Of the more than 200 college application essays that students sent us this year, these — about an artist father, an affluent suburb, frugality and a family with no college graduates — were the ones we liked best.
High School: South County High School
College Plans: Virginia Tech
My father takes me down to the arroyo when I am so small that I do not yet reach his waist. My feet fumble across flaking desert skin and he pulls me along gently by my hand and tells me to be careful of small cacti and the bones of dead jack rabbits. He does not let me straddle the rift where the earth divides into repelling mounds of sand. Instead, he slips his hands beneath my arms and swings me around in a half circle, his red face wrinkling into a smile.
That morning, my father had crept into my room with the sun and shaken me into consciousness. “Get your sneakers,” he had whispered. “We’re going on a treasure hunt.”
It is minutes later now and we are trudging down an overgrown trail, tactfully descending the deep slopes of New Mexican land. Everything smells strongly of mud and salt and soaked manure from the horse barn down the road. I almost trip over a weed, but my father steadies me and says, “Almost there, baby.”
The arroyo is different than I have ever seen it. It is scattered with long, silver puddles. In the pink glow of the rising sun, the sand looks shiny and slippery. Around us, green tufts of vegetation burst from the earth in unpredictable patterns and yellow wildflowers with thin stems knock softly against each other in the wind.
My father tells me to wait and he steps down into the wet sand. I watch as his sandals sink deep into the ground and leave long footsteps. He crouches suddenly, and digs into the earth with a discarded stick. Then he stands, approaches me, and places in my hand something slimy and smooth.
“A pottery shard,” he says, in explanation. “From the Native Americans, who lived right here a thousand years ago. The rain washes them up. If we’re lucky, we’ll find all the pieces of an entire pot.”
I look down at the strange triangular stone and wipe the sand from its surface. He lifts me up in his arms, carries me back toward the house.
My father gives me a book about Georgia O’Keeffe for my fifth birthday. We read it together and he bounces me on his knee and licks his fingertips before turning the pages. He points at a landscape that looks like a rumpled tablecloth and tells me, “This is why we’re here.” I steal a flashlight and flip through the book under my covers at night. I touch the same glossy picture and whisper, “This is why we’re here.”
When I am 6 years old, the Sunday school teacher asks me what my father does for a living. I tell her he is an artist like Georgia O’Keeffe. I do not know that I am lying. I do not know that he hasn’t sold a piece in months. I do not know that my mother sits at the kitchen table after I go to sleep and cries because the mortgage is past due and she can’t figure out a way to tell me that this year, Santa Claus just might not make it.
For Christmas, my father gives me a sparkling blue stone he found in the arroyo. I say thank you and pretend I mean it. Later, I stand on the edge of our brick patio and wind up my arm and throw the rock as far as it will go. It disappears inside the bristles of a pine tree.
I do not say goodbye to the arroyo before shutting the car door and stretching the seatbelt across my chest. I do not say goodbye because I think that I won’t miss it. We are leaving New Mexico. We are going to New York where my father will get a real job and we will become a real family. We drive alongside a cliff, the rock rough and jagged and sprinkled with a thousand tiny diamonds. I press my finger against the glass. This is why we’re here.
When I am 16 years old, my father takes me back to New Mexico and we go once more to the arroyo. The neglected trail is long gone now and we stumble in our tennis shoes over dried up cacti and colorless desert flowers. I am too old now to hold my father’s hand. He walks a few steps ahead of me and I do not see his face.
The arroyo is bone-dry, littered with dented soda cans, beaten strips of tire and mud-stained garbage bags. Many monsoon seasons have left the sides of the arroyo tall and smooth, except for the dried roots of long-dead plants, still lodged in the dirt, which reach out toward us like skeleton hands.
My father crouches over and his shirt draws taut across his back. He delicately parts the earth with his fingers and searches for something that he will never find again.
“No more pottery,” he says. He looks at me and squints his eyes against the sun. “It must have washed far away by now.”
Suddenly comes to me the vague image of my father in ripped jeans, pressing a pottery shard into my palm.
I wonder if he, too, has washed far away.
Floral Park, N.Y.
High School: Suffield Academy
College Plans: New York University
My small body and head of curly hair trotted over to the refrigerator in search of some butter for my bread. I shifted some cans of half-opened Goya beans and the remnant of a brick of dulce de leche that had seen better days. After much shuffling, I spotted the big brown container of margarine. Carefully placing the tub on the kitchen table and readying for my “feast,” I opened the container. To my dismay, it was filled with arroz con pollo. My eyes tightened and my stomach made Chewbacca noises. Maybe I could mash the dulce de leche on top of the bread.
My finding was not a surprise. Rather it was lesson number 73 engraved within the book of Dominican-bred frugality. Why buy 99 cent storage containers when the products we buy already provide them for free? These lessons came in Spanish with the speed of a bull in a bullring. It is a struggle for immigrant parents to successfully pass on values of frugality to their children while living in a developed country with a perceived flow of plenty. But my mother’s iron will was the perfect match for those incongruences.
For a child, things like magic, fairy tales, and free MacBook offers make it difficult to grasp the value of money and to quantify the struggles that some families face to make ends meet. The collective hope is that through hard work and a miracle, one ends up figuring out how to make five dollars out of five cents.
This fervor to be frugal and purposeful is something that was passed down to me much like some families pass down an obsession with monogramming or Thanksgiving Day traditions. My trailblazing family’s thrifty efforts were legendary in our neighborhood. We started reusing and repurposing way before it was trendy. We made do with what we had and made what we had do more in order to awkwardly swim toward the Dominican American dream.
