By Phillip Mink
Director of the Patriot Pre-Law Program
Schar School of Policy and Government
Since 2005 I have advised a multitude of pre-law students at George Mason University and the University of Delaware. Aside from general application advice, my students hope to learn how to write a personal statement that will help them get into law school. Many are convinced they should discuss why they want to become a lawyer. Some schools may require that, I explain, so check their websites. But I also explain that students may want to follow the University of Chicago Law School’s advice: write about “something personal, relevant, and completely individual to you.” Similarly, Georgetown Law School advises students to write on “any subject that will enable the Admissions Committee to get to know you.”
In effect, then, a personal statement can be a two page mini-autobiography that will convince a school a student can bring something unique to the campus. Inevitably this undertaking sends students scurrying down literary pathways they hadn’t anticipated, and for which their college curricula has left them woefully unprepared. Despite the difficulty of the writing task, students are often enthralled by creating a narrative showing how their life events have shaped them into who they are. And when they grasp that the revision process can dramatically improve their work, they appreciate learning how to craft the polished prose that an effective statement requires. This is no small matter for a writing intensive profession such as the law. As Cornell Law School notes, personal statements are evaluated for “both content and construction, so write about something interesting and write about it well.” To that end, my students and I often work through six or seven drafts. When the writing process ends, students can be satisfied they have conveyed exactly what they wanted to say about themselves in fluid, error-free prose.
In my fifteen years as a pre-law advisor and legal writing teacher, I have read hundreds of statements. The variety of my students’ life experiences never ceases to amaze me, and selecting 37 statements from this abundance has been a difficult but enjoyable task. In addition to personal statements, I have been privileged to read several dozen diversity statements from students who can bring a different perspective to a profession that has too often failed to reflect the experiences of all Americans. Eight of those are collected here as well. I am grateful to all of these students for allowing me to use their work as learning tools for those who will follow in their footsteps.
Prof. Phillip Mink, J.D.
George Mason University
This summer I helped oppressed women in the Middle East write a constitution. I was at a refugee center in a small village in Jordan, where Syrian women had fled Bashar al-Assad’s merciless regime. With the help of our professor, several other students and I developed a project allowing these women to create a constitution from scratch, expressing the values that had for so long been suppressed by Assad and by religious edict. The concept underlying our project was that we would introduce the women to ideas about democracy, and in so doing we would empower them to take an active role in politics and society. If Assad were to fall, these women might well be at the vanguard in forming a new government that arose from this devastated nation.
This workshop was held in a pale one-room building, which was filled from wall to wall with refugee women. When I entered I saw 50 veiled, wide brown eyes staring back at me. They had probably never been in the same room as a white person, yet they looked towards me without fear or hostility. Instead, as soon as we began walking them through a presentation on the basic ideas underlying any democratic society, they were mesmerized, their eyes transfixed on the screen. The eagerness in the room was palpable, and I knew they were anxious to begin voicing their own opinions, which was still foreign to them because their government had forbidden such heresy.
We separated them into groups, and each one developed an article, some of which were about women’s rights and the right to a free education and health care. They also wanted the right to express their opinions about the Assad regime and the Alawite religious sect that dominated Syrian government.
When the conversations started, we walked around the room to help if they needed it. They did not. Instead I was stunned by the women’s dedication to the principles they were developing, and their faces lit up when I told them how impressive I found their ideas. I had to transcribe what they were saying as it was translated to me, but despite the texting skills developed as a Millennial, I could barely keep up with their energetic give-and-take. One group in particular was memorable for me. Although this might have been their first political discussion, they spoke with confidence and surprising sophistication about free health care for everyone, giving priority to children and the elderly if universal health care were unattainable. From these ideas they created specific constitutional language.
After formulating their articles, a representative from each group stood at the front of the room and announced their additions to the constitution. In a world where modesty was required, the confidence they exuded as they spoke so adamantly about their amendments was anything but modest. In the end, they had written a genuine document they could take forward in their attempts to create a new Syria.
I identify with these women because I grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia, a small city controlled by the Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Southern Baptist ideals. The principal gender role behind this denomination was that women should be submissive to their husbands and caretakers to their families. During my education, I was repeatedly reminded of my place as a woman. After a TED Talk on traditional gender roles, for instance, a classmate said she would have a career only as long as it took her to find a husband and start a family. On a separate occasion, a male classmate said his mom told him a woman should never be president for fear she would begin menstruating and start a world war. This bizarre adherence to traditional gender roles was suffocating, but when I moved away from Lynchburg I left those gender roles behind. My experience with the Syrian women in Jordan strengthened my resolve to ensure that those who face seemingly impossible situations have the same freedoms I did. No society should have the power to force women, or anyone else, into submission.
“During the Argentinian Military Dictatorship,” Ms. Quinn began, “soldiers herded pregnant dissidents onto planes. If a mother were ugly, they decided her child would be as well, and they pushed the woman off the plane into the ocean.” Ms. Quinn, my sixth grade world history teacher, meant to teach us the horrors of tyrannical regimes. Instead those words spun in my brain until they produced two characters: an Argentinian mother imprisoned for her progressive beliefs and her daughter, Eva, determined to follow in her parents’ rebellious footsteps. That evening, I began drafting my first novel.
Overnight I had become “a writer.” Novel-crafting transformed from a hobby to my new passion. November – once marked by Thanksgiving – became National Novel Writing Month: Thousands of writers worldwide attempted to write 50,000 words in thirty days. When I was not crafting Eva’s story, I was scouring writing blogs for advice on foreshadowing, character development, and revision. As others read my draft, I discovered that words have power. My best friend Amanda, for instance, fell in love with Eva’s older brother Simon. When he died, she implored me in vain to change his fate. Friends stopped me in the hallway between classes, pleading for the next installment. Completing Eva’s story took me three years, two rewrites, and 168,865 words. In the summer before I started high school, I added Eva’s story to the “final drafts” folder on my computer. In that moment I committed myself to a fiction-writing career.
Two years later, when I was sixteen, I discovered a darker dimension of words’ power. Men twice my age started catcalling me from across the street with “Hey baby,” or a “How about you come home with me tonight?” A man called me “exotic” because of my Indian heritage, insisting that foreign women “bring something extra” to a relationship. My Spanish fluency combined with my dark skin tone prompted a stranger to shout, “Mexicans do not belong in this country.”
I wanted to confront my harassers, but I did not feel safe doing that in real life. So I did it in my stories. My next character became a bilingual East Asian woman who struggled to fight the “docile Asian woman” stereotype, the idea that East Asian women are submissive partners destined to become housewives. My character’s best friend was an African American man who could not shop at a clothing store without being accused of shoplifting. As a fiction writer, I aspired to foster respect for minorities so eventually no person would be persecuted for speaking a different language and no woman would be propositioned for daring to walk unescorted. While these portrayals empowered me, I felt a nagging suspicion that representation alone would not create equality for minorities. By high school graduation, I decided to give up fiction writing to find a career that promoted systemic change.
I entered college determined to learn about the political structures that perpetuated exploitation and the institutions that could help me change these inequalities. One of my political science courses introduced me to biopiracy, the process of patenting biological knowledge or practices without compensating the indigenous people who developed the craft. I studied a case in which the U.S. government allowed a Texas company, Ricetec, to patent basmati rice. The patent restricted Indian basmati rice exports to the United States and lowered basmati rice’s price in European markets, threatening the livelihoods of thousands of Indian farmers, grain refiners, and traders. As an Indian woman who had eaten basmati rice four days a week for most of my life, I was appalled at the thought of an American company gaining exclusive rights to rice strains that Indian farmers have spent centuries cross-breeding and perfecting. The Indian government shared this sentiment. By parsing international agreements and arguing for a geographical interpretation of the word “basmati,” the nation’s lawyers prevented the exploitation of indigenous Indian people and ensured that Indian families in the United States would not have to pay a premium to maintain a traditional diet.
My political science classes acquainted me with many such cases in which trade agreements, international conventions, and national legislation could either oppress people or empower them. Behind every scenario were dozens of lawyers whose words changed the lives of thousands. As I considered these cases, I recalled my first novel. A decade before, inequality and human rights violations had inspired me to write fiction. My love for writing compelled me to continue this pursuit for seven years, and at eighteen, my drive to end systemic discrimination compelled me to give it up. My undergraduate education has made me realize that I do not have to choose between my love for language and my desire to empower vulnerable peoples. I can combine both of my passions with the law.
I’m the child of Afghani immigrants, and my parents have a great story to tell. It begins with a 7-year old girl who watches in confusion as a swarm of parents rush through the classroom grabbing their children. Soon she realizes that she and one other student are the only ones left. Suddenly a soldier bursts into the classroom and grabs the other student, the grandson of the former President of Afghanistan, Daoud Khan. The teacher fights a tug-of-war to keep the child, but eventually the soldier takes him away to the family’s palace, where his entire family is massacred.
The Russians are invading Afghanistan.
On the way home, the girl hears gun shots and bombs, and she starts to fear what this invasion will mean for her and her family. Before she knows it, her mother and father are selling their belongings to make enough money to escape the war. A month later, her family boards a plane to the U.S.
On the other side of town in Kabul, a young boy awakens to his family of 10 rushing to finish packing. The communists had placed a hit on his father, brother, and sister, who are all active anti-communists. The family drives from Kabul to Jalalabad, takes a bus, hops onto the back of a pickup truck, and travels by foot until they reach a military area with tents for individuals escaping the country.
Early the next morning, the family walks with their luggage the entire day until they catch a bus to Peshawar, Pakistan, leaving behind their beloved home of Afghanistan. After living in Pakistan for 18 months, the family makes its passage to the United States.
Ten years later, the girl and boy meet at a high school in Annandale, Virginia. Discovering how much they have in common, the two high school sweethearts fall in love and marry shortly after graduation. In their early 20s, they bring three children into this world, one of them being me.
Growing up in an Afghan household in the U.S. presented its own challenges. At a young age, the way I looked and dressed – and especially my faith – were different than those of my classmates. Ignorant comments and questions were not uncommon. “Is Osama Bin Laden your uncle?” “I know your family has oil money.” “Why are you so hairy?” “You’re Muslim? I’ll pray for you.” These comments made me incredibly sad, especially when classmates I considered my friends made them.
My own family did not make assimilating any easier. My parents would only let me play with other kids in our home because they feared I would lose my Afghan identity. Sleepovers were out of the question. As my mother would occasionally rant, “Just because you were born here doesn’t mean you’re American. You are not allowed to date, wear short shorts, or go to parties.”
Despite these strict expectations, I always celebrated my background, the way I was raised, and my religious beliefs. I performed the centuries-old Afghan dance, the attan, in traditional clothing at my high school’s heritage night; joined the Afghan Student Union at George Mason University; presented my unusually large family tree in an anthropology course (I have 22 first cousins!); and met with a mullah every weekend to learn how to the read the Quran in Arabic. I am proud to be different than my peers and have my own sense of uniqueness.
However, my pride has been tempered by the realities of being a first generation college student. When my parents moved to the U.S., my father became an electrician and my mother a hairstylist. While I received immense support and love from my family for continuing my education, I had to teach myself how to apply to college, and once there I had to learn on my own what my professors expected of me. I couldn’t call my parents when I was stuck on a difficult calculus problem or cry for help when I didn’t know how to conclude my 10-page Western Civilization paper. I was on my own.
These experiences have crafted me into who I am today. Given my appreciation for diversity, as an attorney I want to help minorities who face discrimination achieve equal opportunity and success in the workplace.
My heartbeat pulsed in my ears as I climbed the steps of my school football stadium and neared the bench where my thirty-six year old math teacher and club advisor was waiting for me. My stomach knotted as he turned to me, a little too close, and said “I’m so happy you’re here.” I had agreed to meet him here like he asked, so that we could “hang out” outside of school for the first time. These “coincidental” encounters would quickly escalate to a hand brushing my back as I passed his classroom in the hallway, an uncomfortable kiss when everyone else had left the room after practice, and eventually, sexual encounters at his home before or after school. With each passing day, I felt more entangled in the web of lies I had constructed to protect my secret “relationship.” I lied to protect the studious and responsible reputation I had earned, to hide my shame and embarrassment for what I felt was my wrongdoing, and to avoid being viewed as someone who could be taken advantage of. I would endure ten agonizing months of sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of a man I trusted. He constantly reminded me that he was risking his career and reputation to be with me, which placed an enormous burden of responsibility on my shoulders and rendered me terrified to end my abuse. I began to hope for a way out.
Our frequent public outings together served as my greatest hope of salvation, when I would hope against all hope that someone would notice that we did not look like a normal couple. Eventually, somebody saw us leaving an event together one Wednesday evening and reported it to the police. Unbeknownst to me, a police officer followed me back to his apartment the next week, verifying the anonymous tip and sparking a criminal investigation. Though I did not know it yet, my life was saved by a complete stranger.
Five days later, I picked up my ringing cell phone from the table while my mom peered at the screen, looking as curious as I felt about the call from an unsaved number. My “Hello?” was met with “This is Detective Jones from the Hartford Police Department, and I need to ask you a few questions.” My heart instantly fell into my stomach, not out of fear, but because a wave of relief swept over me. Later at the police station, I would detail my ordeal to the detective, naïve of the scrutiny I would face and the judgment that would mark the expressions of friends and acquaintances. Despite the news headline “Connecticut teacher accused of sex with student” and communal knowledge of his eighteen charges of sexual assault, others rarely sympathized with my plight. Instead of succumbing to the whispers of “whore” and “teacher’s pet” in the hallway, I dedicated myself to my studies, reconnected with the family I had estranged, and became the best version of myself. I would go on to speak with other abuse victims, showing them that I had found a way back to “normal” with the help of my family and a dedicated prosecutor who helped me accept my experiences as abuse, identify as a survivor, and lend my strength to other young women beginning their own journeys to recovery. Her tireless efforts to pursue justice and a maximum sentence for my abuser and firm determination to see me through my ordeal established her as my role model.
My own recovery has left me with a desire to use the law to protect and save other victims the way my prosecutor saved me. Through this arduous experience, I have obtained an invaluable personal experience with the positive impacts law has on society and individuals. It would be a privilege to spend my life replicating this positivity as an advocate for victims of similar crimes.
When I was seven years old, I would peer over the worn and winding banister that led up our parlor stairs, just barely letting my oversize green eyes show, careful not to let my parents see me. In the front entranceway, I would watch my mother sob as cops handcuffed my older brother and pulled him away. Petrified, I would look out our second floor window and watch the blue and red lights glisten in the rain, and then fade as they turned out of our cul-de-sac with my misunderstood brother inside. Once the coast was clear, I would tiptoe back into my bedroom and tuck in my younger sister. I would whisper in her ear that everything was okay and lay next to her until her breathing thickened. Heartbroken and unable to sleep myself, I would stare at the ceiling for hours. Sometime in my night-light illuminated room, the realization sank in that fifty-four years after “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” was published, Americans still know little to nothing about mental illness.
As any child should be, I was hopeful. To me, my brother was still an all American athlete with a 4.0 GPA. He was the cool, “normal” college student I looked up to. So every birthday I would blow out my candles and wish for my brother not to be crazy anymore. At Christmas time I would write to Santa asking for a cure for schizophrenia. I would wish for my brother to stop smoking, but I did not know it made him feel calm. I would wish he would receive adequate disability money so he could have a better life.
As a second grader I could barely spell schizophrenia, let alone understand it. I could not grasp that unlike the flu it had no remedy. Since every brain is unique, some medications can help alleviate episodes for one patient, while drastically worsening them for another. For many doctors, the easiest solution is to just over-drug patients until they are a monotone, lifeless version of who they once were. Frustrated, I pretended everything was normal and pushed my brother to the back of my mind.
As a middle schooler, I was just as insecure and humiliated as every other thirteen-year-old. I was embarrassed about my tiny frame, Irish freckles, and intelligence, but mostly I was embarrassed about my brother. So much so that I never told a soul about that part of my life. When my brother took my dog Hershey to the vet to be put down because in his mind she had cancer, I told my friends she died of old age. When my friends that slept over asked why he talked to himself, I would tell them he was on the phone. I was ashamed, and I was afraid of what other people would make him out to be if they knew the truth.
It was not until the latter part of high school that I realized most of my classmates had challenging aspects in their lives too. I became confident enough in myself to stop hiding such a big part of my life. It bothered me so much that people did not know or care to know about mental illness, that they’d rather look away than wonder why the weird, homeless guy is asking for money. Maybe the rest of the world was not ready to talk about schizophrenia, but I finally realized if I ever wanted mental illness to be a topic of conversation, I had to be the first to acknowledge it.
