SN&R’s 2018 College Essay Contest winners!

I don’t believe any of us were ready for what we would learn while judging this year’s High School College Essay Contest. Deborah had been saying for some time that this is always her favorite issue of the year. Now, the four of us who did most of the judging know why.

In case you don’t know any high school seniors: Most colleges require applicants to submit a personal essay so the folks in admissions can get a sense of who they are. The students are urged to be vulnerable and share something important about themselves. Occasionally, they’re given a prompt—“tell us about an obstacle you’ve overcome” is popular.

Well, the 10 students whom you will meet in these pages reveal themselves to be extraordinary human beings. As did a whole lot of the other contestants. When we four preliminary judges gathered around the table here in editorial last Wednesday to discuss what we’d found, our eyes were big.

Kate shared the criteria she had used for judging, pointed to one nicely composed semi-finalist, and said, “This is well-written, but … no feels.” Steph, Mozes and I concurred that this was what mattered most. Feels.

I predict you will catch feels when reading the essays written by the three winners and selections from the seven Honorable Mentions.

I can’t wait to meet these kids—they’ll be here for a little celebration and to pick up their checks on Thursday!

We want to extend a big thank you to our first place sponsor, InterWest Insurance Services. And thanks also to our second and third place sponsors, GiveBack2Sac, Gilbert Associates and Flock.

First place

Name: Harkomal K. Nijjer

Now attending:  Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending:  Boston University

Plans to study: International relations and sustainable business

Dream job:  Ambassador to the UN

‘Through alienation, I learned independence’

“Why is your hair so long? Why are you so hairy?” The boy’s eyes fixated on my arms as I desperately tugged down the sleeves of my shirt; the dread that always accompanied those questions seeping through my tanned skin, into my bones, dropping to the pit of my stomach. At the age of 6, I didn’t know how to respond to those questions or the feelings of shame that followed them. I just knew I didn’t like it. At the age of 6, all I knew was that the long hair I kept back in a braid ostracized me from all the other girls. At the age of 6, I learned to despise my culture.

My school life and home life have always run on opposite tracks. I was always chasing after one or the other, constantly failing to ingress completely into the ’American’ lifestyle my parents sacrificed everything for me to have, while fumbling to uphold the Indian values that governed my family. My halted speech from years of only speaking Punjabi at home, the way I missed TV references, my natural tendency to strive to be the best, widened the gap between my peers and I. I felt like I was in an enormous puzzle—a mismatched piece that didn’t fit, no matter which way you turned it. I remember the red-hot shame I felt for being the only brown girl in my grade, for thinking that because I was so peculiar there was something wrong with me. I remember the frustration that swelled in my throat and stung behind my eyes when my father refused to let me cut my long hair, and I remember shaving my arms the summer before sixth grade and waiting for my mother to come home, praying she wouldn’t notice.

She noticed.

I also remember the hurt flickering in her angry eyes. She couldn’t comprehend what had gotten into her bright little girl. She didn’t understand why I was suddenly distancing myself from the only way of life we had ever known.

Truthfully, I didn’t understand why either. All I knew was that I wanted to fit in.

But never at the expense of my mother’s disappointment.

My parents didn’t uproot their lives to live in a country whose tongue they didn’t speak and whose culture they didn’t understand for me to forget my own. They didn’t exchange their lives of comfort for seventeen hour workdays for me to disregard the opportunities they had created for me, just because I didn’t fit in.

Even though I didn’t understand at the age of 6, I grew to realize it.

As I grew older, the thought of “fitting in” vanished from my mind. I learned to love my roots, even though I was taught to cast them aside. Through the scorn I grew up in, I learned resilience. Through the narrow-mindedness I faced, I learned perseverance. Through alienation, I learned independence.

Through hate, I learned love. Love for my culture. Love for how I grew up.

Love for who I am.

Love isn’t easy to learn. It takes time, it takes practice, and often times, it takes a mentor. My mentor was my experience, and though I came out better because of it, I know that’s not the only way to learn. Like my own, many immigrant parents don’t know how to teach love and acceptance of our culture because they never had to teach themselves. Indian children need someone else to turn to. So my brainchild—“Framework for Compassion”—was born, a YouTube channel sharing my experience growing up as a daughter of two immigrants, what our culture stood for, and why they should be proud to be who they are. The world doesn’t need more carbon copies, it needs individuals who aren’t afraid of diverging from the norm, who aren’t afraid of creating and becoming something extraordinary. A little love from me might help.

