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These Young People Wrote More Than College Essays. They Wrote Their Own Stories

826 Boston Writers' Room coordinator Richie Wheelock (left) works with students at Boston International Newcomers Academy on their personal statements. (Courtesy 826 Boston)
826 Boston Writers' Room coordinator Richie Wheelock (left) works with students at Boston International Newcomers Academy on their personal statements. (Courtesy 826 Boston)

Editors' note: All names and some personal details in the essay below have been changed to protect the privacy of the students.

Almost immediately after taking office, President Biden strengthened the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump tried to repeal — a program that that affords some protections to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. That’s a great start, but inadequate to protect and support the incredible resource we have in immigrant youth.

For the past two years, I’ve gotten to work with a number of high school students as a volunteer in in 826 Boston’s College Essay Boot Camp, a program designed to help them craft the personal statement required to apply to most colleges and universities.

The first time I tutored — back when face-to-face, in-person sessions were possible — I was joined by two students. On my left sat Justine, a Brookline High senior planning to go to Bowdoin or Reed College. She had a laptop, a long tenure as an oboe player and a well-formed, sophisticated essay that extolled the rewards of her volunteer work planting grass in Madagascar and dispensing meals at a food bank.

Louisa, to my right, was a first-generation American daughter of immigrants from El Salvador trying to avoid reliance on the food bank. The first in her family to even consider going to college, her essay focused on what she’d learned from her work since 1st grade in the family-run taqueria in East Somerville.

Both kids were earnest, hard-working and delightful, but the differences in their circumstances underscored just how decisive both inherited privilege and the lack of it can play.

The money that Justine’s parents paid for her grass-planting experience likely exceeded the economic return of the new Madagascar meadow, and I expect that she would have been admitted to the private liberal arts school of her choice, even had it not been fodder for her essay. In contrast, unable to rely on legacy admissions, woodwind skills or an exotic resume, Louisa knew that to get into college — and earn the business degree that she hoped to use to help her family succeed as small business owners — she’d have to demonstrate her worthiness with the passion and polish of her words.

Since then, I’ve gotten to work with students at Charlestown High, the Margarita Muñiz Academy, and Boston International Newcomers Academy. In the dark days of the pandemic and the pre- and post-2020 election vitriol, these kids have been an unfailing source of inspiration.

Of the seven Common Application personal essay prompts that college applicants must choose from, the one many select invites them to: Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

That’s not surprising, given that how much adolescence can feel like swimming against a current of frustrations, insecurities and thwarted desires. But the challenges faced by many of the students I’ve met extend beyond unrequited passions, lost athletic competitions or uncomprehending parents.

As the work progressed, my role transformed from coach to witness, and what I was seeing was thrilling.

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These young people have left the familiarity of childhood homes to come to a new country, attend school in a new language, make friends from and in an alien culture, and — just in case there wasn’t already enough on their plates — contribute to the viability of their own families, by earning money and/or caring for younger siblings.

Ariana is representative of the kids I’ve been lucky enough to meet. When she immigrated to the United States from Cape Verde at the age of 14, she knew no English and was barred from speaking Creole in school. Lonely and isolated, caring for a younger brother while her mother worked second shift, she was depressed, mistrustful, and estranged from an American culture that seemed to value material success over relationships. Now, four years later, her life is still no bed of roses. But she has found ingenious ways to earn money to help out with the bills. She taught herself English and Spanish by listening to song lyrics and looking up the words in a mobile translation app. Her friendships are still few and unsteady, but her drive to go to college and become a lawyer against all the odds, is stronger by the day.

At the start of our first session, Ariana’s voice in the Zoom room was barely audible. But it got stronger and more confident as we worked together to elicit her stories, find the thread running through them, and — with the aid of the excellent student and tutor guides developed by the 826 Boston staff — assemble them into a powerful, coherent narrative. As the work progressed, my role transformed from coach to witness, and what I was seeing was thrilling.

[T]he differences in their circumstances underscored just how decisive both inherited privilege and the lack of it can play.

Ariana’s literary instincts were astute; she intuitively grasped the power of pacing and syntax, and was quick to see and correct lapses in logic. Within a matter of hours, she had gone from having a transcribed, stream of consciousness account of her struggles to a clear-eyed declaration of who she was and could be. Rarely have I worked with a student of any age so quick and committed.

Despite the fact that a Trump-appointed judge in Texas has put a hold on Biden’s attempt to put a 100-day moratorium on the deportation of most immigrants (excluding those who have criminal records), and the reliably obstructionist Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) managed to briefly postpone confirmation of DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, the new administration is prioritizing policies that will re-open our doors to refugees and create new legal paths to citizenship. That’s as it should be.

Before they start writing their essays, students are asked to come up with three adjectives that they want college admissions officers to feel characterize them. In my experience, these kids only occasionally say “smart,” despite the fact that after only a few years in this country they can say it in four languages.

No, the words I most often hear are “hard-working,” “strong,” “fearless” and “kind.”

If we as a country don’t value kids with those qualities, we don’t deserve them.

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Related:

Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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