As I’ve matured, I have realized that my brother has helped define who I am, and I will never see him as a challenge I overcame. As long as I remain compassionate, I will love him regardless of the many ups and downs my family encounters. As long as I remain confident, I can overcome the obstacles that I, as a young girl, did not understand. Although most people see the law as corrupt and a lost cause, my brother has helped me to view it as a vehicle for change. I am proud to say I no longer tiptoe and hide behind banisters, but I won’t stop there. I hope one day I can be part of political and social change surrounding mental illness so that people like John don’t have to hide in shame either.
Saying goodbye to my mother without the promise of seeing her again robbed me of my innocence. My father came first to the US in 1992. He had “papers” but could not provide them for my mother. So when I was nine, my mother said “mi amor me voy para El Norte mañana,” (my love, I’m going to the North) and she explained that she did not know whether she would make it to the U.S., but she hoped God would provide her safety.
It took her 15 days to get to the US. I remember laying on our dirt patio and making figures out of the clouds while my grandmother cooked rice and beans for me. She and I would sit in silence, worried sick while wondering where my mother was and how she was doing. My mother finally made it to the US with the help of a coyote, and a month later my grandmother and I were on our way to reunite with her and my father. This experience was the beginning of the journey that forced me to mature at a young age.
When I arrived at the U.S., I walked into a beautiful house with my father, thinking this would be our new home, but then he pointed to two rooms in the back and said “Esos son los de nosotros” (Those are ours.) The rest of the house was off limits, in other words. This was my “sueño Americano” (American dream), a family of four living in two rooms because we could not afford anything else. And when my mother had twins, we had six. My mother, grandma, and I had to walk to the nearest shopping center to eat lunch at a McDonald’s because the kitchen was off limits. I knew no English, I had no friends, and I was bullied every day in school for my hand-made clothes, my tortillas and rice and beans, and my lazy eyes. But I would not complain. My parents brought me to this country with great efforts, and I was thankful for being in the U.S., away from the poverty and gang violence that dominated life in El Salvador. Within two years, I had learned the language and became at peace with being an Hispanic in a mostly white world.
But my challenges had not ended. At the age of 15 my mom was diagnosed with severe epilepsy, and then my sister was diagnosed with alopecia – she has no hair at all. My father worked two full-time jobs, so he had no time for us, but I could not let my family fall apart. I had to assume the maternal role in my family. While a sophomore in high school, I took care of my mom and my eight-year-old twin siblings and managed our household – paid bills, cleaned, and did laundry. On my 18th birthday, I became my 84-year-old grandmother’s caretaker, and till this day I continue to look after everyone in my family, even cooking meals for them. Nothing has come easily for me, but I have never backed down from anything.
This heavy workload prevented me from doing as well as I wanted to in high school, but I wanted to further my education at the Northern Virginia Community College. There I learned to manage school and family obligations more effectively, and after two years I transferred to George Mason University. I wanted to finish on time, but to do that I had to take four classes one summer. I was intent on not becoming the Hispanic stereotype of failing to graduate on time. My older step-brother failed out of a community college, which is typical in our community – starting something and not finishing. So that terrible summer I began my classes at 8:30 AM and finished at 7:30 PM. Courses were harder and larger, and at times I feared I would fall behind. But I overcame my fears and made A’s in very course, and ever since I have been a dean’s list student.
From my life experiences, I have learned that I can overcome any obstacle. Life can still be overwhelming at times, however. I go to bed at 3 am every day, and I wake up at 8 am. I help my siblings get ready for school, and then I administer my mom’s medications and help my grandma start her day. I go to class, and after that I hurry home to feed my family and do homework with my siblings, who are now in 6th grade. Only then can I do my own school work. I am often exhausted, but my determination to obtain my academic goals and keep my family afloat continues to overcome it.
Standing 10,000 feet above sea level, I stared in awe at my surroundings. Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany, lies just south of a small town called Garmisch. Gazing down at the village, I was reminded of gift shop postcards, with the beautiful green pastures covered in a light layer of snow, reflecting from a nearby lake with clear, vibrant blue water. Having hiked the Hollental route up the mountain, my parents and I were cold and exhausted, but we were also exhilarated. The faint wind carried the warmth and pleasant aromas from Sonnalpin, a restaurant at the top of Zugspitze.
Hiking and dining on the highest peak of the Wetterstein Mountains became one of my most treasured memories from living in Germany. I was only in middle school at the time, and my family and I had only been living in Germany for a year due to my father’s military assignment. Despite my familiarity with living abroad, the thought of moving to a new country with different languages and customs terrified me. As an Afro-Dominican, I looked different from my European neighbors, and I was anxious about how my classmates would greet me.
However, this fear was unwarranted. Our German neighbors immediately welcomed us, excited to practice their English on my family while peppering us with questions about the U.S. Any nervousness I felt quickly dissipated. Our neighbors loved teaching us about their culture and accompanying us on spontaneous adventures, such as hiking up Zugspitze. I soon formed a cherished friendship with Jule, a neighbor’s daughter who was about the same age as I was. The Halloween after we met, she took me to Frankenstein Castle in Darmstadt, Germany, known as the inspiration behind the famous book by Mary Shelley. It was a beautiful but ominous-looking stone castle on top of a hill, and actors were dressed up as vampires, werewolves, and – of course – Frankenstein’s monster. They chased Jule and me down the hills and later put on a show where the actors danced to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. I was glad that Jule and I could share the screams and laughter of that night. She and I still keep in touch, and she is slowly teaching me the German language through email.
Since Jule showed me a German Halloween, my parents and I decided to show our neighbors an American Thanksgiving. The smell of pumpkin pie and baked turkey filled our house as twenty Germans arrived for their first Thanksgiving Dinner. Per European dinner etiquette – they brought either a dish or a bottle of wine. Since we lived in Stetten, a southwestern town that is part of the Swabia region in Germany, almost every dish was a traditional Schwaben recipe. Around the table, our turkey and stuffing were now paired with food such as Krautschupfnudeln, which is a blend of noodles, sauerkraut, and pork. The house was filled with laughter as we all shared our favorite stories and memories, and – most importantly – what we were all thankful for. I vividly remember my mom saying how grateful she was to have made so many new friends in Germany.
And she was right. The initial warmth from our neighbors shaped my entire experience abroad, and the friendships I made and memories we created changed who I am today. Now, I love to travel and learn about other cultures and share my own. Our German friends’ hospitality and kindness showed my family that life may be a climb – a 10,000 ft. climb – but the view is worthwhile. Someday I hope to help others adjust to the United States, showing the same kindness that my neighbors did.
When I walked into my fourth-grade classroom at the American School in Beirut, I was introduced to a tall, sandy haired woman from Oklahoma who had a brilliant mind and a warm smile. I soon adored Ms. Kaylee McIndoe’s Midwest accent and her stories of how she fell asleep at night by counting sheep jumping through hula hoops. She strongly encouraged my overactive imagination and my love for writing. She inspired me to consume books at an astronomical rate. During that year, I began to write my own book, The Witch of Gibraltar, about a witch and her cat living on Gibraltar, and after reading it for me, Ms. McIndoe encouraged me to continue to write. I learned from her that I could be whomever I wanted to be as long as I was strong and curious and brave. We moved away from Beirut before I started sixth grade, and with this move I left behind memories of Bnachii Lake in the summer, reading books on trains barreling through the Lebanon countryside, and the magic that living in Beirut can give to a child. Living in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania wasn’t nearly as fascinating as growing up in the heart of Beirut, but I learned to acclimate.
When I was in seventh grade, I walked into my house one evening to see my mother sobbing. She tearfully informed me that Ms. McIndoe had killed herself. I was devastated that this woman who was such a bright force in my life had lost hope in her own. A few years later, I understood fully what she had experienced when I was diagnosed with double depression. At 16, I had to learn how to find the will to live while taking 100 mg of Zoloft a day and attending weekly therapy.
Through all of this, only theatre brought me joy in my life. I was involved in almost every show my high school offered, and during my senior year, I auditioned at a theatre conservatory with the dream of becoming an actress on Broadway. The day I received my rejection letter, I completely changed my plans and submitted my deposit to The University of Washington, located in the city where I was born.
I didn’t know that living in Seattle would change my life, but it did. I began volunteering at an organization called RED, which provides housing and medication to people who test positive for HIV. Through RED, I found my love of service. I resolved to enter a career where I could effect positive differences in my communities.
This past year, I began rediscovering the child who loved books and writing. Depression has a nasty habit of cloaking all that is good, and I became more in touch with who I was and whom I wanted to become. While I still attend therapy and have dismal days, my depression improved when I learned to cope by channeling my feelings into forming more human connections and helping others transcend their circumstances.
I’ve experienced many deaths since Ms. McIndoe died, and each one has taught me what is valuable and true. I’ve learned that life is not composed of LSAT scores or wealth or looks or rankings. Life is an intricate and stunning accumulation of the beauty of humanity, and this is reflected in the ways that we impact others every day. I may never make a major impact on someone’s life, but I will die happy knowing that I tried every day of my life to help someone else. I know Ms. McIndoe would be proud of me if she were to see me today.
The right law school for me will continue to further my purpose in my life, and I hope this will cause a domino effect in the lives of others. The events that have happened to me, for better or for worse, have shaped me into the person I am today and the lawyer I wish to become. For me this profession means helping others, but it also means giving back to my community and to the people who have supported me to grow into the best possible version of myself.
Nineteen years ago, my mom was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease that slowly destroys the body’s connectivity to its muscles. As a former college athlete and coach now permanently confined to a wheelchair and unable to drive, her MS diagnosis was deeply personal. So, last spring when I ventured back to my hometown in South Jersey to spend a weekend with my family, my first priority was to help my mom cross errands off of her growing list, something difficult for her to do alone. Our first errand was to the post office in Cape May in search of a book of Forever Stamps.
I wheeled my mom up to the front of the brick building. The heavy, non-automatic door only opened toward us, forcing a difficult standoff to claw it open while simultaneously rolling the wheelchair forward over the lip of the threshold. Inside, an obstacle course of sorts greeted us. The writing table used to divide the lobby and guide the customers was flanked on one side with a protruding display of greeting cards and on the other with a narrow runway for customers. After a few paces, the path for the wheelchair became narrower. My mom’s arm caught the edge of a glass display case, breaking the skin, and the jet-black rubber wheels of her chair left skid marks against the front of a cabinet.
Of the four counters, only one was low enough for customers needing ADA-accessibility, but it was used as a storage spot for patrons dropping off pre-paid shipments, with packages stacked nearly to the ceiling. We approached the only open standing counter, my mom’s neck craning up at the clerk as she ordered four books of stamps. She stretched uncomfortably to punch her PIN into the debit machine. We left with our stamps, fighting the door again. No employee noticed her struggle.
When we settled back into the car, my mom broke down crying, and I cried with her. In public, she was made to feel undeserving of the ability to occupy routine space.
During the same summer as the Cape May post office visit, I was finishing a year-long strategy project at [xx] working with the State Department and the U.S. Postal Service on how best to digitize the manual passport application process. I returned to work after my weekend at home with an acute need to act. I sat down with my client, the head of the USPS passport business, and recounted my mom’s experience. When I finished, she turned to her computer, sent me the contact information for the head of USPS in South Jersey, and said, “I am confident you can fix this. Do it for your mom.”
For the rest of my summer, I collaborated with the USPS regional leadership to change the organization’s blind spots: altering the swing of the door, relocating the package placement area, and eliminating the greeting card display that obstructed wheelchair access to the counter. When I took my mom back to the post office, I asked her what she thought of the changes. She replied matter of factly, “This is the way it always should have been.” She was right. She now had equal claim to the space, something with which I never had to grapple.
I am keenly aware of the advantages that I possess, such as the ability to navigate physical space unaided and unprofiled. I am also mindful that advantage is easily transmitted intergenerationally, unless members of those privileged groups work to cede their positions, myself included. This was why I studied inequality of wealth and economic mobility at the London School of Economics. I investigated inequality through an intersectional lens and argued that social, political, and physical identities intertwine and overlap to create patent systems of exclusion. From implicit discrimination in student lunch programs for low-income kids to the regressive impact of unregulated student loan policies, my experiences have continually focused on inequality as a multidimensional issue that will require multifaceted solutions. Now in my current role on the [xx] team, I work in cities whose economies have been left behind in the wake of Silicon Valley’s boom, places like Birmingham, Boise, Chattanooga, Pittsburgh, and Tulsa. I regularly meet people with brilliant ideas in these communities that are often overlooked due to the lack of a particular platform, pedigree, or privilege.
I aspire to dedicate my legal career to solving structural problems for people who are left out of our complex economic system. My background in wealth and income inequality, public policy, and regional economic development is foundational to my desire to practice consumer financial protection, antitrust, and bankruptcy law, all areas that disproportionately impact the economic agency of low- and middle-income people. A top-tier legal education will provide me with the legal frameworks and tools to represent these values as an attorney on issues as complex as national venture capital allocation or as commonplace as accessibility in one’s hometown post office.
As the only child of two doctors, my parents expected that I would accept admittance into their highly ranked legacy schools and gently ease into one of their medical practices. However, in Spring 2013 one of my closest childhood friends was accused of sexual assault, and by the time the case was resolved, I realized I wanted to become a lawyer.
John was six years older than I, and from the time I was three years old we collected tadpoles, hunted for buried valuables in Henlopen State Park, and, when the weather was unpleasant, played board games (our favorite being Yahtzee). John’s mother was a close friend of my own mother, and she would often babysit me while my mother was running her podiatry practice. John’s mom was a warm, witty Italian matriarch who welcomed me into their family without reservation. Her family and I would convene every Thursday for “pizza night,” where we would talk about our day and discuss the latest sports events.
So understandably I was shaken when my mom called me at school during my sophomore year of high school and said, “Jane, John has been accused of sexual assault by a former neighbor when they were both 12 years old. I know it’s a lot to process, but a prosecutor will be calling you to discuss John’s character.” The neighbor claimed that ten years before, while they were watching TV in her living room, he groped her genitals. At the time of the accusation, John was 22 years old and a police officer. His supervisors immediately put him on desk duty, and the allegations created a nightmarish whispering environment.
Within a month, the prosecutor called me. “Did he ever touch you,” he said, “or act inappropriately.”
“No,” I replied. “Absolutely not. John is one of the most respectful, upstanding people I have ever known.” I told the prosecutor about our nature walks in Henlopen State Park. Had he wanted to behave inappropriately, I said, he could have done so then. He did not. “I look up to John,” I said. “I see him as a confidant, sounding board, advocate, but most importantly, a brother. He never lost his temper or behaved aggressively and was always patient with me and my stubborn personality.”
I understand that with the advent of the “Me Too” movement, attitudes toward sexual assault have changed. But as a fifteen-year-old, I did not believe my close friend could have done anything wrong. I was also distraught to see the effects the accusation had on John and his family. He always had a bubbly personality, but the accusations transformed him into a somber, dejected introvert. I hardly saw him smile, and he never wanted to talk anymore. His mother became almost lifeless, like she had detached from her body and was looking at everything from a bystander’s perspective. The only time I would see any type of emotion from her was when she learned of a new finding in the case, which caused her to become more sullen. I could tell she was angry and confused, but it was covered in a layer of sadness. John’s father never talked about the case and he buried himself in his work. I watched as the big Italian family I loved so much collapsed.
A year later the accuser dropped the charges. I was happy for John and his family, but I knew the damage was done. Our weekly “pizza nights” had been phased out months ago, and I was more disconnected from John than ever before. He had been taken off desk duty after the charges were dropped, but I suspect his co-workers looked at him differently. I did not.
I took away from this incident a compelling interest in the legal system. Now, as a senior in college, I understand how a girl could wait so long to tell someone about sexual assault, but as a naïve 16-year-old I was vexed that a person’s life could be destroyed by a single accusation, whether it be true or not. My interest in the law has never waned, and I want more than ever to understand how the legal system works.
I looked at the different sea animals at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland, admiring the fancy interior of the building and feeling a sense of accomplishment and freedom as I stood with my friends under the blue hue cast by the water. I had been prepared to sit this traditional 6th grade field trip out because of its $65 cost. My older sister and I had gotten used to forgoing school trips with a price tag; it had become routine for us to instead hear about them the day after from our friends. Despite strategically presenting my researched case to my parents about the value of attending the trip, they turned the proposal down. Determined to experience the fun I had imagined had happened at the other trips, I solved the predicament by speaking to a teacher, who ultimately informed me that the PTA could cover my cost. My seeking out of this key information is what allowed me to take the trip that my sister had to pass up on a few years earlier. During her time, neither she, nor my parents, were quite aware of the systems designed to support low-income families and students, and this lack of knowledge is a curse of the poor.
While I was excited to have ridden on a commercial bus and dine at a P.F. Chang’s that day, tears welled in my eyes throughout the trip whenever I would consider my sister. This instance was the first time that our status as immigrants and first-generation students felt so oppressive. I wanted to share my good fortune with my sister and all the other kids missing out on field trips.
