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My heart started beating faster, my hands began to sweat, and my anxiety grew exponentially as I stared at the clock waiting for the UCLA admission decisions to be released. I had already been admitted to a few renowned private universities as well as all the other UC campuses that I applied to. However, my heart was set on UCLA. Once the decisions were released, my mom started praying for saints to intercede while I entered my account information. After a few minutes of crying and laughing simultaneously, thinking that I got rejected, my mom finally convinced me to click the login button.
The word “congratulations” popped up, and within seconds, my mom jumped with joy and gave me the longest hug I have ever received. Out of disbelief, I went back and continued to read the rest of the letter. I was speechless: my dreams were coming true. Five years ago, when the car rolled away for the last time from my grandparents’ lavish house in Cairo, I thought my life would never be the same.
My father planned our immigration in secret, and I promised not to tell my grandparents. However, I was ripped apart. I wholeheartedly believed I was ruining my chances of ever being successful again. Overtime, I learned that I was wrong. Leaving Cairo to come to the United States was one of the best things that happened in my life. I could not have been admitted to UCLA had it not been for the challenges I faced by moving across the world, the people I met in the United States, the strong foundation I had as a student, and, most importantly, the academic and financial resources I was offered in my middle and high school in America.
Ever since I was a young girl in Egypt, my parents and relatives asked me what I aspired to be when I grew up. They indirectly emphasized the importance of getting higher education daily. Teachers at my private French school, College De La Mere De Dieu, always had me write journals about my future career. They taught me at a young age that hard work is crucial regardless how intelligent one is, and that going above and beyond is a requirement, not an option. They also showed me that failure was a shame to be atoned for.
My peers and I were expected to attend college at the very least. In my culture, higher education is perceived as the only way to success, and success is the second most important priority after religion. Though inflexible, this mindset taught me to bury my nose in my books and never give up on my future. When I left Egypt and came to the United States, these values helped me cope and adapt faster. 48 hours after I was told we were immigrating, I found myself in a new world. Two weeks later, I was no longer part of the small French private school. Instead, I was now a student at an English public middle school in Burbank, California. I was no longer living at my grandfather’s 14-bedroom villa, but rather crammed with the rest of my family in a one bedroom apartment. I was sad, lonely and hurt. I hated myself for not speaking up and not telling my parents I wanted to stay in Egypt.
I could not help but wonder what would have happened if I had told my grandparents. I was in excruciating emotional pain, but my values made me determined not to let the circumstances break me. I decided to overcome bravely any hardship I had to face, whether it was social, economic, or intellectual. The minute I registered for school, I decided to speak up for myself, seek resources, and take control of my life, three lessons that are central to who I am today and why I am now at UCLA. When I joined John Muir Middle School, I was happy to learn about all the English courses they offered, as well as the informative high school and college workshops they held. Upon registration, I had to take multiple tests to assess my Math, Science and English levels. I remember the staff being impressed by my math and science skills; however, when it came to English, it was clear that I was not nearly as prepared.
My primary education has always been in French and Arabic, but I was able to catch up to my peers after completing three English language development classes over the course of a year and a half. Although disappointed that I was behind, I am now grateful that my middle school had such courses set aside for newcomers. If I had been placed in a regular English class at that moment, I would not have had any idea what the instructors were teaching. There was not only a language barrier, but also a cultural one that I had to overcome. I was shocked, not only because my peers could not understand my world and teased me about it, but also because I could not understand theirs. Everyone looked, dressed, and behaved differently than at my old school, but I was reassured by how caring, respectful, and understanding my teachers always were. In addition to having the necessary classes at John Muir, I was very fortunate to meet Ms. Kaye, an academic counselor that changed my life and helped me identify UCLA as my dream school.
When I got the form to pick my eighth grade elective class, I went to her office to learn more about what kind of elective I needed to satisfy. She ended up asking me about my story and my goals in life. And then, she started talking passionately about her college experience. Near the end of our conference, she invited me to check with her periodically and visit her for any questions, even if they were not school related. In addition to making me feel welcomed, she made sure to introduce me to Marina, another Egyptian student, who ended up becoming my best friend. Marina was thrilled to finally have another Egyptian girl with her in the school and so was I. She told me about the days where she would have spent lunch crying alone, and I was glad I was there for her and that I did not have to go through that myself. Ms. Kaye frequently checked on the both of us and always expressed how much she believed that we would both “achieve great things.” Her encouragement combined with Marina’s friendship at this transitional phase made me adapt to school faster, inspired me to keep working thirty times harder than others and helped me vividly envision myself attending UCLA one day.
