The most important thing you will ever write
SN&R’s 2010 College Essay Contest Winners!
Michelle Chen dreams of being a doctor someday to follow in the footsteps of her mother and beloved grandfather. Kimberly Schmidt finds inspiration in the drip, drip, drip of the rain gutter. James Bui extricates life lessons while hauling bags of rice at his family’s Chinese medicinal shop. Nathan Whitmore discovers how to “innovate under pressure” while volunteering in Mexico. Simon Vue, whose family arrived in Sacramento after living in a refugee camp in Thailand, embraces his Hmong cultural heritage and shares it with others.
And this was just the beginning.
We at SN&R were astounded by the depth of energy, emotion and intelligence revealed in the more than 350 college-entrance essays that flew into our e-mail box from local teenagers and college-bound students this past month. We’re proud to bestow the promised scholarships upon the winners—$2,010 for the first-place winner, $1,030 for the second-place winner and $502.50 for each of our third-place winners.
We hereby present the first-, second- and a three-way tie for third-place award winners of SN&R’s 2010 College Essay Contest, as well as excerpts from some terrific essays which made it into our pool of finalists.
Michelle Chen, 18
Now attending: Mira Loma High School
College she will attend: UC Berkeley
Plans for study: public health
Ah-gong closed his eyes. His lips curved feebly, bringing a glow to his frail face. I smiled back at him, assured that he would be okay. He smiled like he had done in the past to tell me that everything will be all right.
I was reminded of instances when I needed his comfort. When I was four and had to get a flu shot, I clutched onto the fabric of my mom’s clothes and screeched in fear of the needle as she carried me into the clinic. I kicked and screamed until he said he’d treat me with a Hershey’s Cookies and Cream bar. I relaxed my arm and survived flu season that year. When I was six, my mother yelled at me for refusing to go home, and I cried because she scared me. Ah-gong told me that Mommy got upset at me because she loves me and he promised to visit me soon. I climbed into the car smiling, already counting the days until I would see him again. Ah-gong was always there to soothe me.
When I went back up upstairs after playing with my cousins to say goodnight to Ah-gong, I instead found myself saying goodbye. I couldn’t believe it. My grandfather died when I was eight years old.
Besides being Ah-gong, my grandfather was a doctor. I couldn’t understand as an eight-year-old that a doctor could die. Wasn’t he supposed to fix it? Even worse, none of the doctors in my Taiwanese family could save him. They let him abandon me, intensifying the ache I had when watching his body give into cancer over the months. All those doctors had let Ah-gong’s comfort and love disappear with him. How could this have happened?
The family reunions I attended after that year felt dead without the warm presence of Ah-gong lounging on the couch in front of CNN, waiting for a grandchild to go sit with him. The puppet he used to play with me lay lifeless in its box that was gathering dust bunnies. His colorful pediatrics office was now merely a white, vacant building. I couldn’t taste the Hershey’s chocolate rich sweetness without it quickly turning sour on my tongue at the thought of its old memories.
It took an older gentleman to open my eyes. One day, my mother, an internist at UC Davis, brought home some homemade biscotti her 90-year-old patient spent all night making the day before his appointment. He wanted to thank her for finding his gastric cancer before it was too late, for making it so that he was able to live this long. Mom could ease his sickness, his physical pain. I have never met him, but I can see his family feel so happy to see him when he arrives at the family dinner. He is well, and then they feel well.
As a doctor, my mother could do for her patients what Ah-gong had done for me. As Mom shared the biscotti with me, I decided that I too would soften pain. I too would become a doctor.
Mom doesn’t just put “M.D.” after her name to feel important. All that work spent behind getting that medical degree and continuing the job means fulfilling the duty of keeping the peace in your patient. Nothing like that can just be a label.
My dream is to become the person my grandfather was and the doctor my mother is. I want to honor the tradition of our family as healers and keep Ah-gong’s last, painless smile alive.
Kimberly Schmidt, 17
Now attends: Folsom High School
College she will attend: Sacramento State
Plans for study: English (with a possible continuation into intellectual property law)
Bring It to Life
“Nothingness was not the right description for the realm in which they dwelled, for it was both everything and nothing; both everywhere and yet nowhere.” Clacking keys, a grunt, hit the backspace, rewrite.