Frugality is a game, or at least we made it into one. A game of who can save the most money by turning off lights, keeping the heater off and going to the library when the apartment got too hot. A game of who could make a skirt out of a short dress or find a scholarship for swimming lessons at the Y.M.C.A. The act of conserving money, the audacity to solve problems no one has thought of before is what set my family apart. Together we share our victories in a little tribe of four Amazon warriors partaking in our own version of the show, Survivor: NYC edition.
The phrase “making do” could evoke connotations of stagnation and despair for some; but for me it is about understanding my situation and being proactive. The values I gained from being able to make do are unparalleled. Making do gifted me with resiliency and gratitude. Making do allowed me to internalize acceptance and to value effort.
Lesson 978 took place last winter. I woke up at home with numb toes. The temperature inside the house was evidently no different from outside. I questioned my seemingly crazy mother to which she replied, “Come cuddle with me.” With closer inspection, I found my two sisters under the covers. The average family can spend up to $1,000 on heating their apartment, but my home is already comforting in its own way. A small bed with too many people in it, arms and legs perfectly intertwined. It doesn’t get better than that on a cold morning.
The laughs we exchange keep me warm, my grandmother’s advice, sigue adelante, or keeping moving forward, resonates with me, the arroz con pollo in the butter container satisfies me and our love for each other fuels me with drive to excel. We make do everyday and through our doing and making I know in my heart, the best is yet to come.
High School: Suffern High School
College Plans: Manhattan College
The thought of achieving any sort of higher education has often been an overlooked, or just plain disregarded idea in my family for generations. I’ve come from a long line of ancestors that labored throughout life to make ends meet, often leaving school early to take up a job and support a struggling family. Only one of my grandparents even attended high school, let alone graduated. Both of my parents made it through, albeit barely passing, yet went straight to work, abandoning any idea of studying further due to poor finances, poor academics and a generally poor attitude to the sort of idea.
But I knew early on in life that they expected more of me, that I was supposed to serve as the outlier to the norm in my family and end the long line of subpar students, that I would be the one to further my education, and go on to do something more meaningful with my life.
The thought scared the hell out of me. And to be honest, it still does.
Because the thing is, I don’t know where I want to go from here. All my life I’ve never been able to give a response to that oft-asked question, “So Joe, what do you want to be when you’re grown up?” Had my grandparents been confronted with that same query, they couldn’t have answered simply because they had no choice in the matter. A Great Depression, a family of seven or a draft notice from the Army were among some of the more pressing issues at hand. They couldn’t answer because they had no other options. I can’t answer because I have too many.
Yet I want to answer that question. And I guess that’s part of the reason I’m writing this essay. I’ve accepted the fact that, right now, I simply don’t know who I’m going to be, and that it’s going to take some time before I can finally look around and think to myself, “I want to spend my life doing this.” But I’ve come to realize that college can serve as the catalyst that gets me there, the place where I can begin to learn and see the world on my own terms, and take advantage of the choices I’ve been blessed with the ability to make, when the same couldn’t be said about the generations that came before me. I know that with the freedom to study what I want to learn, I can pursue a career born, not out of necessity, but out of choice. I’ve been given the opportunity to change not just myself, but the attitude that my own family will have toward higher education, and the doors that it can open in their own lives.
Nevertheless, the thought of being the first in my family to attend college remains daunting. At times, I feel tasked with a responsibility of near-prophetic proportions, as if I’m The One to finally bring about an end to the decades-old struggle of “a lineage gone unlearned.” I’ve come to accept it as a challenge. And the more I think about it, the more I see it as something gratifying. It’s taken years of trial, but I will emerge as the outlier for my family. I will finally end the cycle for us.
The fear remains, but I’ve come to realize that the pride outweighs.
High School: Northville High School
College Plans: Stanford University
In 2015, Northville, the place I consider to be my hometown, was named the snobbiest city in Michigan. I prefer to describe Northville as reckless.
The more enterprising students of Northville High School specialize in the selling of three goods: marijuana, Adderall and test answers, all goods many of my peers don’t think twice about using. We’re from Northville. Most of us know nothing of consequences or responsibility for our actions, because our fathers can cover for us with cash and connections. We’ve been raised in such privilege that we feel enabled to say and do whatever we want, thoughtlessly.
Several years back, when the rap aesthetic was particularly prominent, most of the males came to school in ill-fitting jeans that sagged below their designer boxers, sporting T-shirts and necklaces that likely cost more than the weekly income for the average person, in imitation of their favorite rapper. They carried themselves like Eminem and spewed out Jay Z verses about being raised in extreme urban poverty and racism, before parroting their parents’ views on the “communist” welfare programs.
Derogatory terms for gays, the disabled and people of color are shouted in the hallway, right over the heads of people to whom those refer. From experience, I can certify that the administration does little besides halfheartedly admonish reported bullies and send them on their way to continue their reign of terror.
To my chagrin, I have occasionally fallen into a similar mindset. I once asked a friend, whose family I knew was struggling, what AP tests she planned to take. She replied that her family couldn’t afford any. I had forgotten how bad her circumstances were and had asked my question without thinking. I found myself victim to the disease that infiltrates Northville, the same carelessness I despise. Northville’s gilded bubble caused me to forget that some don’t have the luxury of affording even the reduced price of standardized tests.
Aside from being potentially harmful, this recklessness creates a sense of emptiness for me. Superficial, materialistic and shallow, we’re all too busy going on to the next thing, focusing on getting an A and not about learning the material, and getting our rib into a conversation without listening to what was actually said. Our sole aim is to keep moving. Where, how and at what cost are irrelevant questions to us, and thus we manage to remove all trace of purpose from our actions.
My most prominent goal has always been to leave Northville behind, to find a world in which people act consciously, aware that their actions affect others, and choose to delve deeper by asking questions and seeking legitimate answers that may differ from their limited understanding. In the meantime, I aspire to prepare myself by being more thoughtful, informed and, most of all, careful.