ST. LOUIS • Right about now, aspiring high school seniors across the country are undertaking the vexing task of writing college essays.
Some will write about excelling in sports. Others might write about a trip or volunteer job that changed their outlook on life — all in an effort to show word-weary admission officers something vital and unique about their experiences.
But what if the events of your childhood — the things that so far have defined who you are and where you've been — are rooted in violence or homelessness?
What if your eyes saw things that no child should see? What would you write about?
In a computer lab at Roosevelt High School earlier this month, Cha' Kyha Walker typed slowly and quietly at a bank of black computers away from the other students also taking part in a nonprofit academic support program called College Bound. At times she stared off and then gazed back at the glowing screen. She was about five paragraphs into her college essay, an ending nowhere yet in sight.
It was the day "havoc took a breeze through the door," she had written.
And later: "There was a big puddle of blood on our living room carpet."
She was trying to make sense out of a drive-by shooting nearly six years ago that killed her closest cousin as he stood on her front porch. It happened at the end of a housewarming and family birthday party. The last normal thing she remembers of the night was him asking for some sunflower seeds. She was 12.
"It ripped my family apart," she said without making eye contact. "My family blamed my mom for it because they didn't want her to move to the south side."
College Bound is a St. Louis organization that aims to help the most motivated students in ailing urban school districts get into and succeed at selective colleges in out-state Missouri and in schools as far away as Maine, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Massachusetts.
The goal, says CEO Lisa Zarin, is to get students who have had so many hardships onto college campuses that have track records for helping disadvantaged students. Once there, Zarin said, the students receive continued counseling from College Bound as well as time to breathe, study and grow — away from the stresses and family hardships that can pull them down.
One of the most difficult psychological challenges on this long path comes when students such as Cha' Kyha — who hopes to go to Drake University in Iowa — must complete their personal essays on experiences that are often traumatic. College Bound's lead college adviser, Debbie Greenberg, said counselors didn't necessarily encourage the students to write about past trauma. But most ultimately decide to tackle those hardships because the experiences are a part of them and vividly show what they have had to overcome.
Yet confronting past trauma isn't ever easy, said Nancy Spargo, a clinical social worker who works primarily with children who have experienced street and domestic violence. It gets even harder when you decide to make sense out of it through writing, she said.
"Number one, you have to confront your past, and number two, you have to confront the impact your past has on you not only today, but tomorrow," said Spargo, the executive director of the St. Louis Center for Family Development. "You realize it doesn't go away."
Those past hardships often include losing parents to substance abuse or incarceration, overcoming physical and emotional abuse and spending time in foster care.
For many College Bound students, unearthing those painful moments is unavoidable because a personal essay is rooted in memories, sights, smells and sounds — details about their pasts that some would rather forget.
"I didn't like talking about it, so for me to have to dwell on it in detail and write about was tough," said Nyia Christian, an honors student at Roosevelt who has her sights set on Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts.
Nyia's mother was a member of the Army Reserves who for years had no stable home for her family when she was not on active duty. Sometimes they lived in shelters or were at the mercy of friends who would put them up.
"We were sure never to stay anywhere too long so that our welcome would not deteriorate," she wrote, describing her life as "a series of spontaneous events from the time I was born until I was 13."
Nyia learned this summer that she had been admitted into Mount Holyoke's Focus on Diversity program, which brings promising minority and economically disadvantaged applicants to its campus to introduce them to students and professors. But there was a hitch. Her family did not have the money to fly her to Massachusetts for the overnight admission event. She was unable to go, making the elite women's college even more elusive.
But Nyia doesn't want anyone to feel sorry for her.
"I despise self pity," she wrote in her essay. "This experience has made me the strong-minded and independent girl that I am now."
Her classmate Kevin Mangrum could have easily written about sports. He's the Roosevelt High School senior class president and a football player who helped the Roughriders make the state playoffs this fall. But success on the gridiron paled next to the heroic lessons he said he learned from his mother — through the shooting death of the father he idolized.
It happened when he was 8, and he remembers the call to his home with the news.
"To me he was like Superman, but he had no Kryptonite," Kevin wrote. "I looked at my father as an invincible man who couldn't be stopped by a few bullets."
Kevin's essay turned on a key realization. His father's fatal shooting had erupted in a drug deal gone bad.
"My father was a part-time barber and a full-time drug dealer," he wrote.
The real superhero, it turned out, was his mother.
"It's not a day that goes by I look at my mother and become influenced by how much of a strong, powerful woman she is," he wrote.