One line, just one line; that’s all I had so far. Not enough, still so much to do.
Must keep on writing. At least one page tonight, at least one single page.
The first night was the most stressful out of all of them. I sat at the computer for hours trying to find the perfect start to my novel. The first paragraph could possibly make or break my story, so it had to be perfect, absolutely perfect.
There had been days before this particular night that had been critical to this defining moment in my life. The first day that I began writing had been the most crucial, but that had long since passed. There had been numerous days of reading, research, and character drawing. I had found my plot, found the inspiration, and now it was just down to the actual writing.
Still not perfect. I deleted yet another unsatisfactory sentence.
While many might look at a night such as this one and think of it as frustrating, wondering why I choose to spend countless nights in this sort of writing comatose, I find it to be the most enjoyable time of my day. I had discovered my love of words and literature at a very young age, when I would burn through several books a week. I spent countless hours in either the school or local library with my nose buried in a book, engrossed in the story.
Books opened up new worlds to me; I was a spy working for the Pinkerton Agency during the Revolutionary War, a young witch on her first day of school, and a computer analyst trying to stop a virus that could shut down every computer in the world. These were the people that I could become for short amounts of time and experience the same emotions that they did. I came to realize that I wanted to bring my own worlds to the reader, let them experience the emotions of people close to my heart.
The years after that were filled with nights like this one. I found that I loved to write at this time of day, when everyone else was asleep and there were no distractions. My favorite nights to write were those when I could hear the drip of the rain gutter outside my room. That particular night was one of those nights. Drip, drip, drip; it was peaceful to me.
I started another sentence. It still wasn’t right. I hit the backspace again. Drip, drip, drip outside my window.
My first few novel ideas had been cliché, overdone by many. Many stories were started, but none had resonated. I knew the genre I wanted to write; adventure and fantasy had always been my strongest, I just needed the right idea. Long after I began writing, I still hadn’t found it. I stepped back from trying to brainstorm and read more books, mostly Greek mythology and legends. I found the idea, but it didn’t have the emotional tone I was looking for.
I didn’t find my inspiration until my junior year of high school. I loved music, and it more than often became part of my writing process. When I stepped into the music room that late fall morning, my shoes squeaking against the tile floor, and heard the jazz choir rehearsing, it hit me. The music was perfect for the tone I needed. I could hardly wait to come home and start writing.
Then months later, there I was sitting at my computer in my plaid school pajamas and fuzzy blue robe at eleven o’clock at night. My parents were long since in bed (just as I should have been), and the house was perfectly quiet except for that drip, drip, drip outside my window. A notebook was laid haphazardly in front of me, my scribbled notes barely legible. Names, pictures, plot, clothing styles … everything was there. Now I just had to bring it to life on the screen.
I found the right words and the second sentence was done, then the third. I found a rhythm. I made it through the first paragraph and went back to clean it up. The rest flew by; the whispered conversation, the laughter, the foreshadowing. Finally, the prologue came to its end and the first page was done.
I had never been happier to press a print button in my life.
James Bui, 17
Now attends: West Campus High School
College he will attend: UC Berkeley
Plans for study: double major in biology and philosophy
Sixty seconds. Sixty seconds to get out. Sixty seconds after that button is pressed to run out. Once the familiar BEEP, BEEP goes off, indicating the code is correct, I set off. I run down the aisles of teas, green tea, black tea, oolong tea, you name it. Once I reach the end of the aisle I make a turn, pass the cash register, and head for the door. I reach the door, but before I open it, wait for my dad. He appears out of the darkness of the aisle and hurries towards the door. I open the door and we’re out. We’ve beaten the 60 seconds.
This is my world, day in and day out. My world is open 364 days a year, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. My world has teas, Chinese herbs, and other Asian sundries. My world has a weird medicinal smell.
Thousands of Asians, predominantly new immigrants seeking a better life, flock to Stockton Boulevard in Sacramento, California. There stands a small family-run Chinese medicinal shop, an old converted shoe store with a dingy pink exterior. This is a big part of my world, if not my entire world. I consider it wo di er de jia, my second home. These past seventeen years of manning cash registers and hauling bags of rice have allowed me to understand the proverb, “Yi zhi mi, yi di han”: “One grain of rice, one drop of sweat.” However, the biggest impact on my aspirations is my interaction between the many customers.