Second place

Name:  Qamdhyn J. Hale

Now attending:  Antelope High School

College attending:  Azusa Pacific University

Plans to study:  Visual art animation and graphic design

Dream job: Story board artist

‘A lot like dragons’

I was taught early in life that we as individuals determine our own value; that our worth is equal to how purposeful we live our lives. I believe that everyone has something positive to contribute to the world, if they so choose, that a contribution doesn’t need to be grand in nature but grand in the spirit in which it is given. When I was 7 years old, I was given the diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder. No, it wasn’t grand or spirited, but it was life-changing. I used drawing and creating art as my coping mechanism. Art is a great contributor and communicator. It speaks volumes when your words fail. It provokes emotion and thought without explanation. It argues and atones without raising a voice. It explains in a way many can understand without separation or division. It affords dissension and acceptance without exclusion. It is a grand giving. Creating art for me serves many purposes; when I am in class, it serves as a way for me to focus called “stimming” or self-stimulation. Many individuals with autism use this technique to calm themselves, for some its fidgeting or repetitive motion and/or sound. For, me it is creating art. When I am experiencing sensory overload or feeling “full” and need to release my feelings, I draw. My thoughts are turned into art, my feelings are in the pages of my sketch book, my plans, my hopes, my dreams… my life is what transforms the pages in my sketch book, from a blank white page of nothingness, into my living color. What I hear, see, feel, taste and touch unfolds at the tip of my pencil, my pen, my stylus, my brush in shade, in shape, in texture, in contrast, in hue, and I am whole. I have purpose. I contribute. I am a giving spirit. I have value. I add value. I know my worth.

Standing on my belief that everyone has value and something to contribute, I choose to highlight individuals with disabilities. I am an advocate for those with disabilities, including physical, intellectual and neurodevelopmental deficits. I have spoken to thousands of students, teachers, staff, administrators and coaches about understanding and acceptance for those with disabilities. To clarify, “disability” is in my opinion the “inability” of others to see another’s ability, due to a preconceived notion that individuals with disabilities are somehow less or inadequate in some way. I wanted to depict individuals with varying degrees of disabilities including one with an “invisible” disability (autism). This five-piece collection (“Brawn Content,” “Fearless Flight,” “Wheeled Warrior,” “Unforeseen Courage,” “Majestic Contradiction”) depicts these individuals as you might see them in everyday life. They appear as vibrant, strong and capable individuals with a physical deficit. But these individuals are more than their perceived deficits. Their disability cannot be overlooked but instead accepted as apart of them and not all of them. To see the person first.

Dragons are grand, beautiful and majestic creatures. Individuals with disabilities are a lot like dragons. The perceptions of dragons are conflicted; dragons can be strong, yet docile; they can be aggressive and content, brave yet loyal, menacing but gregarious, beautiful, yet intimidating and even through all of the contradictions, they just want to be loved, understood and accepted just like those with disabilities. They are kindred spirits. Included on the five pieces are dragon depictions of the same individuals with disabilities. The intent of the dragon maintaining the physical deficit is to show that the disability transcends, however. When you look at the dragon, you see the beauty, strength, fearlessness, boldness, loyalty and majesty of the dragon and the deficit is secondary, an afterthought even. The accompanying dragon depiction embodies the spirit of the individuals with disabilities. That is exactly how I believe that individuals with disabilities should be seen. An undeniable force to be reckoned with, worthy contributors full of purpose and value.

Third place

Name: Tyler Newman

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: UC Irvine

Plans to study: Economics and linguistics

Dream job: Ambassador for Southeast Asian countries

‘the bloody nose, the sting of the remote’

I wish I could remember what I did to deserve being inescapably tied to him.

But I do remember years of sitting in the back seat with my sisters, crying. I remember the yelling, insults, and continuous arguments from the driver and passenger seats. I remember muffled yelling from the other side of the door. I remember running away only to see him on the other side.

I remember late nights within her damp arms. I remember the pain in her eyes, a striking juxtaposition of the hope and love we always had. I remember that smirk. I remember the lies. I remember the dread, the hatred, the anxiety, the pressure. I remember the slap, the ripped paper, the bloody nose, the sting of the remote.

In spite, I act as though my decisions are my own, but my thoughts tell a different a story. A story where his actions are the rock, his lies are the chains, and his blood is the punishment. A story where I am Prometheus—forever bound to him—forever living the duality of doing things for myself, but because of him.

A common question for kids is, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and while I may answer by saying, “I want to be a teacher!” the truth is that I just don’t want to be him. I don’t want to be someone devoid of emotion, morals, reality.

Everything that I have done throughout high school has been a setup for making sure I can be who I want to be. Taking the top classes to make sure I become top of my class, studying to make sure I do well on the standardized testing, creating meaningful relationships with others my age, and trying to make sure that I would have a lasting effect on those I gave my love to.

