When I was working with high school seniors, there would often come a time—usually early October, once I had come to know the family fairly well—when one or both parents would ask me an odd question: Is there such thing as a kid who gets in everywhere? The idiosyncrasies of the admissions game mean that very few students thread the needle at every school; and I will be honest and say that often the assumption is that such a student must be of color or unusual ethnic background.
The answer, of course, is yes. Many times I had the pleasure of working with students whose intelligence and talents made me eager for them to graduate college and start applying those gifts in a world sorely needing their help. But every now and then I came across an applicant whose accomplishment rattled me—someone whose capacity and exuberance across several fields said to a would-be teacher, not, Please help me focus, but rather, Here, look! Follow me. Sometimes, yes, these students were ethnic minorities. In this case, it was a white woman from the American West. She was accepted everywhere: Harvard, Yale, Williams, Amherst, Stanford, Swarthmore… She chose Harvard.
I’ve included her Common Application personal statement along with the supplemental essay she wrote for Princeton. If you’ve ever read about Harvard’s admit rate falling below 6% and thought, “Who the hell does get in?” read on.
“Chauncey!” From the kitchen window, I pointed our dog, a Lab mutt with no sense of direction, toward the squirrel that had been the bane of my organic produce garden all summer. It was under the net covering the strawberry patch, decimating our August crop. Chauncey dashed off in the opposite direction. The squirrel had escaped, yet again, and I was left with five fewer strawberries and a profound lack of faith in my elaborately constructed critter defense system.
Outside I sank my fingers into the moist earth, searching for the roots of a Canadian thistle that threatened to overtake the pepper plant. Everyone has secret passions, things they care about more than most anyone realizes. Mine is sustainable consumption. My obsession with everything edible started one afternoon in my first year of high school. After weeks of quiet, extensive research on nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and food chemistry and processing, I came home and pronounced myself a vegetarian. My family members, devout meat-eaters in the Wyoming tradition, were shocked. “You’re growing!” they lamented. “You need the protein.”
I’m not an animal rights crusader, but I am curious, inquisitive, and passionate—traits that manifest themselves in my food choices. Part of my interest in sustainable consumption stems from my knowledge of the ugly facets of the food industry: my research has led to increased awareness of the global perspective on food and how it lands on our tables. It’s sadly ironic that as the rate of food processing and worldwide distribution increases, the number of people dying of starvation in the world continues to rise. Meanwhile, the quality of the food that we eat has been deteriorating. As I continue to learn, I am further motivated to reform my own personal eating habits. The other component of my passion is a simple truth—I love good, wholesome, natural food.
As I worked in the garden, I considered my dietary evolution, from indifference evolving first into vegetarianism and then to my current state of quasi-veganism. What had started as a careful application of my love for biology has developed into a personal exploration. I am the girl who brings peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to pizza parties, the girl who proposed to the school board a change in the way the district looked at school lunches, the author of a vegetarian cooking blog, and the pioneering child who somehow convinced her parents to allow her to sow an organic produce garden in the middle of the backyard.
As ardent and committed as I am, it’s hard to philosophize about food and not find myself somewhat conflicted. A constant battle wages inside my head: “What am I doing? Is this worth it? What impact am I having? What does this accomplish?” Part of me thinks that I am being incredibly selfish; my dietary needs are difficult to accommodate, and it’s hard for my family to hear my constant expostulations over what we’re eating. The other voice, however, is a mixture of fascination with life sciences and food chemistry, my interest in nature and the miracle of the environment, and my desire to achieve improved health by going back to basics, starting with what I put in my mouth. The questions I ask myself help me to grow and to reach further understanding.
Deciding what to eat is one of the most fundamental choices a person makes; to choose consciously requires discipline, self-awareness and conviction. This notion of choice and personal growth is explained by my favorite word, eudaimonia, the name given to the foundation of Greek philosophical thought concerning fulfillment and happiness. Literally translated, it means “human flourishing.” The root of human flourishing and realization, the very root of change itself, is choice. Judgments I have made in my ways of thinking, and subsequently in my ways of eating, mark my growth as an individual.
For me, everything circles back to questioning—challenging pesticides, herbicides, farming, and food additives. I choose to be purposeful and inquisitive about everyday actions that to others are unremarkable. I refuse to lock myself into a certain way of thinking until I have explored all of the options. For me, the joy of learning lies in embracing eudaimonia. With food, as with my garden and many other things in my life, my passion for exploration will only continue to grow.
I returned inside, covered in dirt, to an admonishing glance from my mother. “How does your garden grow?” she asked.
“It’s flourishing,” I said with a smile. But turning to look out the window I saw a chestnut tail bobbing among the strawberries.
Princeton Supplement, Option 3 – Using the quotation below as a jumping off point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world:
”Some questions cannot be answered./ They become familiar weights in the hand,/ Round stones pulled from the pocket, unyielding and cool.”
– Jane Hirshfield, poet, Princeton Class of 1973
I leaned forward in my chair, taking notes as fast as possible. Along with the scientists of Pathology Lab 110 of the University of Wyoming, I was in a darkened presentation room listening to a lab report by a visiting researcher from India. Unlike them, I was at a loss in understanding what the researcher was talking about.
The slideshow ended, and the presenter fielded questions. Everyone was drawn into conversation. My mind reeled as I struggled to catalogue information about HIV and gene expression in a desperate attempt to formulate a question. I felt like a toddler lacking motor skills in a game of catch—I recognized that everyone else was catching the ball, but I was unable to grasp it as it came flying toward me. Feeling as though the answers were perpetually on the periphery was so frustrating. At school, I rarely experienced the lost feeling I did at the lab—the feeling that there was an entire world out there, full of answers, yet unfathomable to me.
Sitting at a biological hood in the HIV lab ten minutes later, I watched my hands whip around the workstation with practiced ease. As I dipped pipettes into jars of media, continuing a project on gene transcription that we hoped would help yield a cure for HIV, a piece of the lecture registered in my mind. Continuing to work, I was able to comprehend the meaning of the rest of the presentation. Then—a question. A flood of questions! I grinned as I realized that it was a weekly practice for me to fit the pieces of the puzzle together several minutes too late. I got up to seek out a fellow researcher for some answers.
When I was three, my mom threw me into a swimming pool fully clothed so that I’d know what it felt like to swim burdened by clothing. My experiences in the HIV lab remind me of that incident every day. When I started work at the lab as a junior, I was an eager research intern in an impossibly intellectual world full of scholars. I was curious—about health, disease, biology in general, and the research process—and I was completely unprepared for the world of real-life science. It was so hard to keep my head above water. I devoured papers and textbooks and copies of Science. At the end of the summer, the lab’s professor asked me to stay on—with a salaried position. I was ecstatic.
I love the lab. Drowning in academia has allowed me to define success and failure with improved clarity. There is no shame in harboring unanswered questions—that is what research is all about. The overarching question that I—that we all—strive to answer requires time and patience. What is the cure? I am accepting of this inquiry, but never complacent with it. Instead of being something to endure, it has become my purpose. I have shed my impatience, but not my desire to understand; I am exhilarated instead of discouraged by the unknown. Every day, I’m surrounded by people whose job it is to ask questions. I am absolutely hooked on this business of discovery, and fascinated by the feeling of being a part of something so much larger than Path Lab 110.
I now have graduate students working under me. At first, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. Then I remembered the swimming pool. I thought about what I had learned thus far. The first lesson, and the most important one? Dive right in, head first—heart first—with a willingness to drown. And then, just keep swimming. The journey is worth getting your clothes wet for.