The brown worn-out tiles of the store have received many customers, and through them I have traveled to several countries and time periods. My eyes have been opened from the exploration of worlds much less fortunate than mine or anybody else’s. I have been exposed to other worlds and learned how fortunate I am. I have met people who do not dream about going to college like I do. Instead all they ask for is a stable job so they can provide food for their family. That is why I intend to take full advantage of my world in pursuit of my dreams. I do not intend to waste what I have: a good education and a good life. To take them for granted is to step on other people’s worlds, the worlds where people sleep in fear or have no access to fresh water.
My world is a fortunate one. There may be difficult times, but I’m determined to make the most out of what I have.
This is my world. The store has exposed me to many people and that experience has manifested my dreams and aspirations. The store is my world, but I’m ready for the next chapter of my life. My 60 seconds here are just about up. Soon I will set off, run down the aisle, pass the cash register for the last time, and exit those doors, towards a new tomorrow.
Nathan Whitmore, 18
Now attends: Da Vinci Charter Academy High School, Davis
College he will attend: Hampshire College
Plans for study: biology or cognitive science
Reach Out to People
To say that it was a typical Oaxaca City morning (cool and rainy) would not do justice to the undercurrent of tension that ran through the air. In the courtyard of the Iglesia de los Pobres, about sixty blue-shirted young Americans paced nervously around. Backpacks laden with sleeping bags, field manuals, and first-aid supplies lay scattered around. It was moving day—the day we would, after months of training and fundraising, fan out to remote communities in the Oaxaca area for two months.
As the day wore on, the population of young volunteers in the courtyard began to dwindle as they were whisked off in busses, taxis, and cars. Each group leaving for its community parted with hugs and assurances of writing letters. Even though we had only known each other for less than a week, the recognition that we were going to towns where no one speaks English and grasshoppers are a common appetizer makes the differences between preppies and jocks seem insignificant. Finally, it was time for me and my two partners to leave for our community. As I walked toward an overladen bus, the only thought I had was, “Nathan, what the hell are you doing?”
What I was doing was Amigos de las Americas—a program that places high-school-age volunteers in communities throughout Latin America, where they live with host families and work with a small community on a project like water purification or starting a recycling program.
Amigos appealed to me as soon as I heard about it. Since a young age, I have loved to travel and learn about new places, and my parents made a point of taking me somewhere interesting every summer. In addition the standard vacation spots, however, we traveled to a few more “out of the way” areas, such as Cusco, Peru. This solidified my feeling of responsibility that if something was going to get done about poverty, environmental contamination and other issues, I was going to have to jump in and do it. So I applied to a small team focused on providing technology to rural towns, which perfectly combined my drive to contribute and my love of computers.
My partners and I traveled to the town of San Andrés Huayapam, in the foothills of Oaxaca. Once there, we immediately started our first project: holding technology classes for junior-high-age students at the local Telesecundaria. We also talked to various community groups, and after a few weeks of discussion and planning, we had an outline for our other two projects: to encourage people to replace dangerous open fires with fuel-efficient stoves, and to start a recycling and trash-pickup program.
My experiences over the summer made me much more independent and self-confident. This was largely due to how people in my community treated me—namely as a responsible, worldly, mature adult. My partners and I were expected to implement an entire plan for a community-based project in eight weeks, “integrate” with the community, and be prepared deal with a whole host of nasty situations that could arise—from food poisoning to flooded roads to being waylaid by drug cartels. The fact that we were expected to do this was contrary both to what I was used to in the U.S., and how I felt when I first arrived in my community, which was less like a confident international health worker and more like a frightened child. Nevertheless, after a few tense weeks of pretending, I began to feel more comfortable with my new responsibilities and freedoms. I began to trust my judgment more than I had in the past, and found that, by and large, it worked pretty well. And, although I’ve always been a fairly quiet person, as my familiarity with the culture, community, and language grew, I began to find it easier to walk up to someone and strike up a conversation.
Hand in hand with this new responsibility went flexibility and creative problem solving. These project-management skills would be required practically anywhere, but it was particularly true in rural Mexico, where I often faced challenges like network cables chewed by rats and the tendency of the local AA batteries to produce between 0.5 and 3 volts. Cultural elements also came into play, as I realized that, because of the local customs, an assurance that someone was going to be at a meeting meant “maybe,” and what we considered “40 minutes late” was actually their “on time.”