It is hard for me to completely disregard the effect he has had on me, because in many ways, I am who I am because of him. Anger, Pain, Frustration—introduced by him—were once my worst enemies, but are now my greatest allies. They used to tighten my bonds, but now I use them to chip away at his own handiwork.

I may be imprisoned, but as I look toward the future, I realize that it will not always be this way. It is hard to know who I really am without knowing the drive behind every decision I make. I choose to live in a state of being where I can see my future, and also have the power to get myself there.

These bonds are not bonds, rather they are training wheels. In his attempt to break me, he has only facilitated my growth. As there will come a day when I break these shackles, for I do not need to rely on Fate, Zeus, or even Him for my salvation. I only need to rely on myself. I am my own Hercules.

Honorable mention

Name: Estefania Orozco

Now attending: Natomas Pacific Pathways Prep

College attending: University of California Davis

Plans to study: English, cinematography

Summer plans: I’m looking forward to spending time with my friends during the summer and the warm summer nights!

‘Suddenly, Maniac Magee and Jerry Spinelli came into being’

When I was a little girl, my mom dragged me on her shopping trips to Marshalls. I would always walk towards the toy aisle, grab a book from the small selection they had, sit on the floor, and read. That was my form of entertainment, reading. Always putting myself in the shoes of the characters. Suddenly, Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli came into being. It is this book that sparked my interest in English. …

One of my fondest moments in elementary school was every Thursday when the librarian would read us a story. I got to share my knowledge of English in the same way by reading to kindergarteners from NP3 Elementary every week. It brought a smile to my face seeing the intrigue on their faces and watching them grow. While they may not have the experience I had, it is such a wonderful experience seeing a young person’s eyes light up to a story.

English taught me that everybody has a story that cannot just be put into simple terms. Tone, diction, symbols and actions make a story unique….

English encourages me to be a better listener and question my own choices. Even the small parts that may seem insignificant are vital to a person’s story. Having that mindset prompted me to be more empathetic, improving my patience and communication skills, qualities that are very much needed, beyond all the science and math classes, if I want to be a well rounded person. I’ve learned that it’s more about paying attention to what’s being said than about what to say in response. …

English as a whole made me grow in so many ways, but I try to never forget the little girl on the floor of Marshall’s reading a book, smiling and ready to begin her lifelong journey into the imagination.

Honorable mention

Name: David Morley

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: University of California, Los Angeles

Plans to study: Computer science and engineering

One goal for freshman year: Meet as many new people as I can and root on the Bruins at all their football games!

‘A defrosted glass’

… When I first met him, we were surrounded by the smell of barbecue and cowboy hats, a rather unusual place for such an important meeting. In the middle of the Western Festival, our eyes interlocked as I stood in the robotics booth, unaware that my tutoring of this boy would forever change my life. That day I met Caden, a high functioning autistic child who shared a passion for understanding, a craving to truly know the world around him, and a curiosity much like my own.

As I tutored Caden, I found myself enthused by even the smallest of victories. Every task required constant repetition yet we remained persistent. Each lesson, we reviewed over and over the knowledge that he had previously gained: what a variable is, that you end each line with a semicolon, how to program a digital output. It was slow going and tedious, but over time we found ourselves closer and closer to that elusive goal known as success. Suddenly, as if by magic when I asked, “How do you program an LED?” I was met with a prompt and accurate response. I followed with, “What’s a Boolean?” and he dutifully responded, “A value that is true or false.” Such insignificant victories, such meager successes, yet the feeling they inspired in me was far greater than even the accolades awarded for a great test score, or the winning of a robotics tournament. …

Honorable mention

Name: Lindsey Brashier

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: San Diego State University

Plans to study: Speech, language and hearing sciences

Personal motto: Everybody deserves a voice.

‘I was, in a way, his mother’

… After my mother died, my dad went back to work while my dad’s mother attempted to take care of us. She was an older woman of 75 years and had already done her part of raising five children in a poor latino household. She decided that she would help take care of us through binge-watching soap operas on the couch while making heaps of guacamole for herself. I took it upon myself to raise my little brother. I was starting kindergarten that year, so I was beginning to learn how to read and write, but I was also learning how to cook and clean for my little brother. As we got older, I began to walk him to school and help with homework while also washing his face and making him presentable for the public. He would wake me up in the middle of the night when he had a nightmare, and ask me to kiss his scrapes to make them feel better. I would cuddle him when he had a cold and wipe his face when he had the stomach flu. I was, in a way, his mother. …

Honorable mention

Name: Saja Zidan

Now attending: NP3 Charter High School

College attending: UCLA

Plans to study: Human biology and cociety

Dream job: I want to work with Doctors Without Borders.

‘The people with the white tags’

… When I went to the airport to welcome refugees that were being resettled in Sacramento, I was told to look for the white tags attached around their necks. The white tags helped us identify the refugees surrounded by a sea of other travelers. To me, the refugees were much more than a white tag. They were much more than a classification.