Because of our situation, I needed to make sure everything I ever asked for was financially worth it, and it soon became an enjoyable pastime. I would ponder about, say, the benefits of purchasing a book instead of borrowing it from the library prior to presenting my request to my dad. My family prized my inquisitive, determined, and articulate nature. They became proud possessions and I naturally became the helper of the family. Since the third grade, I have been supporting my older sister through her learning disability in her schoolwork: breaking up her assignments, reading aloud her assigned storybooks when we could not find audio versions, and tutoring her in math. I performed these tasks in addition to my own schoolwork on the public library computers. For my parents, I have been interpreting government documents and researching job listings for them since middle school, transcribing and submitting their resumes.
While I attended university, my father would drive my sister and I to our respective schools. During my freshman year, he was in contact with his English-educated brother as they were discussing selling an old familial property. While I would transcribe his colloquial messages into formal and professional verbiage for the emails, my father would also ask me to analyze what the contracts were stating, the different options possible, and the best financial decision to make regarding selling his share. For those months, I would spend my commutes discovering and interpreting the foundations of contract and property law and doing my father justice over the email app keyboard. I fell in love with this process. It was exciting when I would open 50-page contracts on my father’s smartphone and make sure we agreed to what was stated. I also felt a duty to achieve this proficiency because I could further help my family. I knew my parents were worth so much more than what might meet the eye in a text, or in a conversation in another language, and I was proud I could be there to translate their greatness for this new country.
Further inspired by this past summer’s earnest calls for equality, I fully understand that the struggle that poor and minority families like mine experience can start to be amended with their access to key information, knowledge of various systems, and the ability to navigate them. Law school will assist me in building and acquiring the skills needed to best assist families in successfully settling and securing aspects of their lives in the USA. I know the necessities of accessible and reliable legal help for smooth immigration, as not only have I gone through the process, but many of my relatives have, as well. Being familiar with the value of well-informed decisions and communication in these instances, I am eager to have a career in legal service, and I know I will be best prepared for it at [xx] Law School. I have the necessary and spirited passion, drive, and specific enjoyment of the nitty-gritty. Let me get to a point where I can help as many people as I can.
At my high school graduation, I stood before a crowded sports arena, addressing thousands of people who were eagerly anticipating the words I was about to speak. I was the valedictorian, and my classmates and their families awaited an inspiring farewell address. Nothing in my background suggested that this should have been the climax to my high school career. Teenage moms don’t typically raise daughters that graduate at the top of their class. Most six-year old girls don’t see their mother forcing the bathroom door open to reveal her husband with his pants around his ankles, injecting heroin into his leg to avoid noticeable needle scars, prompting her to chase him out of the house for good. Eight-year old girls aren’t supposed to walk home alone from school to an apartment broken into by that same dad and find the shattered remains of their piggy bank scattered on the floor. Girls aren’t supposed to hang Christmas stockings their dad made for them while in prison.
My mom shouldn’t have been in that arena either. Society expects girls who get pregnant at seventeen to have lives so tumultuous that reality television shows can profit from following them. I remember watching Teen Mom on MTV as a kid and being entertained by the chaotic lives of the teen mothers, all the while oblivious to the dichotomy between my situation and theirs. My mom chose a different reality for herself. She chose to overcome the adversity my early entrance brought into her life. She chose to work late nights waiting tables and graduate from nursing school. My mom made education a top priority in my life, and that undoubtedly contributed to my position at the podium that night. I’m sure most parents in the audience spent many nights at kitchen tables with their kids, working on homework. In fact, most parents likely spent more time helping their kids with school than mine, as she frequently worked nights at the hospital and left me under the supervision of our twelve-year old neighbor. If she worked during the day, she dropped me off at daycare at 6:30 in the morning to wait the final 3 hours until school. She often had to pass me around to her parents, her grandparents, and her great-uncles and aunts. This happened so often, in fact, that it’s still a running joke in the family: I took turns living at everyone’s house but my own.
My mother made a subtler, more profound contribution to my life every day she walked out that apartment door and left me at daycare or in the hands of family. She taught me what success looks like. She showed me how success manifests behind the scenes by making difficult decisions that leave you no other option but to be successful. I know each hour she spent working when she would have preferred to be at home like my classmates’ parents was a sacrifice, and sacrifices form the foundation upon which all achievements are built.
Even though my mother and I weren’t supposed to be anywhere near that podium, a case study of my life would dispute that, not because people with similar backgrounds to my own often attain this level of success, but because I made the choice to be there. My mom made the choice that I would be there. And that was the message I wanted to deliver before my graduating class walked out the arena doors towards the beginning of the rest of our lives. Life is a compilation of choices we make every day. Success rarely explodes into existence in one magnificent eruption, but rather slowly accumulates from repeated discharges of concentrated effort. Success is not accidental, but deliberate, and the most important ability required for success is the ability to see how everyday decisions accumulate. So I urged my classmates to choose to build with each decision they made, to choose to recognize the opportunity for success in these decisions, and eventually to choose to be someone who creates success regardless of the adversity life has dealt them.
I have always struggled to assert my identity. My parents are immigrants to this country, which subjects me to a line of interrogation that starts with a seemingly innocuous question: “Where are you from?” I typically reply that I was born in New York and have lived there my whole life. People push back, trying to satiate their curiosity. “No, I mean, where are you really from?” I stand firm with my answer. “Where are your parents from?” they finally ask, hoping to circumvent my evasive response. Their question demands an explanation for why I appear different than they do. I finally say that my parents are from Hong Kong. “Makes sense,” they’d conclude, satisfied with the answer already confirmed in their minds: I don’t belong here.
There is an implicit assumption that because I look different, I needed to explain how I, with the oriental pigmentation of my skin, rounder facial features, and almond-shaped eyes, ended up here, in the United States. I made a concerted effort in school not to identify myself by my race; people did that to me enough on their own. I wanted to have the freedom to tell people for myself who I was before they made their assumptions, and if the cost was trading in my culture to assume the American one, then so be it. I conformed. I tried to convince my parents to buy me Smucker’s Uncrustables PB&J sandwiches, so I could have the same lunch as rest of my classmates, instead of the homemade fried rice they packed for me every day. I sat with my class instead of the “Asian table.” I choose not to join the Asian cultural clubs but instead cultivated my interest in reading and writing. From the way I dress, to my interest in music or films, I was always careful not to appear too attached to my parent’s country of origin.
I placed my identity on being intelligent, hardworking, and thoughtful – empirical traits that would prove to my peers that I was every bit as American as they were. I used the activities I was involved in to define me. I was the editor of the school newspaper, a varsity fencing athlete, Model UN board member. I assumed these titles, so that when people defined me, they would reach for these descriptors and not my ethnicity first.
But up to this point I had tried to shape my identity against people’s expectations. People presume that by knowing I am Asian, there are certain characteristics I ought to embody. Thus, by the time I was in college, the pressure to fight against these characterizations on every front became overwhelming. Seeking to remove myself from this setting, I accepted an opportunity to live in Ethiopia for two months volunteering at an English school. To no avail, I faced a chorus of locals shouting “China, China” at me every day as I walked to the school. Yet, as I developed a routine for myself practicing English with the students, buying dabo (bread) at the souk around the corner, drinking shayi (tea) with equal parts sugar and milk, I started to understand my identity in a culture that was neither Asian nor American. I was a foreigner with a language the locals wanted to speak and an appearance they relished for its novelty. Where I “come from” will always define me. And it was in Ethiopia, sitting on a worn mat eating injera with my hands, that I was able to accept that expectations will follow me wherever I go. My only choice was whether they would confine me.
Words were the new way I could construct my new identity with a preciseness of definition. I parlayed my skills in presenting other people’s ideas and gave myself a voice. I added nuances to create the distinctions between what people thought of me. I was bold in voicing my opinions in class, not content to be labeled as yet another “meek girl.” I innately could never sit back while incoherent arguments dominated the conversation just because they were presented loudly. I choose English and history as the subjects I would be devoted to, not wanting to be categorized as yet another math and science geek. But I had always valued the flexibility of words over numbers in expressing my ideas.
Identity is about definitions. In this current climate, people are being attacked because they don’t conform to a prescribed American narrative. I believed I had to choose “the American identity” to have a place in this country. Giving a voice to others through the work I have done in human trafficking, interacting with people from different backgrounds than me, with international students and Jewish cultural clubs, I have found a passion for helping people carve out their own identity. The promise that the Constitution offers me as a citizen is that my race does not preclude me from pursuing freedom. I am proud to be American, but I am also proud to be Chinese. I look to law school as a place I can be both, and educate myself on creating the space to allow people their freedom of expression, and in turn, the assurance that whatever their identities, they have do belong and have rights in equal standing before the law.
My Dad always told me we had to remember that it was “Hard to be Mom.” Whenever I was angry that she had locked herself in her bedroom for weeks at a time only to emerge in a manic episode, he would tell me to remember she was sick. Just because Mom didn’t have fever or a cold, it didn’t mean she wasn’t suffering. But I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just get over it. Even after I went to college and studied psychology, I couldn’t get past my anger. I knew there were neurotransmitter imbalances in her brain, but it didn’t make up for all the moments of my life she missed hiding in her bedroom or leaving on lavish vacations my family couldn’t afford. I resented that she refused to take her medications even as her depressive symptoms progressively worsened.
Eventually, she snapped. For thirty-two minutes, I didn’t know if my mother was dead or alive. My dad called to tell me Mom had attempted suicide and been rushed to the hospital. When I arrived at the ER, the nurses told me she had tried to swallow an entire bottle of painkillers. I tried to calm myself by remembering what I learned in psychology classes. They would pump her stomach, have her see a social worker, and put her on suicide watch. She would finally get help.
But she didn’t want help. She told them it was an accident, so the doctors couldn’t hold her more than 24 hours or force her into mental health treatment at the emergency room. She had the right to refuse. But I convinced her to go to the nearby mental hospital for a “routine evaluation.” I told the social worker and psychiatrist my mother would lie about her symptoms and her previous institutionalizations to avoid treatment. Luckily, a psychiatrist committed her against her will. As the doctors walked her away, she screamed that I betrayed her, that I was a horrible son. But for the first time in my life, everything my dad told me about Mom clicked. She tried to kill herself not because she was sad or tired, but because she believed that the world would be better off without her; that I would be better off without her. Her own mind betrayed her and convinced her that she was just a burden. It was just like an auto-immune disease: the body turns on itself. My Mom needed the same support and help I would give to her if she had cancer, or another illness.
The system worked for my mother. The institution got her on a new set of medications, referred her to a new psychiatrist, and helped her for months through an outpatient program. But for so many, the system doesn’t work. Prosecutors without personal experience with mental illness pursue petty criminal charges for people with delusional disorders. Judges sentence people with substance-abuse disorder to years in jail for minor possession, and police officers arrest people with serious mental illness rather than help them to get treatment. Some districts and precincts have tried implementing mental health training and education to some success, but these are not enough. You can try to shove abnormal psychology into every judge, prosecutor, and police officer’s head, but it is a complement, rather than a substitute, for personal experience.
I want to go to law school because I have lived with and loved a person with a serious mental illness. I understand the toll it has on families. I know what it’s like to recommend someone be committed against their will. As a prosecutor, I will use my experience and my law school education to advocate for people to be placed in treatment, rather than in jail. I will help to foster institutions such as drug and mental health courts, where people can get treatment inside the system. People with serious mental illness deserve help, understanding, and compassion. As a lawyer I won’t be able to treat them, but I can make their lives better.
In Khmer, “sai kup leht” translates to “complete woman” and is used to describe a well-mannered, physically graceful woman, who is ever conscious of how she is perceived by others. My mother introduced me to the expression after my unsuccessful wrestling match with my older, larger brother over the TV remote. Generally, she uses the expression to chide me for being impatient or rebellious, and specifically, when I cannot cut mangoes fast enough, which in her hypothetical situations invariably ends in the starvation of my children. While I roll my eyes at every invocation of the expression, I recognize its past significance in defining a Khmer woman’s social role. And then I wonder what my becoming a complete woman will look like.
My mother admits that she is no “sai kup leht” herself, and neither are her sisters, because they are feisty and consult with YouTube on too many recipes (the “complete woman” just knows them). Even my grandmother, raised most closely by the “sai kup leht” ideal, tells me stories of her pre-Khmer Rouge life when she was astute breadwinner and regularly spoke out of turn. She single-handedly raised my mother and aunts, who now balance running small businesses, maintaining finances with and separately from their husbands, and navigating America as confident, ethnic women. They have lived together, shared failures and successes, and created a net of financial security and loyalty. They are complete women, redefined.
Their powerful womanhood threads through my life: my mother, nearing my birthdate, squeezed between showcases at the jewelry store she and my aunts ran; as an elementary-aged child, I napped behind those showcases just out of customers’ lines of sight; and in high school, I worked beside my mother as my grandmother, with limited English-speaking abilities, encouraged customers to buy. I learned to view success in terms of joint efforts that impact the entire family, and what it means to hold purpose beyond myself. Outside of the business place, I have been my family’s translator, interpreting everything from emails to official documents to text emojis (What does the upside-down smiley mean, my mother inquires?); a sort of legal liaison, accompanying my uncle to traffic court when he did not feel confident enough to go alone; mediator, spokesperson, and all-around buffer for their insecurities over cultural and language barriers. This collection of experiences allowed me to hone my interpersonal skills in proximity to the immigrant experience, and prepared me well for the year I worked at an immigration firm.
I also inherited the value system that the women in my life created, one that fuses traditional Khmer values, historically restricting women to the domestic sphere, with progressive American ones of independence and individualism. My mother and aunts urge me to explore all educational opportunities, as they had limited access to them. They emphasize that business savvy combined with attainment of higher education are the surest means of achieving self-fulfillment and distinction within the larger community. Due to their instillations, I am deeply motivated to transpose the role I play in my family and become an advocate for the Khmer-American and other marginalized communities. My aims are reflected in my past decisions to study bioengineering to positively contribute to medicine, and to help international students acclimate to American university life; and in my future goals of forming a non-profit tutoring program while pursuing a career in healthcare policy. A law degree will officialize my voice and help me achieve my goals.
A lifetime of experiences acting as my family’s intermediary has shaped my mind and eyes to be compassionate instruments that aspire to serve communities resembling the ones that my family exists in. The women in my life inspire me to do as they have done, forging awesome networks and relationships, thriving in unfamiliar, multicultural environments, and becoming complete women in their own rights. My successes, academic and professional, are also theirs. They show me that complete woman-ness is a dynamic process, and that by accessing new spaces and gaining representation, we continuously reimagine it. So while I might never possess stellar mango cutting skills, I am nonetheless assured that so long as I continue to strive for my dreams, I am “sai kup leht.”
My teammate blasted a forehand to me while I was in ready position at the net. Suddenly a sharp pain reverberated across my right wrist. My tennis racket tumbled with a clang to the concrete court, and my screech echoed across the tennis complex. I felt petrified as I thought about the future of my tennis career. As a first-semester freshman for a Division 1 team, I had to prove myself to make the starting lineup. An injury meant I would be on the bench for the rest of the season, and beyond that my future would be uncertain. I thought of my Dad throwing balloons to me in our basement when I was three years old. I swatted at them with a small racket that barely fit in my hand. For most of my life tennis was my identity and my passion. In my first semester of college, I was finally living my tennis dream. Until the injury. That night, my call home to my dad was heartbreaking. Instead of telling him about hard-fought practice matches with my new teammates, I tearfully told him that my right wrist was swollen and pain was radiating from the center of my wrist.
A year and a half later, after two surgeries, I was faced with the wrenching realization that my wrist could no longer withstand the high level of performance demanded of a Division 1 tennis player. A ganglion cyst in the center of my wrist was compressing a sensitive nerve. Although the cyst and nerve were surgically removed, I lost flexibility in my wrist, so I could no longer snap it to generate my powerful serve. After 15 years of hard work, my body destroyed my dream of playing college tennis at the worst possible moment.
I was no longer was the girl with a passion for tennis. Each day, I would still call my dad. Instead of talking to him about tennis practice, however, I began telling him stories about an art history class I was taking. Professor Jones lectured in a way that I could only explain as a dance across the room, as her passion for art bounced off the walls of the cinderblock lecture room. I was engrossed as I furiously wrote each of her words into my spiral notebook. My excitement on these calls was apparent. My dad knew the void of my injury was being filled within the walls of Professor Jones’s classroom, and he was excited for me. Instead of telling me to dream of playing college tennis, he told me to dream of a career in art history.