These problems, technical and cultural, meant that as the projects progressed, things began to get delayed and off-schedule. I found this particularly challenging, as I tend to be someone who places a high value on things running by the plan. Although I had dealt with delays before, in projects in robotics and school, this was different. Here, I had at stake thousands of dollars of donors’ money, the support of the local community and the Mexican government, and of course the education and health of the people. So I was forced to stay calm and come up with innovative solutions to some of the problems. I jury-rigged a wireless system out of donated laptops to replace the degraded wired network. I found a way of recycling old bottled-water containers into trash cans when it became clear that the recycling project was going to go over budget. I went to a different organization when the first one declined to fund the stove project. And, somehow, all the projects got done.
Working in Oaxaca for two months taught me some valuable life skills. While I dramatically improved my Spanish ability and my understanding of the region, I also gained skills that are useful in a broader sense. The ability to innovate under pressure, the ability to reach out to people, the ability to be self-confident, and many others will all be valuable assets that I will use many times after that summer.
Simon Vue, 17
Now attends: John F. Kennedy High School
College he will attend: UC Santa Cruz
Plans for study: Southeast Asian and ethnic studies
As I reminisce about my family’s past, all I can think of is severe pain. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the Hmong people, who allied with U.S. forces, were left without protection. They were hunted down by Communist Laotian soldiers and placed into prisons. Those who survived through the crisis were taken by Thailand officials as refugees. They set up refugee camps throughout Thailand and my family lived in a camp. They did not have access to the things they needed. They dressed in what others donated to them and were often shoeless. They were in isolation, surviving on their own and living their lives apart from the rest of the world.
One day, an American group came to their refugee camp. They unloaded and handed the supplies to the Hmong people. The supplies they provided my family brought joy and happiness. As poor as my family and other Hmong families were, there were still people who took action to help them, people who still cared. My older brother was given a pair of shoes; he was grateful and happy that he did not have to walk barefooted anymore. It was a brief experience, but the memory stayed with them for years.
The good deed shown to my family in the refugee camp inspired me to take a closer look at my community. From what I saw, the majority of the Asian students I knew were ashamed of whom they were; they had little pride in themselves and in their culture. For instance, a Hmong student at my high school once told me that she would rather be another race than be Hmong. I was shocked, but it made me eager to find out what misunderstandings she had encountered to make her believe that. As a result, I made it my goal to interact with these students and to show them how important culture and identity were. Having had the opportunity to be educated in the United States, I knew I could make a change in other people’s lives.
Ever since I began high school, I have been an active member of an ethnic student organization, Hmong Club. The mission of this club is to help students develop teamwork, leadership skills, and promote the Hmong culture awareness among the student population on campus. As I gained enthusiasm for the club, I decided to run for president and take on the leadership responsibilities. My goal for the club was to create opportunities for students to interact and socialize through cultural dances, icebreakers, and group discussions. I wanted the students to develop cultural pride and be able to express their feelings and disclose any issue they were facing. For example, if any student has personal issues or problems in life, they are more than welcome to discuss their problems with the club. By expressing their problems, students receive advice and support from the group, and this exposure lets students know that their experiences are similar to other club members. This allows the students to feel that they are not alone in facing these issues. I want each student to know that everyone has once faced an issue that is sometimes hard to solve.
As president, I have taught the members a traditional couple’s dance to develop an appreciation for our culture, and at the same time, to have fun. All the males in the club did not want to participate and wanted the girls to dance alone. They told me that they did not want to dance with girls because they were shy and this dance would be their first time dancing with girls. I told the male students to not be afraid of the female students and that I would dance too. It encouraged them to know that I would dance too, so they gave it a try. They were afraid to challenge their fears. It was very empowering to know that my own confidence and willingness to put myself out there helped the male students face their fears in order to participate in a traditional Hmong dance. I was able to let them see that if they let their fears go, they could participate in a wonderful experience.