These refugees represented everything I came to love growing up. They reminded me of the sight of mint black tea or Arabic coffee boiling on the stove every time we had guests over. They reminded me of the sound of the ringing bell as I walked into the Middle Eastern grocery store with my dad, who would greet the store owner with a “Salam.” They reminded me of the touch of pita bread on a Sunday morning as I prepared to dip it into some hummus. They reminded me of the sweet smell of baked goods as I walked down the markets in Jordan during Ramadan. They reminded me of the taste of dishes my mom made with utter love. They reminded me of me. …

Honorable mention

Name: Anika Price-Tison

‘My world started collapsing in on me on November 8, 2016’

… Before that election, I hated politics. I hated the differing opinions and the conflicts. It’s not obvious in my appearance or the way I act that I am queer, and I had accepted this invisibility cloak and was hiding underneath it. I rarely advocated for queer rights unless explicitly asked. After that election, I realized the importance of educating people about diversity. I still prefer to be on the sideline rather than front and center, but it is important that this is my choice and not because others have pushed me away and my voice is being muted. No matter where I or anyone else choose to stand, it is important that respect exists for that choice. My world started collapsing in on me on November 8, 2016, but I refused to let it crush me. The day after the election, I proudly sported all the “queer and proud” merchandise that I owned (and some that I borrowed) and acknowledged that not everyone would accept this message. When I was confronted by a group of boys and called “a stupid queer slut!” and worse, I didn’t let it stick. I knew that the boys were trying to get to me and I was not going to let that happen. Of course it hurt, but I wanted to prove a point; they did not know who I was and therefore had no claim to label me and push me aside. I rejected the labels of “stupid” and “slut” because I know those labels are not who I am, but the label of queer I kept. Queer fit me, and ever since those five minutes and the reflection that followed them, I have been proud to wear that label.

Honorable mention

Name: Ashley Tan

Now attending: Cosumnes Oaks High School

College attending: Cosumnes River College

Plans to study: Physics

Dream job: Potter/ceramic artist

‘I do not hide behind layers of fabric anymore’

“OMG Jane, are you okay??” or “What is wrong with your skin?” asks almost everyone. After a flush of embarrassment, I stammer, “Oh I’m okay. It’s just always been like that.” People usually accept that answer, then we both continue on with our lives. Nowadays, I rarely get questions like that, either because almost everyone already knows about my skin condition, or because I am pretty good at hiding it. …

I have keratosis pilaris, more commonly known as “chicken skin.” They are these little bumps all over my arms and legs and literally nothing will make it go away. They don’t hurt, they usually do not itch, they are just “unsightly,” and most people do not have it, so I happen to stand out. Doctors and dermatologists have recommended hundreds of (very expensive) creams, lotions, scrubs and other at-home treatments and trust me, I have tried them all. …

Something I have learned because of all this is that the cliché “It’s what’s on the inside that counts” is really true! I may not win any beauty pageants, but there is so much more to life than appearances. It is because of my fun personality that I have friends, and it is because of my work ethic and character that I have succeeded in school. I am proud of what I have accomplished in 17 years, and I am proud of the person I am today. My imperfections are what make me stand out, and standing out can be a good thing, too. I do not hide behind layers of fabric anymore, and I will not ever again… unless it is cold.

Honorable mention

Name: Kaia Smith

Now attending: Ghidotti Early College High School

College attending: Scripps College

Plans to study: Physics

Dream job: Professor of physics or planetary science, researching exoplanets with NASA or JPL

‘A habitable exoplanet’

“Okay, the timer’s set for one minute. May the best world win!”

In this game, my friend-since-kindergarten Misa and I do what we do best: create worlds. At 7 years old, we’d jump from boulder to boulder on Misa’s rocky property and imagine universes that combined dragons, warrior princesses, and black holes. As we grew older, the exercise became increasingly oriented around scientific realism. These days, when we have a sizable allotment of time, Misa and I have our friends score us on who created the most realistic, most fascinating, life-supporting world in the least amount of time. It’s technically a competition, but ’the world game’ usually degrades into one of us coming up with something interesting enough that the other person helps flesh it out, which often goes on for hours.

The captivating thing about studying other worlds is that, to explain them, no one field is sufficient. A complete understanding of a habitable exoplanet involves geology, chemistry, physics, biology, and ecology—their individual findings and their intersections. …

Perhaps the thing that interests me most about exoplanets is that they are largely unknown. They represent discoveries that could change the way we view the universe, entirely untapped and unreachable. How many fields are sitting so ready to be studied, and yet so unexplored? Someday, I intend to explore such uncharted regions of data and thought.