I could write now about the aspects of my life I am thankful for: my husband, five healthy children, two delightful, adorable grandchildren, my daughter’s recent engagement, a thriving business, work that I enjoy, and good health. I have done so in the past as I wished you a Happy Thanksgiving, a US holiday that is being observed today.
However, I would like to pursue a different approach this Thanksgiving and tell you a story of gratitude. Let’s go back to World War II Poland. The Nazi murder of Polish Jewry is underway. A young Polish Catholic woman, Natala, goes into a Jewish ghetto three times and rescues one teenage girl each trip. The first teen is my aunt’s best friend, Helena; the other two are my mother and her sister. Natala hides them, feeds them, clothes them, and cares for them. When she senses danger, she sends them to the family farm, obtains identity cards for them, and even finds them work. At the risk of her life, she saves their lives. All three survive. The young women recognize a profound debt of gratitude. And they act accordingly.
Fast forward. My mother and aunt immigrate to the US, marry, settle in Los Angeles, and begin their families. Helena settles in Argentina with her husband. All three send money regularly to Natala, and these monies make a material difference in her standard of living. When Natala’s daughter, Janie, turns 18, the three families arrange for Janie’s immigration to the US. In 1964, Janie arrives in Los Angeles.
With Natala so many miles away, my aunt, uncle, and parents guide and provide for the young immigrant. They give Janie room and board, arrange for her to learn English, meet young people, and obtain a profession. She becomes independent and meets the man of her dreams. Natala cannot come to LA for Janie’s wedding, so my father walks her down the aisle, and my aunt hosts the reception in the young couple’s honor.
The years pass. I’m not sure when, but at some point the three survivors apply on Natala’s behalf for the highest award given to Holocaust rescuers. Natala deservedly receives it. Posthumously. She knew she was going to be honored, but unfortunately passed away a few days before the ceremony.
Joe and Janie moved from Los Angeles in the early 1980s and recently settled in Florida. They have always expressed their appreciation to my aunt, uncle, and parents for sponsoring Janie’s immigration to the US: They keep in touch and go out of their way to visit when in California; helped my aunt when she was dealing with a terminally ill adult daughter and an invalid husband; and have for the last several years repeatedly invited the two older women to visit them in Florida as their guests. Last week my mother and aunt did exactly that and spent a great week with Janie and Joe in Florida. The hosts made sure that my aunt and mother had a wonderful time — showing them the local sites, hosting a reception in their honor, taking them to a concert, and arranging for them to meet a friend they haven’t seen in decades. While the plaque and medal awarded for Natala’s heroism hold a proud position on the wall of their living room, when introducing their guests Joe and Janie referred to them simply as “Janie’s sponsors.”
Gratitude expressed through action. As much as I value words, action amplifies the message. It is far more eloquent than mere phrases, however superlative. My aunt, mother, and their friend expressed their gratitude to Natala and subsequently to her daughter in ways that have reverberated for decades. Janie and Joe’s deeds also have conveyed appreciation, and again will continue to resonate when language ceases to echo.
What does this post have to do with application essays? With you? I have tried to illustrate techniques that are important to you in writing a personal statement or application essay:
- Tell a story. People like stories and respond to them. Adcom readers are people. Write anecdotally.
- Stick to your topic. I could write pages based on my mother’s war time experiences. I could write in more detail about my family’s relationship with Janie and Joe or with Helena’s family in Argentina, but doing so would take me away from my theme of gratitude expressed through action or make this post unnecessarily long. Throw out words, phrases, sentences and paragraphs that distract you and your reader from the topic (and make it harder to stay within the word limits.)
- Use detail. Use the particulars to illustrate your theme, especially if your theme relates to a value or attribute — something non-tangible — like teamwork, leadership, compassion, communications … or thanksgiving.