The summer of my junior year, my passion for discussing art history with my dad culminated in the publication of “Neuroanatomical Interpretation of the Painting Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh,” as the cover essay of Neurosurgery, an international journal published by Oxford University Press. My dad and I melded our discussions into a research project that brought together art history and medicine, proposing a diagnosis of epilepsy for van Gogh. Our theory was that the luminous stars and swirling clouds correlated with a transverse section of the parahippocampal gyrus in the hippocampal formation, which are components of the brain’s temporal lobe. This specific area can be the source of hallucinations, déjà vu, delusions, and other symptoms of the madness that possessed Van Gogh, and which manifested in his art. We suggested that subconsciously the artist was, in effect, painting the location of his affliction in Starry Night.
Today, as I continue down my path as an art historian, I know the importance of protecting the creation of all art and cultural heritage. I believe we are living in an era when artists, museums, and even nation-states need lawyers to safeguard artistic achievements. For instance, Greece is fighting for the return of the Elgin Marbles from the British Museum, which has created a decades-long legal tangle. A lawyer who understands art can collaborate with all of the players in the art world to protect cultural and artistic achievements. Art history is my identity and my passion, and I aspire to bring my knowledge to a career of melding of art and law.
I was sitting on mama’s cold wooden floor by my father’s bedside. Her demeanor was uneasy as she handed me the phone. I grabbed it and excitedly screamed, “Hola papa, como estas?” Then I rushed to my next question. “Papa, cuando vienes?” I heard pain in his voice as he responded to this thirteen-year-old girl, “I am fine.” I asked again, “Dad, when are you coming back?” He replied, “Muy pronto.” I was unsatisfied with this answer so I persisted, but he would only say, “No se mijita.” Choked up by my tears, I knew this cry would echo in my mind for a lifetime. I handed the phone back to my mother and asked, “How could he not know when he was returning?” I could not understand how a man who got up for work at four in the morning and worked all day to provide for his family could have been taken away by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). This incident marked me indelibly and forever shaped the woman I am today.
The first time I entered a court room for my father’s case, I heard the prosecutor use words such as “flight risk” and “deportation order.” My father had created a stable family and a construction company, and he had many connections in our home in Prince George’s County. Nevertheless, my father was trapped in this immigration system that imposed enormous hardships on my family. Our everyday rituals had been completely altered, but we eventually adapted. Between the immigration court proceedings in Virginia, my mother would drive three hours so my two siblings and I could have a thirty-minute visitation with my father in the Hampton Roads detention center. For two years, I would walk down a line of glass windows where strangers appeared until I would see my father’s smiling face. With the phone connected to the glass, I would give him updates on my grades and what I had learned in class. After these visitations, my father sent us letters and drawings of our family. When we returned home from our visits, my mother reminded us to stay strong because this was the card we were dealt. To support us during his absence, she became a dog sitter and a babysitter, and she cleaned houses during the day and a doctor’s office at night. My siblings and I helped after school. Her strength empowered me to pursue my dreams.
When I started high school, I felt isolated because no one was talking about their father’s immigration status. At that time there was very little media coverage of this issue. My teachers and classmates did not understand how my father’s immigration status had become in many ways the center of my life. At the age of 15, I wanted to start a venture that would help individuals trapped in the injustices of the U.S. Immigration system. I reached out to my high school teachers and received county funding for an after-school tutoring program for ESOL students who wanted to enhance their education. Many of these students skipped school because they worked to support their families, and often they had to choose between school or work. The more I was consumed by their hardships and my own, the more I realized I wanted to become a lawyer so I could provide legal help to these students and their families.
By the time I graduated high school, I had learned the legal basis for my father’s detainment. He came here legally as a teenager and overstayed his visa, so he had a deportation order. Twenty years later, the order remained, and because of that, as a thirteen-year-old I saw two ICE agents handcuff him and haul him off in a van to a detention center at five in the morning. I was bewildered that the U.S. government would detain my father who had contributed so much to this country. Learning my father’s case consumed me with passion, and I wanted to do something about it. In college, I reached a turning point when I read Phyler v. Doe, a 1982 Supreme Court case addressing a Texas statue that withheld state funds for education of children not “legally admitted.” The court ruled that this statue violated the 14th Amendment, citing Justice William Brennan’s opinion in Brown v. Board of Education: “education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments…”
But discussing the law abstractly does not convey the damage the U.S. immigration system inflicts on families like my own. For two years as a young teenager I had to endure my father’s absence. Thankfully my father has been released, but in the current political climate I must worry that my extended family members may not be so lucky. This institutionalized injustice has to change. Obtaining a legal education would allow this twenty-one-year old woman to devote her professional life to that change.
I reach into the cab to grab my legal pad, and slam the car door shut. The warm Orlando sun immediately reminds me that I am no longer in Delaware. As my team and I walk towards the hotel ballroom, I see the hundreds of competitors sporting their university’s colors funneling into the rows of seats. “Welcome to the American Mock Trial Association’s National Championship Tournament,” says the law school dean. It’s time to introduce ourselves. The line to the stage is shorter and shorter, and I peer out into the crowd in search of a familiar face, and I see my teammates, smiling, mouthing my name, but I can’t hear a thing. It’s my turn. I step onto the stage, and the ballroom, just moments ago filled with inaudible voices, becomes silent. I lean into the microphone. “My name is John Doe, and I am the president of University of Delaware Mock Trial.”
I wanted to be just like my dad. I looked up to him – the way he talked, the way he saw the world; he was my hero. We would talk for hours after dinner about his upcoming trial, about a suppression motion he had argued that day, or about a cop he had cross-examined earlier that week. I did not understand most of what he told me; after all, I was still in elementary school. And although I could barely see over the bar the first time my dad took me to see a real trial in a real courtroom, I knew I was where I wanted to be. I wanted to be a lawyer.
My mom’s habit of scrolling through the morning announcements posted on my high school’s website and reading them aloud was a nightly routine. “The mock trial club has a meeting this Tuesday,” she shouted one night from her bedroom. Despite my desire to apply to law school, I ignored her; adjusting to a new school was challenging enough. But she was persistent. “One meeting. Give it a chance.” I agreed.
I was given a binder filled with affidavits, legal documents, and exhibits. My team was to portray attorneys and witnesses, cross-examine opposing witnesses, make objections, and argue in front of scoring judges seated in the jury box. My team would compete in these mock trials against other schools. I was immediately fixated. Before I knew it, I was a sophomore, and named captain of the team. I recruited friends to join, we won tournaments, and by my senior year we were the Philadelphia city champions, finishing second in the state of Pennsylvania, the most successful team in school history.
There was no greater feeling than standing in front of a panel of judges and delivering a closing argument, or sitting down at counsel table after an effective cross-examination. And now, instead of peering over the bar at my dad, it was my dad watching me. I would hear him whispering to my mom during trial, pleading with me to object to the other side’s question or commenting approvingly to my mom after a strong performance. He was the first person I spoke to after trial. “Did you like my opening, dad? What did you think of that judge?” Now, our conversations about trial were just that, and they were serious, detailed and argumentative. They were perfect.
While my mom was interested in the size of the dorms and prices of meal plans during college visits, I only had one question for our tour guide. “Does your school have a mock trial team?” By the end of my freshman year at the University of Delaware, I was made captain. Made up of only seven students, the team was struggling. Despite this, I was not deterred. I continued poring over the case, offering new case theories, and working to help my team become competitive. By my sophomore year, things started to change. At the end of that season, I was elected president of the entire club, which has continued into my senior year. We had evolved into an organization of over thirty members that I had recruited, with a coaching staff that I had put together and more support from the university than ever before. During my junior year, I led my team to win all four trials at the Opening Round Championship Series in Philadelphia, earning an invitation to the National Championship Tournament for the first time in school history.
My time as a mock trial competitor is quickly coming to a close. When I reflect on the person that I was before high school, I realize the impact that mock trial has had on me. It has taught me to be a more effective speaker, an engaged listener, a more approachable teammate. It has taught me that hard work is the most important predictor of success. From the time I first peeked into a courtroom as a child, to just earlier this year, energetically stepping out of that cab and into the federal courthouse in Orlando, I have watched myself evolve into the person I have always strived to emulate, my dad. And over the last eight years, the law, like him, has already left an indelible footprint on my life. I am ready now, ready to give back to the law what it has already given to me.
When I was young, I used to fall asleep to the sound of the crickets chirping. Sound nice? It wasn’t. They were spider-like cave crickets and they weren’t outside. They were living down there with me, lurking in the corners, hiding under my bed, terrorizing me.
My earliest memories take place in a rundown basement apartment, where I lived with my mom, dad and the cave crickets. It was all we could afford and I was told to be grateful for it. My parents weren’t completely at fault. They did try, but were caught in a cycle of American poverty that has been drowning the lower class for generations. My great-grandparents were teen parents. Both of my grandparents were teen parents and my parents followed suit. For as long as memory allows, I’ve known nothing but the desire to escape.
My father was born to a single mother in the 70s. His mother and the multiple men that came in and out of their lives were addicts and alcoholics. He lived mostly with his grandfather, my namesake, until he died of lung cancer when my dad was fourteen, leaving him without a home. He moved from place to place with only enough energy to continue rather than improve his situation. His troubled life became even more complicated when he too became a father at the age of eighteen. He was faced with the easy choice of leaving, like his father had done, or he could sweep up any sort of foundation that he could muster from the rubble of his past and attempt to build a life for us. I will be forever grateful he chose the latter.
This is the station I was born into, two teenage parents, no home, and no stability. With no father of his own, mine could only try to piece together what he thought a dad should be. For him, this meant providing a home, food and clothes, all of the things that had been so scarce to him. He took as many jobs as he could find; working in the freezer of a chicken factory, giving baths to the elderly at nursing homes, and doing handyman work in the fraction of free time he had left. Dad was gone to work before I woke up and didn’t get back most nights until after I was back in bed.
Starting school freed me from the run down basement, but I was different from the other kids and I knew it. I was the poor kid. Everyone else had Legos and Imaginext in their toy boxes. They went on trips over their breaks and always had stories to tell. For me, none of this was possible. None of this was affordable. And it made me awkward and nervous.
In 2002, “Star Wars Episode II” came to theaters and every boy in the class saw it except me. Star Wars backpacks, stickers, pencils, posters and snacks seemed to be forever circling around me, yet always out of my reach. When my classmates recounted the scenes, I listened closely to absorb every detail so that I could pretend I had seen it too. One day while shopping with my mom, I glanced hope. It was a plain white t-shirt with the words, “Star Wars” printed across the chest. I begged my mom to buy it for me and she caved right before checkout. I was ecstatic, believing this would be everything required to finally be like everyone else. When we got home, my dad helped unpack the groceries. He pulled the shirt out of one of the bags. “He’s already got enough clothes,” Dad grouched, “it’s going to have to be returned, we can’t afford it.” I sank down on my bed, all hopes of a brighter future seemingly crushed.
When I was finally old enough to understand the despair that had gripped my childhood, I decided I could either succumb to the vulturous cycle of poverty, or I could tear its hooks out of my skin and pursue a better life. My dad’s constant work and sacrifice built a stairway just high enough for me to see over the gates that confined me. Now, it is my quest to continue the climb and fight my way out. I have promised myself that no matter what, I will do whatever it takes to succeed so that my children will be the first in my family not born into poverty.
I am determined to work hard and take advantage of every opportunity afforded to me. I am determined to be the difference for the countless children struggling to stay afloat. I believe a career in law will give me the opportunity and strength to pull back the curtains, giving light to all those born into the shadows of poverty, so they too may see the path to a brighter future.
The gust of wind rippled across my partially zipped-up jacket, a consequence of being hurriedly slipped on. The chill was intense, but I hardly noticed; I was already numb from the heart wrenching ache that originated deep in my core. “Can I just-…” I tried to offer an apology but the door slammed in my face. I tried the handle, but it was locked. You’re just like your father. My mother’s parting words cut deeply into my psyche. I trudged down the front steps, shivering in the cold. I threw the single stuffed backpack that was slung around my shoulder into my car and drove off into darkness.
Some people might say the family experience they are most thankful for is an especially joyous holiday, birthday, or family gathering. Mine is the day my mother stopped putting up with my crap and kicked me out into the cold.
I had a very privileged childhood but not a happy one. My parents were both lawyers, and their marriage was adversarial. My father was brilliant: a mathematician turned legal professional. He had a booming personality, and his occasional guffaw would echo across the house. However, he had underlying anger issues, and alcoholism abetted his explosive temper. While equally brilliant, my mother was thoughtful and introverted. She cared immensely for my sister and me, but was forced to become the only breadwinner after my father lost his job. As home stresses worsened and my parents drifted apart, I gravitated towards marijuana abuse.
In high school I tried especially hard to defy the image of the “nerd” I had cultivated after eight years at the city’s magnet elementary and middle schools. I threw parties, ditched school early (that is, when I even bothered to show up), and continued to abuse drugs. When I was 16, my parents finally divorced. I was relieved by the cessation of hostilities, but was also enabled as my parents competed to see who could create a more permissive environment since custody would influence the division of wealth. Shortly thereafter I dropped out of high school due to excessive truancy, subsequently obtaining my GED while turning to more hardcore drugs. I worked as a dishwasher, then busboy, and eventually waited tables as the financial support of my disappointed and exasperated mother waned.
Then, after a particular nasty argument in the winter of 2014, I found the door to my mother’s house slammed in my face. With nowhere to go, I drove and drove and drove. For a while, the high of the drugs compensated for the low of disappointing the person I loved the most, but such a life was unsustainable. I slept out of my car or occasionally on a friend’s couch, and I showered at the rec center.
Six months later, I was reading Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, and Camus, and a philosophically nihilistic disposition paired with untreated, self-medicated depression. My life felt worthless. Then something broke through the haze of drug addiction and self-loathing. On a hot day in the middle of July, I found myself again standing at the door to the security I had previously taken for granted. I knocked once. No answer. Why would there be? I was my father’s child, a man who had abused those around him. My insecurities bounced through my head as I descended the front steps for the last time. Or so I thought. The door opened, and I saw my mom. “John?” she asked. My voice broke, “I’m so sorry. I-…I don’t want to be like dad. I love you. I want to be better.” We embraced and cried in each other’s arms.
A year later I began attending community college, and the rest I’ll leave to my CV.
I’m thankful for my mother’s expulsion because it forced me to come to terms with the idea that her love is a necessary but insufficient condition for improving myself. Her decision to make me go was the day I started to arrive at a self-awareness of my underachievement, and I started to appreciate the potential that I’ve been gifted. To be frank, I’m still unsure what exactly I intend to do with a law degree. I could see myself doing guardian ad litem work, just as my mother did in her early career, advocating for children who have neither privilege nor happiness. I could see myself drafting legislation regarding alimony, which can punish spouses who bear the financial obligations in a marriage. Even more, I want success in the field, so I can help my mother live comfortably after working so hard for me and my sister for so long. I also want to be able to provide for my future family, with whom I intend to be a man that laughs loudly but doesn’t dish out the physical and emotional abuse. I hope to deliver the news of my acceptance to law school along with this statement to my mother. She will look at me and I will resemble my father, but she will know: I’m not just like my father – I will be much better.
“You keep your seat on this horse, O.K.?” The older cowboy looked up with hint of misgiving behind his eyes as the horse danced under me.
I gathered my reins in one hand and answered with calm confidence, “I can ride him.” I’m not sure if my response assured him, but my boss nodded brusquely and moved to help a guest in front of me.
Two days ago Sam had bolted with a guest, dumping him soundly, before he then bucked off the wrangler who was sent to ride him back. The emergency code – “Estes Base, do you have a copy?” – had come buzzing over our radios, and dropping the bridle of a guest’s horse, I’d sprinted across the barnyard to head off the runaway horse.
Now Sam danced skittishly as we waited for our guest riders to fall into line along the fence rail. Wranglers on the ground explained the basics of western riding to first time trail riders: pull right to go right, left to go left, back to stop.
As we began our ride up the eastern ridge of the Colorado Rockies, Sam eyed me suspiciously. Passing the campground he quivered and spooked, but then he settled into the climb as we headed up the switchbacks. At the front, lead wrangler Jones engaged guests in friendly conversation: a German father riding with his two daughters, and some businesswomen out for adventure. The sun was warm as we climbed the two-hour trail, and I had settled in with Sam by the time we were reaching the last few miles.
Rounding the bend into a meadow, it happened. Without warning Sam lurched forward into a dead run. My seat stayed in the saddle even as my mind whiplashed to catch up. I heard Jones shouting frantically “Pull back! Pull back!” to the rest of the line as their horses took off in solidarity.
In the chaos, my mind remained clear. A bolting horse can be curbed by directing it into a large circle, cutting off a dead run into a manageable situation. With strong leg and rein, I began working him into an arc, but we were quickly heading for a steep downhill studded with jagged rocks and sporadic pines. And in that moment, Sam shifted. Suddenly we were no longer a trail horse and rider, but an animal running with wild abandon who could not care less about the person on his back. Cutting off this horse would require my full separation from the guests in mayhem behind me, and as my responsibility was to them and not this horse’s training, I kicked my feet free of the stirrups and, committed to the decision, dove off the side.
