog accents—as if, at 6 years of age, I had not fully grasped the concept of counting to 10. Profoundly rich, I argued, “I’m not poor, I have five!”

The much-adored fifth member, Manang, raised me as her own alongside my parents, who strived incessantly to put food on the table.

So, of course, I was incredibly rich.

Far too early in the hectic city of Manila, the faint sounds of Manang hand-washing our laundry and the scent of fabric softener that flew into our quaint home with the breeze roused me from sleep.

However, it was a neighbor banging loudly on our door, breathlessly reporting I was about to miss kindergarten class pictures, that jolted me awake.

As if struck by lightning, Manang immediately guided me through the glimmering trails of sunshine that poured onto our tile floors as I scrambled lethargically into the shower. In no time, she had me bathed, dressed in uniform, primped, groomed and well fed.

And although we were running against time, we laughed all the way to school.

Unfortunately, every moment I spent with Manang was not always joyful. Born into a poverty-stricken family in the Philippines, Manang did not receive a proper education nor lead an easy life. She lost her identity to a fire that burned her birth certificate and left her family destitute. By the time she turned 15, Manang was forced to work as a small-restaurant waitress to provide for her family. Despite her attempts, her mother passed away only three years after; a year later, her father suffered from depression and quickly followed.

To turn her life around, at about age 22, Manang had her own family. Sorrowfully, her husband became ill and she was widowed. Without any other option or support, Manang made the biggest sacrifice of her life and gave her children away to her sister.

With nothing left, Manang moved to the city of Manila for an opportunity to earn a living to support her children. And fate brought her to our home—she found a family in mine.

Even so, as a mindless and petty 7-year-old girl, I betrayed Manang’s trust and used her suffering against her—to insult her, to hurt her—when I didn’t get my way.

“You can’t tell me what to do! I might be young, but I go to school. I’m smarter than you could ever dream to be!” I spat my venom at her, my heart breaking with every malicious word that stabbed daggers at her.

Manang was not enraged nor did she even hint the slightest sign of anger at me. In my tearing, infuriated eyes, everything blurred except her dark, weary face. She just stared back at me with hurt, disappointed eyes.

Then compassionately, she responded, “Don’t allow the ugliness in the world consume you. You go to school so that one day you can help those less fortunate than you.”

Although Manang and I rarely ever disagreed, let alone fought, I could never remember what possessed me to utter such selfish words. I have never been more ashamed in my entire life.

Regardless of anything I ever said or did, I could do no wrong in Manang’s eyes. And in turn, as I grew older, so did my fondness for her. I came to treasure the little things she did that often went unnoticed: nurturing me, staying up all night singing to put me to sleep, defending me—it meant all the world in my admiring eyes.

It baffled me as a child how I could share such a deep connection with a stranger. But in loving and believing in me unconditionally, Manang played such a magnificent part in my childhood. Manang may be a stranger to the world, but she has never been a stranger to me.

Isabella Angulo

Honorable Mention

Name: Isabella Angulo

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: UC Irvine

Plans to study: Marketing, film

Dream job: Film director

‘Refusal to pity myself'

Who would've thought obesity would be my savior? Certainly not I.

Since my elementary years I was known as the “big black girl.” I carried that label throughout my life and not for a minuscule moment did the thought “I’m fat” exit my mind. The change of the seasons stomped that thought deeper as girls modeled their newest bikini—flaunting their bodies, while I could only gather embarrassment for my own.

My mom and I moved out of our one-bedroom apartment into a new house during my seventh grade summer. My mom was exuberant and proud of that, while I failed to express anything as a surge of intense pressure made even a conversation unbearable. My vision began to double uncontrollably. My neck stiffened from overbearing strain. My last reminiscence was begging to make the headache stop.

The emergency room was packed that night. When I reached medical attention I witnessed concern morph the doctor’s face. A nurse jammed a spinal tap needle into my spine causing me to shriek even louder. The needle raced to my brain from an abundance of spinal fluid. At that moment my condition was labeled: unknown.

Suddenly I fell under a comatose sleep and became a subject of study under the bright examining lights. Numerous MRIs and vision tests were analyzed and taken throughout the day to decipher my bizarre case. The research proved the spinal fluid pressure mimicked a brain tumor and swelled my optic nerve to the verge of becoming blind—a condition called pseudotumor cerebri. The culprit: my weight.