By the time I got to Burbank High School, I had already learned through numerous workshops about all the courses and extracurricular activities offered. I had two goals in mind: to graduate in the top one percent of my class, and to get accepted to my dream school. Upon hearing my targets, my parents cautioned me not to be too ambitious, but I was determined. I was told that to make it to a good college, I had to have a high GPA and hold leadership positions. Thus as a freshman, I joined various clubs and volunteered in various locations, including the local hospital and the Boys and Girls Club. Although some of the clubs were enjoyable, the majority were chaotic and pointless. Nonetheless, I felt an obligation to keep going back to earn positions to build a stronger application. It was not until junior year that I took matters into my own hands and founded Psychology Club: an organization that I am really passionate about. Overall, I held over five leadership positions, some of which felt like a complete waste of time and effort.
Yet, I was too scared to jump ship and risk looking like a quitter on my application; therefore, I kept attending to the same mundane and pointless meetings. Extracurricular activities play a significant role in maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but I fail to see why they should affect the admission process. From a young age, I was taught not to flaunt any service I offer, but rather do it in humility and secrecy. However, when it came to college applications, I found myself doing the exact opposite and felt quite ashamed of having to sell how good of a person I am. In terms of my GPA, I took huge personal risks and full advantage of what my school had to offer. When I told my parents about my plan to take numerous AP classes, they hesitated and replied that it is better to be safe than sorry. When I told my peers that I was aiming for valedictorian or saledoctrian during my freshman year, I got a pity smile back. People’s reactions bothered me, but they also inspired me to work harder in order to prove them wrong. By my sophomore year, I was enrolled in two AP courses and an honor class. In both my junior and senior year, I was enrolled in five AP courses each and also studying for one independently.
Overall, I took 12 AP courses and earned As in all of them. By the time I graduated, I had the second highest GPA in the school and had been accepted to UCLA. I was only able to do well because my teachers were caring and experienced. They took the time to help their students in class, tutor over lunch, and hold extra review sessions before finals. They regularly guided their students and gave them online websites on which they could practice more to master the material. Meeting Ms. Bogramian, the academic counselor in the career center at Burbank High School, was yet another major blessing. She informed of ways I could afford to pay for tests and college applications as each came up.
Throughout my high school career, my parents, even though both college graduates, only had minimum wage jobs. Even though they wanted, they could not afford to pay 90$ for each of the 13 AP tests that I took. Fortunately, Ms. Bogramian guided through the fee waiver process, and I was able to get a significantly reduced price: 5$ per test. I am extremely grateful that I was able to take all my advanced placement tests that corresponded with my courses and get college credit for them. Over time, I developed a unique Mentor-Mentee relationship with Ms. Bogramian. I frequently went to her for support and advice for anything from family problems to schedule arrangements to college consultation. She later made sure to not only inform me about the SATs’ fee waivers, but also grant me the only scholarship she had for an entirely free SAT course. Having the opportunity to take all these assessments and earn good scores was essential to having a strong application. These scores helped me show universities how intellectually capable I was compared to other applicants. These results combined with my 4.6 cumulative GPA and the numerous leadership positions allowed me to have a competitive application.
No matter how much I tried to prepare in advance, I was still lost during the application process. No one in my family has ever attended university in the United States, and thus the process was quite challenging. Filling out the FAFSA, the scholarship forms, the Common App, the UC and the Cal State applications was hectic. I was overwhelmed by all the information I had to keep track of and the deadlines that I had to meet. I know applying to thirty universities was excessive, but I wasn’t letting any chance of not getting accepted into college stand in my way. In hindsight, it is obvious that I stressed too much, but that moment my dream seemed too valuable to let go of. When it came to writing my essays, I was terrified. I knew my English skills were not as strong as others. Therefore, I made sure my vulnerability and creativity compensated for that. I spent long nights staring at my laptop, not knowing where to begin.
Many had advised me not to write the generic immigration essay, but I knew my story was unique. Not including it in my application would be hiding a significant part of who I am and I refused to do so. For my other essays, I chose to talk about having to wear a plastic brace for my scoliosis and having to deal with anxiety issues. These essays were by far the most vulnerable pieces I have written. Against other advice I received, I did not try to make myself look like a flawless angel or a person who has miraculously transformed from facing a hardship. Instead, I was candid enough to admit that I changed over time and looked forward to continuing to improve. My essays were special because I disregarded what people said admission officers wanted to hear. In addition, I was also lucky enough to have two kind English teachers willing to read my drafts and give me feedback. I was blessed to have a school that had excellent financial and educational resources, a strong support system, and a team of knowledgeable counselors willing to guide me in my journey to college.
However, many other students are not as fortunate as I am. In the podcast, This American Life, hosts Chana Joffe-Walt and Ira Glass discuss in episodes 500 and 562, titled “Three Miles” and “The Problem We All Live With,” the inequality of the current system of education in America and its impact on underprivileged students. In “Three Miles”, Joffe-Walt, one of the producers, took the lead as the host interviewing teachers and students to discuss the impact of an “exchange program” between a poor public school and a rich private institution. However, the most shocking aspect of the episode was not the effect of the exchange program nor the reaction of any particular student, but rather the huge difference between the two schools’ both academic and non-academic resources. Joffe-Walt described the first school, Fieldston, as “an 18-acre campus on a hill… [that has] a dance studio, an art gallery, and a pool.” In contrast, an interviewed alumnus of University Heights High School, Ashleigh Wallace, called her high school “a shitty-ass school” (Joffe-Walt).