The crash landing felt like somersaulting in an ocean wave, minus the water. At the mercy of pure velocity, I catapulted headlong and desperately prayed I wouldn’t jolt onto rocks. Grabbing desperately at bushes, I finally skidded to a stop and instantly hopped up, thoughts focused on my guests.
Jones thundered by, pulling furiously at his out of control horse. Two other riders had already passed; three were charging straight towards me. Throwing my arms wide, I forced my shaky legs into confident strides towards the agitated horses. Catching the bridle of the German father’s horse, I pulled it into a controlled walk while trying to infuse calm into the panicking father whose daughter was out of sight on a bolting horse.
Stumbling downhill, dragging back on a horse trying to join his fellows, I refused the instinctual panic at what we might find at the bottom of the hill and how then to help the father if we encountered the worst. But in a moment there she was – sitting upright, shaky but seemingly okay. I gave her a first aid once over, and then as we waited for the rescue team, I told stories of my own mishap riding adventures, helping them normalize the situation. It was not until father and daughters were safely in the truck headed to the barn that I felt the stinging across my own face that would leave a good-looking cowboy scar for the rest of the summer. But I counted it a success that Sarah – I found out her name talking at the bottom of the hill –wrote on her incident report that she still loved horses.
What I told Sarah wasn’t lies. Horses aren’t ATVs. They are living breathing animals that will at times act unpredictably. A rider must know how to respond in unpredictable times. In the moment, my thinking was clear and my decisions purposeful. To remain calmly confident in an unpredictable and high-risk situation are the skills of a good rider. They are also the skills of a good lawyer. We must prepare and research, just as riders must train for years in the ring. Yet when it comes time to go into action – to ride – you have only yourself. It’s time to ride.
Stanley was four years old but looked two and a half; he had a bloated belly, no muscle tone, and a protruding collar bone. He showed no interest in anything and lacked both the curiosity and energy of a typical toddler. If you tried to talk to him, he would simply stare at you with a blank look in his eyes. I met Stanley while visiting Haiti, where he was living in a safe-house with ten other boys. His mother was suffering from severe psychological issues and his father had died in an earthquake.
On my trip to Haiti, our goal was to help teach English to the boys at this safe-house. However, Stanley was too young to participate in the lessons, so I volunteered to keep him busy while the other boys worked. I immediately established a connection with him and made it my goal to give him the attention he deserved. I wanted so badly to see this sad little boy smile.
On the last day of my trip, I finally got my wish. As a reward for working so hard throughout the week, we took the boys to the beach to celebrate our last day in Haiti. Stanley and I played in the sand for hours and eventually made our way toward the ocean. Stanley seemed scared, but he held my hand as I moved forward inch by inch. Soon we were jumping over the waves and splashing around. Before I knew it, Stanley was smiling and laughing. This was how a four year old was supposed to look: happy and innocent. Though I had finally gotten my wish to see him smile, it broke my heart to know that the next day I would be on a plane back to Delaware and Stanley would stay at the safe-house, neglected and lonely.
When I took a job as a camp counselor a few months later, I was faced with the sad reality that problems of child neglect were not isolated to third world countries. Though I worked just forty minutes from my home in Massachusetts, I had campers that came every day without lunch or water. Others wore the same outfit all week, no matter how sweaty or dirty their clothes became. Many would come in with bruises, black eyes, broken bones, and burn marks all over their bodies. These sweet little five-year-olds would tell me horror stories about how mom and dad didn’t like them and would hurt them if they were bad. While it was my responsibility to report these injuries and to make sure my campers felt safe for the few hours they were at camp, at the end of the day I had to send them home to parents that I knew would abuse and neglect them. I was powerless; there was nothing I could do beyond the confines of camp except report the problems and hope someone took care of them. On the last day of camp, when one little boy asked if he could come live with me because he was scared to go home, I broke down in tears.
These children all lived very different lives, but they had one thing in common: the adults in their lives had let them down. Stanley was severely underdeveloped because his mother had neglected him. My campers were terrified because they were abused by the very people they relied on to love and care for them.
Though I’ve never faced these hardships, I realize that there are thousands of other children who have. None of these children have a voice to speak out against the atrocities bestowed upon them; they are essentially helpless. Thankfully, I have been dealt a different hand – one that consists of an education, a conscience and the opportunity to create change. I feel a responsibility to these children; an obligation to give them the voice they’ve never had. Through law, I believe that I can carry out this obligation and fulfill the promise I made to myself when I decided that I simply could not turn my back on these children’s struggles.
“She’s missing.” These were the words my mother whispered to me, with bloodshot eyes and tears running down her face. These were the words that I repeated in my head and that echoed repeatedly for the next couple of months. Words that would later turn into “She’s dead. Sarah is gone.”
My sister went missing the weekend of Super Bowl XLIII in 2009. My mother received a call from her ex-fiancé saying she had not come home in days and he was leaving her and taking their kids to Georgia. This was a major red flag. My sister loved her kids more than anything and would never leave them. My mother began to panic. My sister was not answering her phone, and a winter storm was brewing in upstate New York. There was an unsettling feeling in the air as fear sank in. I was sent to live with my aunt as the next few months were filled with news reports, missing person flyers, search parties, prayer services at church, and many tears of anguish and grief. As spring emerged on the horizon and the snow began to melt, a confession halted everything. My sister’s ex-fiancé, the father to her three kids, admitted to murdering her in a rage. With that, my world fell apart. My sister, my hero, the person I looked up to was gone, and she was not coming back.
My sister was 16 years older than me and losing her felt like I had lost my mom. At 12 years old, I fell into a major depression, and I wanted to give up. I was no longer that carefree and bubbly girl everyone knew. I became quiet and reserved, I would not eat, and I was filled with anger. The trial of my sister’s ex-fiancé took a toll on my family. My mother cried every day. Even as she tried to shelter me from this storm. She did not want me in the courtroom, witnessing the graphic details of my sister’s death. When my sister’s murderer was sentenced to life in prison, my mother worked tirelessly to gain custody of my nieces and nephew. This agonizing situation suddenly had a little light at the end of the tunnel. As I adjusted to having my nieces and nephew living with us, I realized that I had to be strong if not for myself, then for them. I may have lost my sister, but they lost both their parents. While my mother spent hours commuting to and from work, I had to get my nieces and nephew ready for school, help them with their homework, and at times, make them dinner and put them to bed. I had to be mature and strong for them. My nieces and nephew taught me how to be resilient and how to persevere in the face of adversity. They depended on me and looked up to me. We became each other’s guiding lights.
I believed my sister was watching over us, and I would make her proud by making sure my nieces and nephew did the right things in life. I threw myself into my studies and joined many extracurricular activities in high school to ensure I had a competitive college application. I took several AP courses and maintained an A average in them all. I volunteered to be a math and Spanish tutor, became the editor of our school newspaper, and joined different sports teams. When the time came to apply for college and choose a major, I chose Psychology. I wanted to have a better understanding of why people did the things they do, and I wanted to help other families cope with the same situations I had endured. A large part of me thought by going into Psychology, I could understand why my sister was murdered. But in the end, my studies helped me realize I may never understand the emotions behind it, and I should not try to. Attempting to understand the psychological motives behind something this horrible is impossible. I was continuously reopening a wound I was so desperately trying to close.
As I have learned how to cope with my grief and deal with closure, I have come to realize that the best way for me to help other families is to fight for them. I want to help other families receive justice and closure, by being a prosecutor and fighting on their behalf.
Playing outside with her three siblings, a girl was suddenly grabbed by her older sister and plunged into the small pond near the edge of her family’s home. She gasped for breath and fought against the restraints of her sister’s arms, but she couldn’t rise to the surface. While it may have seemed like her older sibling was trying to drown her, she was in fact saving her life. Up above, Pakistani fighter jets flew by. These planes were known for picking off their enemy, regardless of age, gender, or religion.
A few miles up the way, a boy woke in the middle of the night and fled his home with his family to avoid being killed by the approaching Pakistani Army. With only the clothes on their backs, they escaped to their grandmother’s house in a nearby province to hide while the war raged on. During this period where food and medicine became scarce, the boy and his family starved and lost one of their sons to malnutrition. When the family returned, they found their house looted and partially destroyed. They had to rebuild from virtually nothing.
My parents survived the 1971 genocide of Bangladesh. Three hundred thousand to 500,000 Bengali’s were massacred, raped, and displaced during the 8 months the Pakistani army invaded the country. Our people were fighting to save our language from Pakistan’s to erase our national identity. Eventually we won the war and established the nation of Bangladesh.
In 1980s my father was granted asylum in the U.S., and that allowed my mother to come to the States. In NYC my father worked as a taxi driver, and while doing that he tried to educate himself. He had only a third-grade education in East Pakistan – public schools did not exist there, and he had to go to work as a clerk at age 8 while overcoming polio. Even so he earned his General Education Diploma in America. Soon he began working for Wachovia as a loan officer. My mom was a housewife who raised me and my brother.
My brother and I were raised to embrace my Bengali heritage. I didn’t speak English until I was in kindergarten because my parents wanted us to preserve our roots. After all, East Pakistan fought a war to preserve its language. Pakistan wanted those in what it called East Pakistan to stop speaking the language. That would erase our national identity and allow Pakistan to absorb us. But we fought back so ferociously that eventually Pakistan gave up.
My parents instilled in us a tremendous pride in what our people accomplished. We celebrated the Bengali New Year by dressing up in traditional clothing. For me that was a Sari, a long piece of red fabric that was draped around me. Music was a major part of our culture, so we listened to Bengali music played on a sitar and a harmonium. After the fasting month of Ramadan, we celebrated Eid, a three-day Muslim holiday. One of our pillars in our religion was that we should perform charitable acts, and the more successful we become, the more you can give back.
But my Muslim religion had a negative side as well, and that is the expectation that women should stay home and raise a family rather than pursue a career. This did not mean I should not have an education. It only meant that my role was pre-defined as that of wife and mother. I rebelled against that. I told my parents I would not marry at age 18 as they expected. I refused to circulate a bio data resume, which is essentially a portfolio for marriage. In fact, I was insulted by the very idea that I should be auctioned off like cattle. Even now, at 22 years of age, my parents will not allow me to date, so I have had to live a double life in my relationships with men.
Although I’m proud of my national identity, I identify as an American now. In fact, I hope to change Bengali attitudes toward child marriages – soon I will travel to my motherland to educate those who believe their girls should marry at 13. As a lawyer, I will continue trying to rectify this sort of unfairness, and I looking forward to doing that through the U.S. legal system.
On August 28th, 2005, I had just turned twelve years old and was en route to see The Rolling Stones for my first concert. During the car ride from Wellesley Island, New York to Ottawa, Ontario, everyone was anxiously predicting what songs The Stones would play and in what order. The first thing we saw when we arrived was a one-man band playing “Honky Tonk Women” with an accordion, harmonica, and kick drum. Most people, including myself, were proudly wearing t-shirts sporting the provocative, red tongue logo. We found our seats, which were by no means close to the stage, but when the pyrotechnics began, we could feel the heat from the flames on our skin. I looked up at my mother with a huge grin. By the beaming smile on her face, I could tell she was as excited as I was to finally see her favorite band perform. From the opener “Start Me Up” to the closer “It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It),” we sang along.
From an early age, music has been important to me. I was raised on my parents’ classic rock recordings of The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and what was probably a little too much Jimmy Buffett. I would spend hours poring over their collection of CD’s, cassette tapes, and vinyl records. Over time, my musical palate evolved beyond that of the typical Parrot Head (the name given to members of the Jimmy Buffett fan club) to include genres varying from country to hip-hop, just to name a few, and my method of listening evolved from CDs to iPods.
My own experience mirrors the changing music industry. Fans can watch their favorite artists perform on television or through a live stream on the internet, but these broadcasts can adversely affect ticket sales. Similarly, digital music is expanding with companies such as Apple, Pandora, and Spotify; but this leads to a decrease in physical music sales such as CD’s. Another music digitalization consequence is the quality and ease with which music can be copied, leading to greater concern over piracy and copyright infringement. The heavy metal band Metallica is known for their legal efforts to combat piracy such as when they sued file-sharing service Napster. Radiohead went in the opposite direction by offering their album In Rainbows using a “pay-what-you-want” model. Regardless of approach, I intend to use the law to assist artists and consumers in dealing with these changes.
I have already gained experience through an internship with the Alliance of Artists and Recording Companies (AARC), a non-profit organization that collects and distributes home-taping royalties to musicians and copyright owners. Through the internship, I became familiar with home-taping royalty collection worldwide. I also assisted with complex copyright lawsuits. At issue in one case was whether in-car recording device manufacturers need to pay royalties for their product production. The manufacturers believed their products deserve a royalty exemption, similar to MP3 players, while AARC disagreed. Another case involved what constitutes being a featured artist on a recording in order to receive royalty payments for that recording. My experience with AARC has reaffirmed my aspiration to practice law.
Attending [university name] will allow me to follow my desired career path. [Continue on about each university’s specific qualities that make it a good choice for what I want to study]. Obtaining a law degree will grant me opportunities to pursue what I love and I am looking forward to beginning the next process in my academic and professional careers.
It was almost midnight, and my thumb hovered over the green button on my phone. The number was already dialed. I just couldn’t decide whether to actually call it. The website said the Sexual Offense Support office was open twenty-four hours, and I didn’t have to be a victim to call. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I had no right to call if I weren’t a victim. My best friend was the victim, so what authority did I have to be upset on her behalf?
I remained in shock for almost a month after I went to the local movie theater with Jane over spring break, where she told me about her sexual assault at a party. She was dancing with friends whom she trusted, so when one of them led her away from the group, she went with him. He pulled her into the bathroom and locked the door. She was too drunk to fight him when he started taking off her clothes. She only remembered fragments of what he had done after that, but she knew she had to go to the police for a rape kit, which would ultimately confirm the assault.
After talking to Jane in the theater, I distractedly stuck to my usual academic routine for the next few weeks, but almost every night I would either call Jane to check in or call my mother to cry. After the latter, I would agonize about how selfish it was to shed tears over an assault that wasn’t mine. But I didn’t know what else to do. I had never felt so helpless. I was just Jane’s friend from high school. I couldn’t say or do anything to miraculously erase her trauma. I couldn’t even help her in her quest for justice because the district attorney told her they would leave the investigation to her college. I envisioned driving up to her college to shout at the college investigators, “Jane’s my best friend and she’s telling the truth,” but I knew it wasn’t a real option. I wasn’t a witness, or even a student there. Ultimately, her college found her assailant guilty and handed down his punishment: a request that he transfer. Jane was more surprised by the verdict than the so-called punishment. Over the course of the investigation, school administrators attempted to undermine her story with questions about her clothing and her conduct at the party. She was relieved that they ultimately believed her, regardless of her assailant’s punishment.
As a last resort, I thought I could move past my frustrations and fears by venting them aloud, so I considered calling Sexual Offense Support at my university. As I struggled with the decision, I glanced back at the website open on my laptop. I noticed an “Apply” tab and clicked on it. My phone lay forgotten beside me, the call button unpressed. As I perused the instructions for applying to work as a victim advocate, I realized how I could combat my constant feelings of helplessness. I may not have been able to help Jane, but I could help others. Anger and sorrow had been draining me for weeks – but I could channel emotion into action.
I looked into the sexual assault support programs and rallies on my campus. I attended documentary screenings, student rallies, and my first Take Back the Night march. I volunteered for the campus gender equality organization. When I left campus for a semester abroad, I became a volunteer translator for Warriors Japan, an advocacy group that supports survivors in Japan. All the while, I continued to send Jane a flurry of supportive messages
Never before had I felt such urgency to act. However, I couldn’t shake the feeling that whatever I did, I couldn’t help Jane get justice. This has spurred me toward a legal career. Before Jane’s assault, I had been interested in law due to my experience with international law courses and my fascination with interpreting legal language. Now I have another reason: I want a career that would give me the power to effect change. In Jane’s case, maybe her story would have had a more satisfying ending if she could have pursued criminal charges. I don’t know why the district attorney decided not to pursue her case, but it seems worth it to at least attempt to bring charges for such a heinous crime. And if it were me, I know I would.
The priority red line flashed across the laptop screen at 11:45 pm. “Shots fired,” sounded on the radio. The car lurched forward as it accelerated to 90 miles per hour down the long, dark, narrow street. My heartbeat accelerated and my seat belt pressed tightly to my chest, suppressing my rapidly beating heart. If perpetrators are visualized, shots will be fired and I will be banished into the floor of the police cruiser, tucked in the fetal position.