Students will learn in just a few weeks whether they got into their state college choices. Kevin has applied locally to Western Illinois University and Southeast Missouri. But he is also going to give Lehigh University, Marquette University and the University of Denver a shot.
The wait to hear from those more selective private schools will be longer.
In the meantime, the students have the power of their words to keep them on track. Spargo said those who successfully coped with trauma learned how to "own" their stories. They become the victor, not the victim.
So when the students were recently asked to read the final drafts of their essays aloud, their voices grew stronger on each sentence.
"My ultimate goal is centered on making my past just that — my past," read Nyia firmly.
Cha' Kyha, who had struggled through her account of the drive-by shooting, was also finally able to voice an end to her childhood story. She looked down at her essay, now printed on paper, then looked up and read:
"Maybe this situation occurred to teach me how not to let anything, now matter how hard it may be, to break me or keep me from what I am destined to do or become."
The following is one of two winning essays composed for the 2012 The Mary Cone Barrie Scholarship. The scholarship is one of few annual awards that recognize non-traditional students and their pursuit of lifelong learning.
My name is Moon Soe, and I am a junior student at Metropolitan State University, in Saint Paul, Minnesota, pursuing a degree in secondary mathematics education. This spring 2012, I am taking four classes at the indicated institute above while also working full-time during weekdays. I am planning to finish all my required courses in spring, 2013 and begin my student teaching in Fall 2013. Coming to Minnesota as a refugee from Thailand, I was so enthusiastic and hopeful to continue my education for a better life. I attended Century College as soon as I got my GED six months after I resettled in Minnesota. I was the first generation who finished a two year college, and I’m now working on to finish my bachelor degree. I am originally from Burma (also called Myanmar) and also an Ethnic Karen, one of the very recent immigrants in Minnesota and in many other countries all over the world. While living in a refugee camp in Thailand, I was hoping for a better life, but I didn’t have a choice or a chance. Sometimes I blamed myself because I felt envious of the world and people that had more opportunities. Living in the camp for 13 years, I thought I was never going to be able to continue my education, and I had so little hope when I thought about my future. However, I am really happy now that I could start to dream about my future in real life and not a daydream anymore. Working fulltime and going to school fulltime might be a little difficult, but in order to finance my family without giving up on my dream, I motivate myself everyday to have enough energy. I understand how it must have been hard for my family since they do not speak English and understand much about life process in the United States.
When I started college, I was very happy, but clueless. It felt amazing that I had the opportunity to continue my education, but I did not know how to make it through my first semester. However, I said to myself that I should grab this great opportunity, or it would go pass me. I looked up for supports from every resource I could get from college, and surprisingly I made it through smoothly for the last three years. I feel so grateful and honored that I am going to be the first generation in my family ancestry who is graduating from college.
Undeniably, I believe there are many people in the world that are in the same situation as me. Having gone through a hard time to survive, I would say it is fortune and hope that bring me to this life stage. At the beginning it was challenging for me to declare my major because the world I grew up is too different to where I am now. However, I always knew in my heart that I love working with teenaged children. Also as a student, I always love math and have great desire to enrich my knowledge in mathematics education. After assessing what my passions and my abilities are, I decided to become an urban secondary math teacher hoping I could help guide these wonderful children to grow intellectually and pursue what they desire to.
My interest in teaching began while I was teaching as a non-licensed teacher for almost two years at a diverse post-secondary school in the refugee camp. However, I felt bad for I was not able to provide my students with the best quality education because I was not well-trained but given the job due to community’s need. Then, since 2009 until now, having worked in an urban secondary public school in Saint Paul as an educational assistant, I really love my job as an educator. As a result, I would like to take a step further to become a good educator for the lifelong learning journey of the new generations. After I get my teaching license, I am planning to teach at an urban secondary school. I am also very proud to be part of community education and represent many Karen immigrants in Minnesota. Receiving scholarship would really help me graduate timely. This scholarship is not going to be just a financial support, but for me it is evidence to prove to my urban students as someone who was once hopeless now has accomplished something great.
My last hope is one day I would like to become a useful resource person in my Karen community as a professional in education. My fellow ethnic Karen has been fleeing war and became refugees for many decades. Many generations missed educational privilege. Many children did not have educational opportunities because of life they had to go through. I was once like these children and was not happy with my life. Therefore, I hope to be able to help make a difference in these children life so that their dream may come true as other children in the world.
To learn more about the Mary Cone Barrie Scholarship, please click here.