The students actually learned the cultural dance in three weeks and performed in front of the other students and staff at lunch for the Hmong New Year Celebration. Ever since that day, the students have been more enthusiastic about their culture, because they learned the purpose of cultural dances and had a great time. The students developed cultural pride and wanted to do another cultural dance next year; however, they were disappointed that I will be graduating this year. From their reactions, I learned that my time spent with them was extremely important. I had led them to be self-confident and be proud of their cultural background and talent. Since I will be graduating, there will be no one to help them create a cultural dance for next year. I wish I could come back to teach them and form group discussions again. I feel like I will be departing from my family forever. We have shared our feelings on issues that we have faced and worked as a team on hosting other cultural events. It is a deep bond among us all. For four years in Hmong Club, I am proud of the cooperation and commitment the students have made. They showed me that there is a payoff for caring about and giving to my community.
From this leadership experience, I have learned how to interact with students, lead a group of students, and build trust and confidence among the students. It inspired me to use my talents and skills to help others in order to make the world a better place. I hope to be involved in other community work and apply these skills that I have gained. I will enhance my education in college by joining clubs and organizations that help the campus and community. With my leadership and communication skills, I will be able to take on a position to lead a club and befriend a variety of students and staff in college. My plans are to promote cultural awareness among the general student population and help minority students build a strong spirit of unity. We can facilitate informational workshops and host interracial conferences on campus to teach other students about the each other’s cultures such as the Hmong culture. I am convinced that the dedication and compassion I have to offer is special and will result in producing a community with mutual respect and support for diversity.
Excerpts from essays by the remaining finalists:
Elizabeth Frederick, 17
Now attending: Bella Vista High School
College she will attend: University of Southern California
Plans for study: psychology and theater arts, possibly a minor in dance
“Movement never lies” is a quote I have lived by throughout my dance training. When I first heard this phrase, I was not sure of its meaning. As my devotion towards my study of dance grew, I realized that my movements must be authentic in order for my dancing to be truly remarkable. Through dance, I’ve expressed my character in each movement I make. My dedication to dance has led me to discover the value of truth.
The truth does not conform nor does it hide the reality of an action or person. I find that dance allows me to find the true essence of myself, because I am constantly looking into a mirror during practice or rehearsals. That mirror reflects not only my movements, but also my emotions and personality, so I am able to see myself genuinely. I cannot fake my movements or I will depreciate my value. Sometimes it is difficult to see myself in the mirror in such a direct and uncompromising way, but it allows me to see the person I am—or might become. While dancing there is no façade; I am who I am.
Charday Adams, 18
Now attending: Grant Union High School
College she will attend: University of Southern California
Plans for study: writing for screen and television
A bead of sweat trickled down the glistening brown biceps and rolled into her blood-red-gloved hand. The sound of a bell rippled past her ears. She saw her opponent jump into action. Her thought process was epitomized with her movements: swift, yet precise. She dodged left, leaned right, kept her hands up and her feet moving. Then a left hook came, and suddenly her vision went blurry.
My whole life I have been boxing. I am constantly fighting with circumstance and statistics, jabbing at fate, and circling my destiny. There were times when my arms grew heavier than my heart, and I was convinced that I had reached my limit. However, as a fighter I have been conditioned to defy even my own brain’s expectations. I learned that before I can grow as an individual, I must push on the boundaries of the ring and stretch the ropes to their breaking point. Occasionally, emotional injuries cause physical heartache. It is then that I take a step back and reexamine all that I am fighting for—what exactly my dreams and aspirations mean to both myself and all those who support me. More than anything, I have learned that the period between high school and college is merely the recovery between rounds, a break between fights.
Austin Lillywhite, 17
Now attending: Folsom High School
College he will attend: Brown University
Plans for study: cultural anthropology and visual art
Sun and the Stars
He exhaled painfully and wiped some sweat from his contorted brow. As I sat naked next to this stranger, Raimo, whom I had met scarcely an hour earlier, he finally broke the thick silence, “Grimacing will not make life more beautiful.” Jukka, my host father, on my other side, uttered a primal, guttural grunt in agreement. After several contemplative minutes, Jukka responded, “Poverty is no joy, but it sometimes makes you laugh—even the poorest man owns the sun and the stars.” Raimo laughed bitterly and nodded. The sun pierced through the small square window. My eyes panged when I looked at its austere glare. I could see the reflection of the clouds softly painted across the golden lake outside the window. After a profound silence, Raimo somberly concluded the conversation, “Remember what the fleas in the sauna say: You’re only a man just like any other.