Yellow caution tape defined the perimeter. Emergency vehicles parked at staggered angles. Red lights flashing. Sirens droning. A plethora of officials were tending to their respective responsibilities. After the scene was declared inactive, we approached the victim lying face down in the street, bleeding from three bullet wounds: one in his right arm, one in his left arm, and one in his lower back. After assuring him the ambulance would arrive momentarily, the lieutenant briefed us as we surveyed the chalked off areas. Next, we documented the bullet fragments and shell casings, counting forty. This shooting was another turf war between rival gangs over drugs, one of many in this crime-ridden part of town. I looked around and noticed faces in windows and on every porch. They seemed interested, but not alarmed. This was their reality. My adrenaline level was elevated to match my heart rate. Seven hours had elapsed in what felt like one.
As I recounted my ride along with the Wilmington Police in my oral presentation to Professor Jones’s class, I could feel the resurgence of my emotions mixed with the realization that a passion had been ignited. I flashed back to the beginning of the semester. Professor Jones had seventy-five sleep deprived, unemotional faces staring back at him until he waved a crisp ten-dollar bill. With our curiosity piqued, he promised ten dollars for every perfect exam score.
Upon completion of my oral presentation, Professor Jones motioned me to approach his desk. He recognized me as the only student to achieve an overall perfect score in his course and to empty his wallet simultaneously. He inquired about my plans for graduate or law school and was shocked I had not yet chosen an undergraduate major. Because of my demonstrated potential, he encouraged me to further pursue a major in Criminal Justice, which would place me on a trajectory to attend graduate or law school.
The three crisp ten-dollar bills I received from Professor Jones were spent on coffee and bagels; however, they represented so much more than perfect scores and pocket money. An increased confidence, sense of direction, and subsequent conversations with Professor Jones, solidified my educational direction in Criminal Justice and the foundation for my post-graduate plans.
To further my interest in the field, I accepted an internship with the Rockland County District Attorney’s Office. Instead of the stereotypical intern fetching coffee, I attended weekly misdemeanor court, learned to write 710.30 notices, helped prepare warrants, and determined if files were sufficient. Three weeks into my internship, I even witnessed the prosecution of a Class A felony, a woman on trial for the murder of her mother-in-law.
On the day of the trial, I approached the courthouse where several media trucks and crews were lined up jockeying to get the best vantage point and latest statement. This case encompassed pre-meditation, co-conspirators spanning several states and countries, a 4 million dollar motive, and a plot conceived by the murdered woman’s family. I hesitantly entered the courtroom and the judge instructed my fellow interns and me to take seats in the jury box. The tension in the courtroom was palpable. The daughter of the decedent excused herself, unable to hear the details of her mother’s murder. The son-in-law, leaning over the bar, shouted so violently at the co-conspirator that the court officers had to restrain him. This was a real life drama unfolding before my eyes. Hearing a human being plead “guilty” and say “I choked her with the pocketbook strap” to describe how she assisted in the taking another human being’s life will forever be ingrained in my mind.
The culmination of these experiences, the coursework, and my instructors along the way has left me with a unique sense of the law. When I reflect on the person I was my freshmen year of college, I realize I had no educational direction and no real sense of who I was as a person. Subconsciously I was searching for a focus that aligned with my values of respect, empathy, commitment, and justice. Through the combination of knowledge and experience, I realize these values are all personified in a lawyer.
After years of disappointment, my aunt carried a child to full term. I was excited when she went into labor because I would have another cousin to play with. But I wasn’t allowed to see him when he was born. No one was. He was airlifted to another hospital before my aunt could even hold him.
At first my family and I believed John’s brain damage was an accident. No one could have prevented it. But, this was far from the truth. When my aunt went into labor, her regular doctor was on vacation, which left her at the mercy of an on-call doctor. She was cared for by a surgical resident who was not trained in the United States. This meant she could not communicate with my aunt. The on-call doctor showed no concern when the resident informed him of the baby’s irregular heart-beat. When my aunt voiced her concerns, the on-call doctor insisted that she wait to deliver until he arrived at the hospital and assured her that he was on his way. By the time he arrived, the baby’s heartbeat bottomed out and he had to perform an emergency C-section without sedation outside of an operating room, which put mother and child at even more of a risk. When John was born, he didn’t cry and he was blue. Neonatologists worked on his limp body for 9 minutes, until a needle of epinephrine injected into his chest revived him. But it was too late. The lack of oxygen to the neural tissue caused swelling that impeded on his underdeveloped skull, causing him to hemorrhage and suffer massive brain damage.
After a month in the Intensive Care Unit at Jefferson Hospital in Philadelphia, John was released with little hope for the future. Neurologists were not sure how his frontal lobe and motor cortex damage would manifest as he developed. It didn’t take more than a few months to notice the deficits. He couldn’t do simple tasks on his own, like sit up, crawl or feed himself. He didn’t show signs that he would walk. He needed special attention, including physical and speech therapy. He needed to see specialists that insurance wouldn’t cover. These were expenses that my aunt and her husband could not afford. They decided to sue the hospital and the doctor. I was only in grade school, so I had little knowledge of what this meant. All I knew was my cousin was brain damaged and it was a doctor’s fault.
When I met the lawyer representing my cousin and aunt, I sat in a large leather chair at the opposite end of the adults at a board-room style table with a coloring book. My parents thought that would distract me from why we were there. They thought I wasn’t listening, but I was. I listened to the jargon about how the deposition would go for my mom, the compensatory damages my aunt sought for the pain and suffering she endured, and the amount for which they would settle that would allow John the medical attention he needed. I pretended to color while I learned the on-call doctor was out to dinner with his family when he got the call that John was in distress. He claimed he was stuck in traffic, which would excuse his lateness. However, traffic cameras revealed that he was lying. He also lied when he said he was not aware that the surgical resident was not qualified to deliver a baby. The lawyer was confident that he could prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, the doctor was negligent and because of that, John was gravely injured. Before I left the office, the lawyer said words that I will not forget: “No amount of money will ever be enough for what happened, but it can lessen the burden.”
The lawyer did lessen the financial strain on my aunt and uncle with the compensation he received on behalf of my aunt and cousin. The compensation produced over 17 million dollars over John’s lifetime. I admired what the lawyer did for our family. He used his knowledge of the law to reach a settlement that allowed his clients to get what they needed, without fear of therapy and medical costs. Watching him be the voice for my cousin and aunt, inspired me to go to law school. I will advocate for those who are at the mercy of someone who holds a position of trust, just as that lawyer did for my family members.
One October morning in my freshman year, I woke up with blood in my mouth and purple spots starting at my neck, spreading down my shoulders. I had already seen a doctor at my university’s health center four times in the past week with complaints about the antibiotic he had prescribed me for a minor staph infection. However, each time I saw the physician he neither ran blood tests nor stopped the antibiotic that was causing these problems. By the time I made it to the health center that afternoon, the petechiae – reddish or purplish spots containing blood that appear in skin as a result of localized hemorrhages – had spread over my face and entire body and the sores in my mouth had worsened. Instead of being alarmed at my appearance, the doctor once again sent me home with the instructions to rest and take a Zyrtec. Despite the lack of concern expressed by the health center, my mother was convinced something more serious was going on and drove 2 hours to come to my dorm and take me to the nearest emergency room. I remember complaining on the car ride to the hospital that I would get behind in school and that this was a waste of time because the doctor at the health center said I was fine.
After a few rudimentary blood tests, the hospital discovered that my platelet count was 2,000 – dangerously below the normal range of 150,000-400,000 – and my white blood cell count was also extremely low. After many days of the doctors playing “House” trying to figure out what was causing my body to attack itself, they eventually diagnosed me with idiopathic thrombocytopenic purpura, an autoimmune disorder that causes excessive bleeding. It was a rare allergic reaction to the antibiotic I was on and if my mother had not taken me to the emergency room that night, I would have died. As I improved over the next two weeks, my family, friends, and professors still expected that I would take the rest of the semester off. Despite my near-death experience due to the my university’s medical neglect, I decided I would finish the semester. I had to have my health monitored and work hard to catch up in my classes, but I pushed through and made Dean’s List.
This experience is a prime example of my determination and ambition in my academic and personal life. My university acknowledged the medical malpractice on their part and fired the physician who was in charge of my case, but did not offer any type of monetary reparation. My parents did not want to sue my school and I was left powerless to deal with the aftermath of this situation which only fueled my desire to practice law one day. Even after my financial situation threatened to force me out of the University of Delaware, I persevered and forged my own path. I devised a plan to save money by taking some credits at an in-state school which would also put me on track to graduate a year early. I figured out what I needed to do in order to succeed and I did everything in my power to make those dreams my reality.
As I’m sure you’ve read from many qualified applicants, becoming an attorney has been my dream for as long as I can remember. However, the obstacles I have overcome and the strides I’ve taken to make this happen for me are far from ordinary and speak to the dedication, passion, and diligence I would have in law school.
Legally, I’m brunette. That’s what it says on my driver’s license, that’s been my hair color in every school picture, and that’s the color my mother wishes it would remain. The fact is, though, my hair has seen almost every color under the sun – red, black, maroon, and even blue streaks on a dare. And while I’ve come back to my senses and reclaimed my natural color, I can say with confidence that I have never, ever been legally blonde.
When I was thirteen, I stood up at the dinner table and proclaimed that I wanted to be a lawyer. My family applauded my decision, and since then, I’ve listened to the same Elle Woods comparisons that countless other girls have been subjected to since the film Legally Blonde first hit cinemas. I initially resented these intimations – I had no desire to be compared to the movie’s heroine, and I had difficulty seeing past her character’s many flaws. However, once I entered college and began to look away from the film’s superficial aspects, I took a liking to Ms. Woods. She sought out opportunities that were seemingly out of her grasp; she was intelligent and determined while maintaining her poise under pressure. I began to realize that when my life was compared to Legally Blonde, it was more than just a contrast of pre-law sorority girls: it was a positive reflection of my personality and drive.
I’ve always viewed myself as a headstrong, confident woman, and I haven’t let a lack of support or inexperience hinder my ambition. In spite of challenges that have stood in my path, I’ve never taken the easy way out, and I apply my perseverance to all aspects of my life. While three generations of my family urged me to follow tradition and attend Lafayette, I chose to attend the Honors program at the University of Delaware. My academic achievements, including the Honors and Woman of Promise awards, have proven that UD was the right decision. After arriving at UD, I was the only one of my friends who wanted to join a sorority – and, without an ounce of apprehension, I walked into the recruitment process alone and smiling. Three years later, I’ve planned complex events and welcomed dozens of girls into our “family.” Finally, I worked through scheduling obstacles and complex course requirements to study abroad in London during my junior year. This proved to be the opening chapter of a new volume in my life.
The experiences from my London semester have inspired me and altered the way I view everyday life, and I now see the world with a broader perspective. Whether it was an inside tour of the Bank of England or a lecture comparing political structures of European nations, immersing myself in international cultures has only reinforced the need for greater awareness of events and cooperation on a global and national scale. Furthermore, spending time away from the US has enabled me to take a more diplomatic view of current affairs and has heightened my desire for political involvement. Since my return to UD, I’ve joined public policy groups such as the Roosevelt Institute – and am thoroughly enjoying the challenges and triumphs of political discourse.
My past has proven that I’ve made a conscientious choice to remain honest and original, and while this choice is not always easy, it is this resilience and confidence that drives me to pursue my goals. Maintaining this passion and inspiration, and sharing it with others, is one of the greatest facilitators of change, and precisely why I want to study law. My experiences have shown me that enthusiasm is contagious, and I’m sincerely excited to bring my fervor for learning to <LAW SCHOOL>.
The precocious girl who declared her legal ambitions over a plate of lasagna still remains to this day, and with that forward-thinking attitude, she’s cultivated a dream and is willing to work beyond her barriers to achieve it. Although my history and choices are a far cry from those of our aforementioned golden-haired protagonist, they have one thing in common: an unabashed desire to stick to one’s integrity, individuality, and aspirations.
Atlantic City, New Jersey: the large metal doors slowly closed in front of me. I shut my eyes, clenched my fists and began to breathe heavily. My mom always told me to count down from five, so I started. 5… 4… 3… 2… Ding. We were there, the eighth floor of the Hilton Hotel. I had just survived another bout with the elevator.
Fairfield, Connecticut: huge raindrops fell from the dark sky. I pressed my nose against the window of my dad’s Chevy, feeling my chest tighten as I stared at the accumulating rainfall. The loud smacking sound of the rain against the side of the car made my heart pound as I prayed our car would not float away. Knowing that I was stuck there in traffic, I blasted my CD Walkman as loud as I could, to try to drown out the storm.
Liberty, New York: it was our first Fourth of July at our new vacation home. I heard a whistling sound as the first firework took off. I looked up at the sky with a smile, only to then hear a loud crack. Wincing, I looked back up at the sky. This time six or seven fireworks were shot off in quick succession, erupting in a huge boom. My mom saw me tightly pressing my hands against my ears and as I returned her gaze. I could see the look of disappointment in her eyes. I think she was really hoping that I could actually enjoy this.
Elevators, rain, fireworks, just some of the many childhood fears I lived with. I was afraid of nearly everything. Everyone told me my fears were just a phase that I would grow out of, but, by the time I was a teenager, they had become almost crippling. I became adept at keeping my fears hidden. That was, until high school, when I heard my class was going on an overnight trip to Howe Caverns. They were excited and so was I, until I found out that I would have to take a small, creaky elevator 156 feet below ground. I could barely handle the million dollar elevators in Atlantic City, let alone a rickety, old one in Howe Caverns. Without any explanation, I simply told my friends that I could not go. I sat home alone, thinking about how my fears were affecting my life, controlling everything I did. I realized that I had a decision to make. I could either continue to be a victim of my fears, or find the power within myself to conquer them.
I am now in college and am proud to say that I no longer have an issue with fears. Now a senior, for the past year and a half I have been serving as the Vice President of the Planning to Achieve Collegiate Excellence program for the National Society of Collegiate Scholars. The P.A.C.E. program mentors and guides underprivileged children who are struggling in High School, with the hope that they will continue on to college. More importantly, for the past year and a half I have been a mentor to Mikey. When we met, Mikey held a 1.8 GPA. He told me that he loved lacrosse and wanted to play for the University of Delaware someday. We talked about the importance of school and how he would need to improve his grades. Mikey then confided in me that he knew he was not stupid, but was just afraid of trying his best, yet still failing. When Mikey revealed this to me, it really hit close to home and compelled me to tell him about how I faced my own fears. I explained to Mikey that realizing your fears are holding you back is the starting point to overcoming them. Because I understood the position he was in, I told Mikey that he had to work through his fears and make progress within himself. I was able to connect with Mikey enough to motivate him to face his fears and get his grades up.
I continue to work with Mikey and am pleased that his GPA has improved to a 2.6. As for me, I am just proud that Mikey has benefited from my advice. While I do not know exactly what I will be doing after law school, I do know that I will meet any challenges that I face, head on and without fear. And who knows, maybe someday, Mikey himself will apply to law school as well.
I stood in the dark at the very back corner of the stage. I could see the outline of Rosa’s pink and purple hair that framed her face as she stood over the microphone, and Evan’s long, lanky figure slouched over his electric guitar. His hair, longer than mine, hung down like a sheet. They looked like rockers, poised to perform. My plain haircut, jeans lacking rips, and stiff stance gave me the appearance of an audience member who had accidentally wandered onto the stage. I placed my shaking hands on the keys. The lights snapped on. I was blinded, but it was time. I fumbled around on my keyboard and tried to move with the music. The moment I had so dreaded came closer with each note. I felt as if I was climbing to the top of a roller coaster. Suddenly, every instrument on the stage faded into the background, and the beginning of a terrifying descent commenced. I felt out a rhythm and started to tentatively run my fingers up and down the keyboard. Gaining confidence, I jumped in with a few experimental riffs on the high notes and played my way down to the soulful, lower keys, becoming increasingly oblivious to the audience. I was a classically trained pianist who had been thrust unnaturally into the world of improvisation, and I knew at that moment that I would never be able to separate my two musical worlds.
My turn to continue the family tradition of music arrived when I was seven years old. At my first classical piano lesson, my teacher placed her pet hamster under my hands to force me to arch them correctly and yelled at me through seemingly endless sloppy scales. She sent me home with a Hanon book of finger exercises and told me to practice. Over the next ten years, I labored over the Baby Grand my father had rescued from a cobwebbed corner of the basement at his office. I fell in love with the striking, robust sounds of Chopin and the beautiful intertwining melodies of Bach. I competed and won in endless competitions. I lived for the instrument and I loved to compete, but at some point, my passion turned stale. I feared that if I kept pushing myself further into the world of dry judges and uptight scoring rubrics, I would lose my joy of playing the piano. My furious piano teacher and perplexed parents wondered if I was experiencing an early quarter-life crisis as I quit my lessons to enroll in a small, dingy building tucked in an alleyway an hour away called, “School of Rock.” They advertised the opportunity to join a band of equally skilled musicians for six hours a week, plus two hours a week of private improvisation lessons.