In the lobby my mother and estranged father began to bicker and blame my health on each other, using my health as a weapon of insult. I knew my family would never be beautifully cohesive but that day any dreams of a “family” were ruined.

How could this be right? I heard of people diagnosed with high blood pressure or diabetes … but nothing compared to this.

A bag of prescription pills in one hand and a weight loss meal plan in the other. That’s what they gave me to kick start my “New Healthier Life” as the brochure stated. I only went home choking on the realization my life must change, now. To start my fitness quest I attempted a “beginners cycling class” that was anything but simple cardio. Glaring techno music stung my eardrums while the room transformed into a torture chamber of aching muscles. The worst pain of all, needing a break to breathe while a 60-year-old woman on the next bike had a faster pace than the instructor! That alone forced me to crawl out of the room in defeat. Defeated on the first day I raced home in tears as shame twisted into hatred with myself.

Why me? Why must I grapple this daunting battle?

But then the refusal to obey to the consuming condition regained consciousness. The refusal to pity myself regained consciousness. The refusal to settle for a mediocre life ultimately won my depression. A year passed and the beginning of my freshman year begun. Tired of the turtle paced weight loss, I plunged myself into the male dominated world of wrestling that not only shedded pounds but taught honor and respect. The next year I found a passion for long distance running on the track team that engraved perseverance and determination in me. With a total of 75 pounds lost today, my repaired self-image flourished my academic and social life by surpassing the average experience to a state of expression and discovery. I soon participated more in class and my teachers recognized me more than a mere paper to grade. Life felt complete for once.

Today I reflect on my not only my weight loss but my journey as a young woman. It’s ironic I thank my condition. After all, if that never happened who would I be?

Leena Awni

Honorable Mention

Name: Leena Awni

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: UC Berkeley

Plans to study: Biology

Dream job: Doctor

‘A connection to my roots'

I wake to the calming scent of my grandmother's freshly baked pita bread. As I walk into the kitchen to say good morning to my dad, I watch as he dips the bread in a creamy mixture of yogurt, olive oil and zaatar, a blend of Middle Eastern spices. This traditional food makes me think of stories my parents have told me about what it was like growing up in Iraq.

The Iraq of my parents’ childhood was wealthy from the sale of oil and rich in history. It was also a place where citizens feared for their lives and were forced to stand in silence as a dictator issued his commands to the public. When warfare erupted in the country due to the lack of leadership, my parents often had to participate in emergency drills at school to prepare them for violent outbursts. I can only imagine their fear when they heard the emergency bell ring. These stories make me thankful today that they gave me the opportunity to live in the “Land of the Free,” where equality and freedom of speech are basic human rights.

Although I have never experienced anything similar to the torment my parents lived with, it has powerfully influenced me in many ways. Their negative experiences have taught me not to take my life for granted. I cherish the opportunity I am given to cultivate personal relationships and to accomplish what my parents were denied growing up under a dictatorship, even while I maintain a connection to my roots.

Middle Easterners are a collectivistic society. We emphasize kinship with others to create family-like units. Our nomadic roots stress relationships that are tight-knit. For this reason, I focus on making bonds with people who share ideals similar to mine; who aspire to attend universities and build successful careers. My friends and I have formed a Skype group where we share our dreams, as well as our worries, about meeting the expectations placed on us. What I most appreciate about this group is that there is always someone who can relate and empower another through typing long paragraphs of encouragement, as we support each other in attaining our goals.

As respectful as I am of my culture, I am not the product of an assembly line. For example, my parents have struggled to accept that I attend after-school groups with males because in the Middle East it is common for girls and boys to be segregated in school. They feared that I would be pressured to fit the stereotype of the reckless female adolescent I witnessed on the Disney TV shows I watched when I was younger. But I try to integrate American values with Middle Eastern values to be my own person, and, often, before I go to bed, I make sure to sneak in some Skype time with one of my closest male friends. I enjoy engaging in religious discussions with him. We lament the terrorist jokes we hear every day, and the stories of Mosques being burned and vandalized. We talk about girls we know being judged for wearing head scarves. And we reflect on the reality that there will always be good people and bad people, but right now it sometimes feels as if our entire race is being classified as “terrorist” by prejudiced groups.

When I am forced to fill in the “White (with Middle Eastern Origin)” bubble to disclose my race for the College Board exams, I sigh because my origins are of so much more significance than is implied by a few words in parentheses. My identity as a Middle Easterner is what makes me unique and is something I am very proud of because my culture values honesty, respect, communication and dedication.