… After returning from my summer in Finland as a foreign exchange student, I realized that where I grew up is an intrinsic part of my identity, and for that I have Folsom to thank. Folsom is safe and nurturing, but it is monochromatic. Living in the suburbs for 15 years has made me want to transcend the walls of my stucco house. It has cultivated my strong desire to travel, explore and see the many fascinating cultures and people of this world.
I am young and curious, and I simply wish to experience this Earth. I delight in meeting dynamic and diverse people, interacting and sharing life with them, and it is my childhood in Folsom that has helped lead me to where I can sit in a sauna between two old Finnish men, listening to them somberly swap proverbs, and enjoy every moment of it.
Mark Westbrook, 18
Now attending: Mesa Verde High School
College he will attend: Sierra College for two years, then a transfer to a university
Plans for study: engineering
Laws of Math
Many discoveries cast their shadows over our society, such as gold, fire, and electricity. Although they did reconfigure our world, they are minuscule in comparison to math. Algebra and calculus give us everything from cars to the surface areas of distant planets we may never touch. Ever since excelling in trigonometry sophomore year, I have run with my mathematical success. Math is woven between all subjects, the exact reason why I choose to major in mathematics. Arithmetic has caught my eye because of its clear answers, and it remains in focus because it soothes me with its hypnotizing numbers.
I’ve always wondered if equations come from endless black rooms where bright green lines checker the background. To this day, I still don’t know who created our numbers, but it’s astonishing how they show no immunity to rules or blemishes as other subjects do. Languages are scattered with rules that are only outnumbered by their exceptions. Arts are built on shifting opinions; I have yet to understand why Picasso impresses so many with shapes my youngest cousin can draw. Only the gifted and the determined conquer the music industry, and while I feel I could make a living hunched over dimly lit poems and smudged drawings, I feel that calculus illuminates my path with a substantial career. My bright future would be lit by the laws of math, because they haven’t failed me before.
Now attending: Laguna Creek High School
They Cannot Stop Me
When I arrived at the hospital, my doctor said, “It’s time, Andrew. Please lie on the bed. The nurse and I are going to place these patches all over your body and then one at a time I am going to send these little electric pulses to them.” She placed the patches on my legs, arms, chest, and head. The tears started streaming down my face, and I grabbed my dad’s hand for comfort, but my doctor said I could not hold his hand because my body needed to be relaxed. I was not allowed the comfort of my parents.
I was in the hospital that day because I have a leg disability. Dopa-responsive dystonia is a genetic disease in which my brain has trouble relaying commands to my legs. I therefore have trouble controlling my legs and struggle with the basic functions such as walking. …
As my father wheeled me down the hospital corridor, my torrential tears continued. I turned my head to the right and out the corner of my eye I noticed a little girl in her hospital room. She looked younger than me. Tubes were running from her nose, and fluids were being pumped into her. She had no hair, but she was smiling. This girl knew she was probably going to die, yet she was still happy. At that moment, I realized I am in charge of how I live my life, even if I could not control my legs. My legs may not allow me to walk, but they cannot stop me from accomplishing my aspirations and living my life the way I want to.
Nelly Smittle, 17
Now attending: Nevada Union High School
College she will attend: either Santa Barbara Community College or UC Merced
Plans for study: medicine
My mom, my hero
As I walked into the tiny chapel at the hospital, I knew the news wasn’t going to be good. I had just turned sixteen years old and was so excited about my junior year and getting my driver’s license. I vividly remember hearing the doctor utter the words “stage four cancer,” and I knew right then that my life was about to change drastically. My mom was admitted for what we thought was severe asthma and then diagnosed with a rare and very serious form of nonsmoking lung cancer where her chances of surviving were very low. This experience not only changed my life, but also shaped who I am today immensely.
My mom, my hero, and my best friend … peacefully passed away on December 3, 2008 after two long, tiring weeks of fighting.
The experience of being in the hospital made my love for medicine shine through. I realized it is indeed my passion, and I’m now taking an ROP Health Careers class where I will get to work in the hospital where my mom spent her final days. I now know that I want to be a doctor and help people, just like my mom’s doctors did for her.