I glided into a practice room on my first day, prepared to transition effortlessly into a new style of playing and show everyone how naturally music came to me. My beret-sporting instructor enthusiastically assigned me a minute-long keyboard improv solo in the song “Chameleon” by Herbie Hancock, the great Miles Davis pianist, for the upcoming funk show that my band was to perform at the World Café Live. I snapped into my classical competition mindset, and began to spend every moment of my spare time familiarizing myself with the challenging theory and rules behind improvisation. I excelled with the technical work and the specified rules that shared a surprising resemblance to my classical training, but in all of my determination to be the best, everything I tried to play came out forced, stiff, and always lacking in some element. Discouraged, I sat on the dusty floor one evening watching Rosa, our lead vocalist, spin around on stage and burst into laughter at the end of “Mothership Connection” by Parliament. Sitting there, I suddenly understood why my quality of playing had suffered so deeply. I left classical piano because I had let the pressure to succeed overcrowd my passion for the instrument, and I was experiencing the same issues here. I started listening to funk album after album for inspiration while I danced around my kitchen channeling the music. Two weeks before the performance, I made a beeline for my keyboard, turned on “Chameleon,” and started to jam, achieving an understanding of the music that had left me for quite some time and adding my own sound within the structure of the song. When it came time to play the show, I fell into a trance of euphoria and heightened focus, moving with the music I created.
My music has shaped me. From my classical training, I carry an unshakable discipline and the ability to analyze a single piece for weeks to uncover every detail and achieve perfection. My transition into improvisation made me flexible and open to new ideas. With this in mind, I hope to approach my legal education with the same experimental attitude that led me to a certain small dingy building, and the single minute on stage that altered me so profoundly.
The official sounded her whistle, the roaring crowd turned silent, and it was time to compete. I toed the starting line alongside my competitors and told myself, “you can do this.”
The September of my senior year of high school, I wrote down my goal for the upcoming track and field season. I wanted to be a sectional champion in the 400-meter dash. This goal was somewhat unrealistic for me. Sectionals was a competitive meet that took place in May, and although I had ample time to train, I needed to shave roughly a second off of my current time just to enter the race (let alone win it). In track and field, one second is an eternity.
While I wasn’t the most athletically gifted, I would work the hardest. My coach understood my work ethic better than anyone. Over the past three years, she witnessed my drive take me from a mediocre runner who didn’t make varsity freshman year to one of the biggest contributors on the team. She believed that with my dedication to training, winning sectionals was within reach.
I went to practice every day, hit the weight room three times a week, and did extra sets of crunches. I ran on the weekends when my coach wasn’t there to hold me accountable. I was on the track working out when it was a blistering 95 degrees and humid and when it was a frigid 10 degrees and windy. I consistently kept a training log to track my progress. September to May is a long time, and it was challenging to stay driven when I knew I wouldn’t see results for months, if at all.
My efforts finally paid off in March, two months before sectionals. My 400 time dropped over half a second. And then by May, eight months after writing down my goal, I was running fast enough to qualify for the race. Another step closer.
The 400-meter race at sectionals was a competitive field. Based on my best time, I was predicted to come in fourth. As I began a warmup jog on the day of the race, the nerves hit. Three of my competitors had run faster than me. These girls were experienced and decorated athletes who were expected to be in the race. Meanwhile, I was new to competing at this level and a couple of months ago I wasn’t even running fast enough to qualify. It suddenly became easy to doubt myself. But then my coach approached me to give a quick pep talk. She reminded me of the sacrifices I made and the countless hours of work I put in to get myself to this meet. “There is no reason you can’t win this”, she insisted. For the remaining twenty minutes before the race, I told myself over and over “you are ready and you can do this” until I believed it.
I got down into the starting position as the official said, “runners take your mark… get set…” and then the gun went off, signaling “go.” I flew the first 100 meters, determined to get myself into a good position from the start. By 200 meters, the halfway point, I was in third and feeling strong. But at 300 meters is where the race gets grueling. My quads and hamstrings were on fire and I could feel my entire body tensing. All I could think about was how badly I wanted this win. I sprinted as hard as I could the last 100 meters, refusing to give into my burning muscles, and threw my body across the finish line first.
Even though I’ve left competitive running behind, the discipline, work ethic and self-trust that I’ve learned from the sport has stayed with me. When faced with a challenge or a seemingly out-of-reach goal, I take action to improve rather than accepting where I am. When I took chemistry my freshman year of college, a subject I struggle with, my advisor recommended I drop the course because it was “too difficult for me.” Instead, I set aside time each day to review the material and took advantage of office hours. Getting a B in that course was my small victory. When I first joined Triathlon club, I barely knew how to swim and was incredibly uncomfortable in the water. I went to open swim hours for extra practice and can now confidently swim laps in the pool. I know that law school will present me with new challenges and goals, but I am prepared to take them on with the same determined mindset.
It was not merely my grandfather’s death that left the deepest impact on me, but the medical malpractice that caused it. When stomach complications developed after a minor heart procedure, the physicians maintained that all was fine. Meanwhile, an easily detected infection known as C. Diff developed and destroyed my grandfather’s body. When he suddenly died two weeks later, my family turned to the law. Although my grandfather’s loss will never be fully recovered, the ensuing legal process helped my family regain normalcy. Seeing the law at work has shaped me greatly and ultimately prompted me to pursue a career in law.
With my grandfather in mind, I explored law courses as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware. At first, absorbing the assigned cases did not come easily. I would read, then reflect, and sometimes read again. Determined, I practiced until I could decode key points in the language and separate dicta from decision. While reading the famous case of Palsgraf v. Long Island Railroad Company and discussing concepts like proximate cause and the “But for” or “sine qua non” test, which states that if not for the defendant’s negligent act, the injury would not have occurred, I recall making some revealing connections. As I connected these concepts from class with how truly foreseeable my grandfather’s symptoms were, the more I questioned his death. It was then that I knew I wanted to join the field.
To further explore my interest, I interned with a judge on Delaware’s New Castle County Superior Court, completing a project preparing briefs on hundreds of criminal offenders. While working on the project, I came across a copy of the North Dakota Law Review that reminded me of my grandfather. It read, “The law acts as a therapeutic agent. Procedures, rules, and the legal roles that lawyers and judges play during the process of adjudication are all social forces that create consequences.” Each brief from the project revealed people who relied on the positive, or negative, consequences of law to heal them. To this, I could personally relate. The hard work of my family’s legal team produced a “consequence” of sorts that made my family whole. Seeing the legal process both personally and also as an employee of the court has motivated me to become a prosecutor, as this role will allow me to facilitate the healing process. When using discretion to determine what to charge and to what degree, prosecutors speak for those who would have otherwise remained voiceless, just like my grandfather. Here, I can help others see, just as I have seen, how much the law can matter.
The exposure I have gained, both personally and professionally, has prepared me to invest in a legal education. But most importantly, these experiences will serve as motivators while studying law. If admitted to_________, I will commit myself to learning skills that intersect the needs of my community and use them to serve those like my grandfather who will come to need the law.
“Action!” Instantly I was swept up by the crowd on Canal street. Suffering from minor claustrophobia, I glanced nervously at my mother. Her gaze was locked forward, eyes full of ambition, fully immersed in the role. Not nearly as focused, I found my thoughts flashing between “Is Matt Damon looking at me?” to “MATT DAMON IS LOOKING AT ME.”
“Cut!” yelled the exasperated director, a crumpled script facing the wrath of his grip. Matt Damon peered across the street wearily at us, the vast sea of movie extras. The last thing I, the starstruck 15-year-old, wanted to do is disappoint Matt Damon. We filmed the scene at least five more times. We walked past a bus. A frantic Emily Blunt got on the bus. Scene.
“Starring” as an extra in the 2011 film, The Adjustment Bureau, is not necessarily something I brag about on my résumé. I am not listed as “Hormonal Teenager #56” in the credits. I did not get my big break. About a year later, I went to the movies to experience my two seconds of fame. There I was in all of my Ugg boot, fake-Burberry scarf glory. And then I was gone. An extra among extras.
Until college, I had cast myself as an anxious, apathetic extra in my own life. The extra friend/ “yes (wo)man” that was often taken advantage of. The extra clause in my parents’ divorce. The extra student in class, transfixed by a never-ending daydream as my fellow classmates raised their hands. Day after day, various authority figures told me “I had potential.” I didn’t care. I didn’t WANT to care. The apathy turned me numb. Numb to my dad’s suicide attempt. Numb to my grandfather’s death. Numb to my mom coming out to my family. I was just as passive as I had been in that herd of people on Canal Street, going through the motions.
I created The Numbness, a horror movie so disturbing it’d make Stephen King shake. I’d cast myself as the lead, but still felt like an extra. I’d lay awake for days on my lumpy mattress in a zombie-like state, eyes glued to the ceiling. That’s when it started to hurt. When the lump in my throat obstructed my ability to breathe. When my eyes welled up with tears I’d kept hidden for years. When I realized the façade of numbness I’d worn like a badge of honor is the very thing that drove those I love away from me. Then I realized… I had the power to yell “cut!” this time.
No longer a washed up child star, I now choose not to fall prey to the raging sea of apathy that can sometimes crash over the campus. I attend rallies on campus and encourage others to join me. I try to attend every guest speaker lecture I possibly can, regardless of whether or not the speakers’ beliefs coincide with mine. I no longer hide behind the shroud of my confirmation biases; I welcome information that may bring about cognitive dissonance.
Even some of the best actors and actresses in Hollywood take on bad roles. If Ben Affleck can be forgiven for Gigli, I can put The Numbness behind me. As I prepare for this exciting new chapter in my life, I will not succumb to the same apathetic whirlwind as I had in the past. So now, the stage is set. The lights are beaming.
Matt Damon may or may not have a cameo.
I was sitting in my 3rd period French class in 2008 at Cedar Bluff High School when there was an announcement.
“Allison Rugby, please report to the first floor office.”
The summons was from the Athletic Director, John Harrison, a lumbering man with a high-pitched Southern accent. For no good reason, we were all terrified of him. He stared me up and down with deep brown eyes. He took off his glasses, and pulled out several pieces of paper from his desk drawer. He seemed to be more nervous than I was. I don’t remember the exact words, but they went something like this: “I, uh, see you have signed up to try out for the ice hockey team.” More shuffling of papers. “You are the only girl trying out for the team, so we’re going to need to get permission from the school and from your doctor.”
I was 15 years old. I was just shy of five feet tall and weighed 90 pounds. The boys trying out were, on average 60 pounds heavier and towered at least six inches over me. I looked more like a ballerina than a hockey player. John wasn’t a male chauvinist; he didn’t want me to get hurt. But this is something I wanted. I played girls ice hockey growing up, and I was good at it, and I loved to play. Now I wanted to play with the boys.
My mother was furious – the boys didn’t have to get special permission from the school to try out for a sports team – but I jumped through all John’s hoops. During tryouts, I more than held my own, but on the last day, the head coach pulled me aside.
“Allison, I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re too small to compete with these boys.”
I was glad I had my helmet on, so he wouldn’t see my tears. At first I flirted with quitting. I stopped practicing with my girl’s travel team. If I couldn’t make the Varsity team, I didn’t want to play. But once the initial hurt was gone, I got angry. I wasn’t going to let one coach ruin my hockey career. I told myself I had a year. A year to get better and stronger. For the next 12 months I was on the ice at least 5 days a week. I had my own skating coach, and I was either running or at the gym every day.
At the end of the last day of tryouts the following year, the new head coach pulled me aside as I was skating off the ice. I thought to myself, not again. He put his right hand on my shoulder and smiled, something he didn’t do often.
He said, “So how about number 26 for you?”
The first person I called was my mom. I could hardly make out the words. “I made the team,” I said. She was excited for me, but not surprised.
It never got easy. When I was featured on the local news website, one reader posted a comment: “Girls like Allison ruin the sport of ice hockey.” I was a team member but I was never really on the team. When we traveled the boys shared rooms, I stayed by myself. I had to get dressed alone in a women’s lavatory stall while the boys shared a locker room. I was never made to feel part of the team. I was passionate about the sport, but could never figure out how to bridge that gap of belonging.
Playing with the boys had its rewards, however. After my high school career ended, I was given the opportunity to play on the women’s team at the University of South Dakota, where I became one of the team captains and led my team to the national tournament four years in a row. There was never any question about my belonging. In my first game as a freshman, I scored the game-winning goal. The senior captain handed me the puck and said, “Welcome to the squad, Allison.”
I was surrounded by the mixture of the Harry Potter theme song playing on my basement’s television and the winds that were blowing away people’s homes. Our plan was distraction through family movies until the crunching sound of our caving roof rudely shifted our attention. In one instant, Hurricane Sandy took control. I followed the faint screams of my parents through the smoke. Outside, my mother had called 911. “Ma’am, there are other homes far worse than yours right now. I am sorry, we are saving our evacuation vehicles for higher affected areas.” Behind her, I wondered how there were places possibly worse than the sight of the walls of our house collapsing.
The usually pristine streets of Westchester, New York, were barren except for tree trunks lying under fallen traffic lights. We pulled into the local Westchester Hyatt, which suddenly seemed less extravagant. We had no bags to empty, so were lead to our room with a pitiful look from the concierge. Room 201 had two beds, one bathroom, and a mini fridge. It smelled of those who stayed before us mixed with hotel laundry detergent.
Two years later, I was returning home for Thanksgiving break. The autumn leaves had changed color and the smell of winter was slowly approaching. The Westchester streets had returned to their polished state, cars were honking, and families were arriving. If I closed my eyes for one moment, it almost felt normal. I opened the glass doors to the hotel, went up the elevator, into Room 201. I was home. The small room held my mother, aged with anxiety, sheltering tears from my angry father. Their sadness and frustration with the seemingly permanent situation drowned their true personalities. My brother had become silent with his dreams once he realized that without a foundation at home, he didn’t want to go away to begin his collegiate journey. My family became as unrecognizable as the room that housed them.
I made it my mission to find those homes in higher affected areas that the 911 man spoke of. I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity at a site in Brigantine, New Jersey. The woman there, with eyes as tired as my mothers, smiled with joy as we removed the foundation of where her home used to exist. “Before Sandy, I had it made. And now I just want to be home.” She had so much hope in her eyes, yet with so little to hope for. She approached me in a whisper, acknowledging that she could tell I’d seen a scene like this before. I had never been so thankful for my hotel room as I did in that moment.
Losing control causes stress on relationships, society, and life. I personally saw my family deteriorate as they waited three years to be fully compensated for their losses by our insurance company. With strong backbones, I watched women who lost their homes and were losing control of their families power through without any promise of normalcy in the near future. I want to practice law to instill control in the lives of those who feel out of order.
Moving from New York City to a small Southern town of 7,000, I realized I was different. Although New York was incredibly diverse, I did not understand the true meaning of diversity until I experienced the lack of it in Swainsboro, Georgia. I remember Mrs. Zan, my third grade teacher, defining it: “Different, but good.” She then singled me out: “See, Amal’s diverse because she prays to a different God than the rest of us.” Religion was so deeply ingrained into the culture there that my God became more important than any other identifier. At eight years old teachers were asking why I didn’t go to church and my peers were convinced I was going to Hell. It was as if I was speaking my native Urdu when I explained countless times that I pray to the same God and Muslims believe in Jesus as well. I struggled to defend my culture and religion while simultaneously learning it for the first time.
At home, I fell in love with the beautiful stories of how the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) would treat everyone with dignity and respect, even those who doubted him and scorned his faith. The struggles of acceptance in my young life mirrored his journey as we were both living in a society where our faiths were rejected. I could only try to follow his example: stay true to what I believe in and everything would fall into place. Unfortunately, at the time I did not have the emotional strength to combat what felt like the whole town shunning me. It seemed as if “outsider” was written on my forehead next to the chicken-pox scar resembling the traditional Indian bindi. My childhood quickly became consumed with anger and confusion. I was angry that my father brought me to a place where no one could understand me, and I couldn’t fathom why my parents would work so hard to come to America and then move to this low-income rural town.
It has taken me ten years to understand why I spent my childhood in Swainsboro, and I realize that what most shaped me was not what happened in that little town, but why. Completing his medical residency in New York gave my father many opportunities, yet he chose to work at a federal health center to provide care for low-income populations. He saw a path that would make a real difference and nothing else mattered, not the size of his paycheck or where he would raise his family. His care extended beyond physical healing; I would go to his clinic after school and watch him not only work to mend his patient’s physical pains but also do his best to relieve some of their circumstances. With his help, my sister and I created a free pantry in the waiting room and over the weekends he would send us to help his older patients clean their clients’ homes. Growing up, these were not acts of service, rather, our father ingrained this into our way of life.