Although these descriptions may seem extreme, they are unfortunately not. University Heights is truly an ill-equipped school. It does not have any AP courses, a library or even a cafeteria. It is incapable of giving its students the education they deserve, and has consequently repeatedly failed to prepare many of them for college. On the other hand, Fieldston has been known to go above and beyond the expected to increase its students’ chances of not only getting admitted to prestigious universities, but also succeeding once they get there. As a result, it has had a long-standing reputation of producing many renowned politicians, journalists, and designers who have major impacts on their communities (Joffe Walt). The extent and the effects of inequality in the current education system were not only explored in “Three Miles”, but also analyzed in “The Problem We All Live With.” In Episode 562, Glass interviewed New York investigative reporter, Nikole Hannah-Jones, to discuss the corruption in America’s system of education. Hannah-Jones pointed out that there is a strong correlation between institutions’ demographics and their quality of education.
Through her investigation, she observed that “the bad schools were mostly black and Latino. [While,] the good schools were mostly white” (Glass). In other words, she discovered that underprivileged students, who needed the most help, were getting the least. Meanwhile, privileged students, who encountered a significantly fewer number of challenges, were given significantly better instructions. Glass vigorously defended Hannah-Jones’ claims by stating, “The US Department of Education put out data last year showing that black and Latino kids in segregated schools have the least qualified teachers… the worst course offerings, the least access to AP and upper level courses, [and over all] the worst facilities.” Given this atrocious quality of education, it is not puzzling that many students of color fail to make it to college.
In addition to their school’s lack of preparation, many of them tend to come from low-income families that do not have any college graduates. They start at a disadvantage and fall further behind the second they start attending an ill-prepared school. Advocating for a fair system of education is ideal, but not practical. However, calling for an adequate system is very realistic. Not every school has to have an enormous campus, a new football field, numerous well-funded sports teams or even fancy technological learning tools.
However, each single school has to have the academic and financial tools to support its students and prepare them for higher education. They all need to offer a wide variety of challenging courses, have well-prepared curriculums, and hire only caring instructors. College De La Mere De Dieu does not have many, if any, extracurricular activities, yet all of its students that graduated last year went on to pursue higher education. It does not have projectors, clubs, or rallies, but it does have clean classrooms, prepared teachers, and knowledgeable counselors. This institution focuses solely on the core function of a school and does not distract itself by adding any other variables. All their efforts are targeted toward improving education in the classroom. They leave leisure time and extracurricular activities for their students to practice on their own.
With a limited budget, all ill-funded schools should follow College De La Mere De Dieu’s footsteps. They need to cut the majority, if not all, their leisure funding and spend that money on quality education to ensure that more than a mere one-fifth of their needy students are prepared to survive college (Glass). Although students may be frustrated at the moment by their schools’ lack of “fun activities”, many of them will understand, upon their college graduation, the huge favor their schools have done for them. At the same time, we, as members of society, should lend a helping hand to underprivileged students. We should mentor them throughout their middle school and high school careers to ensure their success. One of the main factors that helped me succeed was having Ms. Kaye and Ms. Bogramian show the way and believe in me.
At a time when even my parents had silently given up on my education, these two magnificent ladies came into life and continuously reminded me that I can and that I will achieve my goals. Every student deserves to have that support system to counteract all the negative criticism he/she hears. Fortunately, many mentors can easily offer that support. In addition to directly helping the students, members of society also need to unite and demand for better funding of poor districts and stricter supervision. By attending well-funded schools, I was able to catch up to my peers in less than a year and excel beyond many’s expectations. Many bright students are forced to go to unprepared schools, and if given the chance of a good education, they could potentially excel and achieve great things. There is a possibility that some of these students have the capabilities, if nurtured properly, to come up with cures for diseases or invent the next pieces of revolutionary technology. By advocating for a better education system, society would be giving those inventors and their ideas a chance to reach their full potential Preparing for and applying to college is a stressful process. However, with the right guidance and the proper education, many can increase their odds of getting admitted. Even with all the challenges I had to face, I was still able to get accepted into my dream school.
Having exceptional counselors, trained teachers, and excellent academic and financial tools helped me overcome my hardships and achieve my goals. All students deserve to have a similar fighting chance for a brighter future. They do not need to have luxurious campuses nor division one sports teams, but they do need a genuinely caring administrative team and effective curriculums. However, until such systems are reinforced, it is up to each member of society to lend a helping hand and transform the unjust system of education, by mentoring one student at a time.
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