Although I was challenged growing up, I will forever be indebted to my father for showing me how beautiful it is to choose a life where I put others before myself. My experiences in Georgia have never left me; they’ve given me a perspective of my place in the world by giving me the opportunity to make a real difference in my community. As I’ve grown, I’ve dedicated my undergraduate years to learning about the barriers to social justice and legal care that are just as strong as the medical barriers I witnessed so many years ago. I’ve realized just how comprehensive these issues are; they cannot only be fixed by a good bill of health. Through a legal education, I hope to obtain a holistic understanding of deep real-world issues that will equip me with the tools and experiences necessary to break down these barriers and be a part of the solution.
In Swainsboro my father not only saved lives but he taught me the importance of using my education and career for a purpose greater than myself. I can only dream to make a fraction of the impact he has made as I pursue a career that will enable me to provide protections to the same low-income communities and marginalized populations I was raised with.
Once my father made us a dinner so unappetizing that my mother asked, “Is this Pol Pot, again?” It seems morbid to joke about the genocidal regime leader whose social engineering efforts resulted in the deaths of two million Cambodians, but it was my mother’s way of minimizing the trauma she carries. The grief that she and the other women in my life shoulder manifests itself in various ways: my mother copes with her insomnia by scrubbing every inch of our home, usually multiple times over; my grandmother mistrusts everyone outside of our family; and my aunts hoard as if shortages are perpetually looming. Most recently, they all stocked for the coronavirus pandemic with eerie calmness.
Witnessing the effects of my family’s undiscussed and undiagnosed mental health disorders, I continually attempt to make sense of my feelings of empathy and guilt. Family vacations, during which my parents shared most of their painful memories, were filled with equal parts excitement and mourning. It was difficult to enjoy Disney World knowing that my mother was not much older than I was when she was starved, overworked, and lost her father and two siblings. When I eventually learned about survivor’s guilt, I wondered if it could span generations. Just as my parents’ strength could be inherited, so too could their trauma and suffering. There are two sides to survivorship, but one of them is only shown in private.
Also passed down is the burden of injustice. To date, only three Khmer Rouge officials have been convicted in trials marked by corruption and delay, and countless lower-ranking ex-cadres will never face repercussions. Legacy projects – archives centers and memorials – have not been realized, and victims have not seen appropriate redress. As my grandmother’s bouts of amnesia become more frequent, I feel agitated for her and other aging Khmer Rouge victims, most of whom are not functionally literate and unable to record their stories. Without their accounts, education and memorialization are impossible, and intergenerational dialogue between survivors and second generation individuals like myself will continue to be stifled.
As a daughter of genocide survivors, I am sensitive to those who struggle to adjust mentally and culturally. My determination to serve people with experiences similar to my family’s, and to help the world understand what they endured, has shaped my education and career goals. With a law degree, I will be better equipped to create a platform of diverse perspectives, aimed at providing minority groups with social services and spaces where they can heal, gain confidence to tell their stories, and move forward.
In the beautiful Dominican Republic, smelling the sweet maduros cooking on the stove or watching people dance bachata in the street, I felt 100% Latina. Having traits such as darker skin and curly hair never dawned on me as something different, because I was surrounded by people who looked like me. Over 70% of the Dominican population identifies as Afro-Latin, and with a Dominican mom and an African-American father, I proudly consider myself Afro-Dominican, a term which acknowledges both my European and African ancestry.
However, when I would return to my hometown of Fayetteville, North Carolina after visiting the Dominican Republic, I am greeted with the same statement: “You don’t look Latina”. After hearing this several times, I began to feel alienated from my Latin culture. I grew up watching my telenovelas, which are popular soap operas primarily filmed in Latin America, often depicting main characters with fair skin and long wavy hair. I started questioning whether I could claim my culture because I didn’t look like the gorgeous Latinas in these shows. At one point, I refused to speak Spanish in public, and I straightened my natural hair so my appearance would align more with what the majority Latino community looked like.
After living in Northern Virginia’s diverse and inclusive environment during college, I now know I don’t have to identify with only one culture or one race. I am not Latina or African-American — I am both, and I am honored to claim two cultures as my own. Through my experiences as an Afro-Dominican woman, I realized that it’s okay not to fit a particular category. My culture isn’t shown in my appearance—it’s illustrated in the merengue music I listen to, the Latin dishes I eat such as La Bandera, and through the Spanish language. I hope I can help other minorities to not only embrace but to love their cultures, as I have mine.
A loud grunt fills the barbell section of the gym as I lock out 285 pounds on the deadlift platform. The room overflows with roars as my powerlifting friends shout, “COME ON, UP UP UP!” At this moment the gym becomes my second home and I am completely immersed. As I drop the bar on the platform it explodes like two magnetic forces that cannot be separated. I love the way the hand chalk dissipates in the air like magic, and the facial expressions are always at an overload from the strain of lifting several hundred pounds. Powerlifting is frustrating, terrifying, focus driven, and passion centered. For me it has created a platform where I am empowered to be a strong woman. But this journey has been anything but easy.
The first hurdle was my parents’ disapproval. My mother and father come from a traditional Salvadorian background where women do not lift weights. In their world, women do not even go to the gym regularly. Coming home from my first lifting session with my brother, I told my mom, “I did something at the gym today but don’t get mad.” She replied, “What happened? Are you okay?” I explained that I had decided to lift heavy weights with Jr., my brother. At first, she was puzzled, and she was concerned about my ankle surgery that I had the year before. One that had required multiple surgeries and steel plates. She was also concerned that I would not become a traditional Salvadorian woman. She recruited my sister, who said, “Won’t you look like a man if you lift weights?” Cue the concern for my slim physique turning into a massive hulk. It was very important to them that I looked traditionally feminine. Otherwise I would not get married, have babies, and create a household in the future.
A month later I made a video of my deadlift personal record of 225 pounds. My parents could see that my technique was proper and safe, and that my physique did not balloon into something that would infringe our Salvadorian customs.
My family’s concerns are allayed, but powerlifting continues to be the gift that keeps on giving and there are more hurdles, awaiting me like landmines. Men at the gym feel compelled to say, “Why is your stance so wide? You are going to injury yourself!” They cannot imagine that a woman could know anything about the powerlifting sport. They are speaking out of some misguided notions of what a woman can do, and I have learned to educate them. My intersectionality in being a woman, an abled-bodied powerlifter, and a Salvadorian have allowed me to continue to defy societal standards.
Storytelling is my ideal form of expression. My favorite medium is a bright red bus. At Revolution, I design and execute Rise of the Rest bus tours across the country, visiting five cities in five days, with the mandate to invest capital in and shine a spotlight on underrepresented people and places. In Memphis, I worked with a first-time founder using blockchain technology to properly credit minority sound engineers on hit records. In San Juan, I advised an urban farmer who was scaling her micro-cultivation techniques to reverse the rising trend of imported food to Puerto Rico. My position allows me to build platforms underneath of a diverse array of entrepreneurs in unexpected places. However, these entrepreneurs are not on a level playing field because venture investment disproportionately flows to founders who are white, male, and living on the coasts.
I also happen to possess all three of those privileged identities. And while privilege is not bad in and of itself, I do believe that I have a responsibility to change the standards by which society unfairly values aspects of my identity over others. That is a commitment I make to my future classmates at LAW SCHOOL NAME and to the broader CITY community. It is also a standard to which I have held myself to on my path to law school.
My personal viewpoint is straightforward – I see opportunity through the lens of geography, a perspective that has been influenced by Professor Raj Chetty’s research on intergenerational economic mobility. As a Plastino Scholar, I conducted policy research for under-resourced public-school leaders in rural communities in West Virginia and Illinois on how to leverage federal funding to provide free breakfast and lunch for all students regardless of parental income, replacing the harmful full- or reduced-price bifurcation. My graduate school dissertation showed how the circumnavigation of school district boundaries by upper-middle class parents is a factor in the rapid gentrification of one of DC’s poorest neighborhoods. And as a consultant, I bypassed opportunities to work with traditional clients to instead join a social enterprise in crafting culturally-relevant programs to increase safe sanitation practices in dense urban areas of Pune, India. In each of these place-based experiences, I have tried to acknowledge the privilege with which I come to the table and recognize how complicated geographic dynamics change the calculus when building equitable solutions.
I believe LAW SCHOOL has differentiated itself in making diversity a shared cultural value through what is said, written, and rewarded. The rich experiences of the students and faculty provide the ideal environment for collisions that result in new ways of solving complex problems. I hope to engage in that process because the value I have gained from a more contextualized understanding of the role of place in determining outcomes is ultimately a waste if just for me.
My elementary school classmates often asked me, “What’s wrong with your eyes?” I would respond with a shoulder shrug because I didn’t speak English well enough at the age of nine to explain. In middle and high school, however, I could explain, “I was diagnosed with Myasthenia gravis, or lazy eye, a neuromuscular disease that causes weakness to my eye muscles.” Myasthenia gravis is an incurable disease. The most obvious sign of this illness is having lazy eyes: my eyes wandered all over the place in their sockets.
I was 12 years old when my Argentinean eye doctor explained that he could correct my affliction with cosmetic surgery. He told my parents, “Yo lo puede arreglar con sirugia” (I can help her.) I jumped out of the chair in excitement and said “When can you do it.” After being mocked for so long, at last I had hope. What followed shattered me. My mother’s said, “No ella esta bien como dios la mando all mundo, vinimos aqui para ver lentes de vista.”(No, she’s fine how God sent her. We just came here for glasses.) I looked at the floor in silence the rest of the appointment. I was furious with my mother for denying me a chance to be normal, even though I knew that devout Catholics like her believe that fixing your appearance with surgery is a sign of having weak faith in God.
My mother brought her Catholicism from El Salvador when we moved to the U.S. Living under her strict regimen meant no sleepovers, no play dates, and no birthday parties. In those three years I changed. I became more hostile, sad, and lonely. My father noticed this and asked me, “Es por los ojos vea,” and I said yes, it’s because of my eyes. About four months after that conversation, and three years after my mother denied me cosmetic surgery, my dad said, “You’re coming to work with me, so be ready tomorrow morning.” When we got into the car, he said, “We are getting your eyes fixed.” I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that excited about anything. My life was finally starting!
When my mom found out what we had done, she was angry at my dad for going against our faith. She also said that if the surgery failed, I would be completely blind, and my vanity would be the cause. My dad and I ignored her. On surgery day it was only the two of us. After surgery I opened my eyes, and the doctor said, “I’m sorry, Melina, but the surgery was not successful. We have to wait for the swelling to go down and see why we couldn’t fix it.”
The pain of an eye surgery is horrific. When I would cry my eye bled, and it would hurt even more to know all that pain amounted to nothing. But I knew I had to continue fighting. After three weeks my dad asked, “Are you willing to put yourself through this again” and I said, “Absolutely, I’m not stopping.” The second surgery to fix my lazy eyes worked. And to my surprise, when I came out of surgery my mom was waiting for me. “You are the most resilient person I have ever known,” she said.
Last year I realized that I no longer had Myasthenia gravis. My doctor could not explain how this could have happened. In fact it was theoretically impossible. My mom was in the physician’s office with me at the time, and we exchanged glances. We knew exactly what had happened.
My father enlisted in the U.S. Army to escape life in Isabela, Puerto Rico. He met his future wife while stationed in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. My mother would climb a mango tree outside the Army base and watch the soldiers play volleyball. My father noticed her, and after dating for 6 months they married. My mother would find the opportunity of a lifetime when she moved to the United States with my father. She hoped her family could visit her here, but under U.S. immigration law they did not have sufficient ties to Honduras to ensure that they would not overstay their visas. She is still trying to bring them here, but in the current political climate, we doubt that will ever happen.
My Honduran family lives in poverty, so we regularly send them money. Also, I send sneakers to my little cousins because my aunts and uncles cannot afford them. Occasionally, I talk to my relatives on the phone and see photos of my cousins, but my father won’t allow me to travel there because Honduras is one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 have virtually free rein because the drug trade has given them so much power. As long as these gangs are in charge, I will never meet my Honduran family, and that is a tragedy for me and my family.
I visit my father’s Puerto Rican family every four years. In fact, I celebrated my 20th birthday with them. However, my Puerto Rican relatives still live at an economic level far below my own, so we regularly send them money as well. When visiting, we have to adjust to unexpected power and water outages and the absence of air-conditioning. Although Hurricane Maria struck in 2017, the damage to roads, buildings, and power lines is still widespread.
Experiencing what it’s like to live in these conditions has helped me realize how much I take my life for granted. At times I feel guilty because I know I have had opportunities that are denied to my cousins. After we settled in suburban San Antonio, Texas, where many white and Mexican families are very well off, I attended excellent schools from an early age, took dance and piano lessons, and went on family vacations to Italy, Hawaii, Jamaica, the Caymans, Disney World, and many other places. I understand that these experiences have been possible because of my parents’ sacrifices and hard work, which gave their children better lives than they experienced.
I understand that Hispanic women in the U.S. face difficulties. We are stereotyped as stay-at-home mothers, janitors, maids, or agricultural laborers, not as aspiring lawyers. Even my relatives are surprised that I plan on attending law school. Another issue for me is that discussions about the U.S.-Mexico border in my homeland security courses have been a sensitive topic. Most of my classmates support harsher immigration laws, as if they aren’t strict enough already. In one classroom discussion, only an African American girl and I opposed our predominately white classmates’ support for Trump’s border wall. These discussions are extremely uncomfortable since these laws have prevented me from meeting my Honduran family. In fact, most Hispanics are outraged by the way President Trump has demonized us, as if we are all “criminals, drug dealers, [and] rapists.” Hispanics can also relate to the pain caused by family separation. I am experiencing that right now.
Despite these concerns, I am lucky to be an Hispanic in America rather than an Hispanic in my parents’ home countries. However people label me, I am fortunate to have had my life, and I want to make my parents proud because of their unflinching support for my hopes of becoming a lawyer. I also want to challenge stereotypes about Hispanic women by earning a law degree, so I have always taken my academics seriously. In law school I hope to focus on national security law. My father was involved in security efforts with the military during the Cold War, and my brother now works for the National Security Agency. They have inspired me to pursue a similar career. I hope to begin that journey at the [X] Law School
I am a Female Muslim Lebanese Palestinian American. My mother’s family is Lebanese, and my father’s family is Palestinian. My paternal grandfather, Ahmed, grew up in Palestine. In 1948, Israel took over Palestine and forced my grandfather’s family to move to Lebanon and become refugees. Ahmed did not accept the lifestyle of a refugee, so he started working in hopes of moving his family out of the refugee camps. Ahmed began work as a delivery man for an appliance store but was not able to advance because he was not a Lebanese citizen. Eventually, Ahmed met my mother’s grandfather, who brought him into the family and gave him citizenship, so he could start working in Lebanon. My grandfather was then able to start a business buying appliances from manufacturers and selling them to customers.
As much as my grandfather suffered, he was one of the lucky ones that were able to get papers to work in Lebanon which allowed him to get his family out in time before the refugee camp massacre. The refugees who could not leave were killed in the Sabra and Chatila Massacre during September 16-18 in 1982. My father’s cousins were killed during this raid, but his aunts lived because the women and children were deeper in the camps. The militia was killing the refugees with knives and axes instead of guns to keep the slaughtering quiet. On the third day of the massacre, the militia gave up and started shooting. After the massacre, the camp was bulldozed, destroying any evidence of the killings.
My Palestinian relatives are still living in Lebanon as refugees because they were never able to get papers. The seaport explosion that occurred in Lebanon on August 4, 2020, left many of my family and relatives on my mother’s and father’s side displaced and living in the streets. I was lucky enough to get in contact with my aunt on my mother’s side to see if they were still alive because they live only a few blocks from the bomb site. I have a cousin around my age that should be getting prepared for his final year at college but is instead helping clean up the streets of Lebanon from the explosion.
After all that happened to my grandfather, he decided to move his family to Miami, Florida in the late ’70s in hopes of a better future and education that he never received. My father and his siblings all completed their bachelor’s, and my father completed a Master’s in Business. He worked as a food and beverage director for the Ritz in Miami. A few months after I was born, my father received an offer for a position in D.C. Months later September 11 happened and my dad lost his contract ending his hotel managing career. My dad, like his father, had responsibilities and mouths to feed, so he worked as a substitute teacher, a construction worker, a Sears employee, etc. to make ends meet. After six years of unsteady income and odd jobs, he was able to secure his current position in the Saudi Arabia Embassy as a consultant.
The biggest reason I can pursue law is because of my grandfather’s sacrifices. While I am grateful to an American citizen, I am proud of my diverse Arab heritage.
 The students whose work is represented here have given me permission to use their statements anonymously. To that end, I have removed any personally identifiable information in accordance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. While this has required changes in names, places, and certain details, the story elements and prose belongs solely to the students.