In October 2008, I submitted an application for a Masters program in Latin American Studies at Cambridge University. At the time, I was a bit lost in life; I was what they call a “super-senior” at UCLA, taking my last three General Education requirements during Fall quarter of a fifth year. I had already walked for graduation the June before and the future was oddly wide open, and incredibly empty to me.
Like many students who are “good at school,” I thought that a graduate program seemed like a reasonable idea, especially because 2008 was a year during which jobs for recent graduates were extremely hard to come by. So I opened a number of applications for PhD programs in the United States and, on the advice of a professor, I applied to Cambridge because of the opportunity to win a Gates Cambridge Scholarship.
While the application to Cambridge’s Latin American Studies program did not differ greatly from that of most global graduate schools, in order to be considered for funding opportunities I needed to submit an additional personal statement. The prompt was daunting:
In not more than 500 words, please describe below how your interests and achievements, both academic and extra-curricular, demonstrate a capacity for leadership, commitment to using your knowledge to serve your community and to applying your talents to improve the lives of others.
I was 22, and I had never really tried to articulate how my curiosity about foreign languages, Latin American literature, and film could demonstrate “a capacity for leadership,” or the ability to “serve my community.” But I gave it a go.
The statement of purpose I wrote and submitted to Cambridge on October 15, 2008:
I grew up in Oakland, California, one of the most violent and disparate urban communities in America. While I knew this as a child, I only knew it in a distant sense. I caught glimpses of newspaper headlines with phrases like “gang violence” and “high homicide rate.” I heard rap songs on the radio that referred to the infamous “O-town of the West,” or the area code “510.” Those were always funny references to my hometown, but they were words and sayings; they never felt like realities to me as I grew up.
To my great surprise, these newspaper articles, statistics, and song lyrics only became real to me when I left Oakland and America to spend my junior year abroad in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and then return home.
Before I arrived there, Brazil only existed on paper, in books like Peter Winn’s Americas, and on screen in films like City of God. The mesmerizing topography and diverse population of Rio de Janeiro were realities that I approached with trepidation. But after a year, I abandoned my preconceptions about the city and was even comfortable using unofficial vans, or kombis, to navigate my way through the chaotic and sprawling city. I overcame my fears and learned how to assert myself appropriately in difficult situations. Just as I had become comfortably aware of the realities of Oakland, I became inured to the violence and class conflicts that had frightened me before arriving in Rio.
With regards to this experience, the most educational and enlightening moments of shock came to me as I drove through Oakland on my way home from the airport. I had not been home for a year, my eyes were glued to the car window, and I saw everything differently. Though the terrain between the Oakland airport and my home is relatively flat, that day the socio-economic inequality was as clear to me as the diverse topography of Rio de Janeiro. To put it simply, there were houses with fences and window guards, and houses with large driveways and beautifully landscaped gardens. Through subtle markers and contexts, the issues and conflicts that had surprised and scared me in Rio were suddenly applicable to the scenery and media of my hometown.
Both of these experiences, of arriving in Brazil and returning to Oakland, are powerful instances of where academic or literary knowledge solidifies through the experience of real events. I want to know more about issues of urban Latin America because they are directly related to urban American issues. Emotional and analytical access to these socio-economic issues through literature and film is a bridge that I passionately want to extend towards students. Every person who enters a college classroom is profoundly privileged with the opportunity to see herself and her surroundings differently. It is my dream to inspire others to see education as an opportunity to travel, to experience difference, and to return home with critical points of view, and the desire to create positive change.
Here’s what happened after I submitted:
- On December 10, 2008 I received an email from the Center of Latin American Studies informing me that I had been accepted to the program and would be hearing from the Board of Graduate Studies shortly.
- On December 14, 2008 I was informed that I had made it to the finalist round for Gates Cambridge, and that interviews were to be held on February 7, 2009.
- After finishing my coursework at UCLA, I moved home in December, picked up a job as a waitress at a local diner, and started applying for office jobs in the Bay Area.
- And on January 1, 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was fatally shot by a BART cop at Fruitvale Station in Oakland, California.
How I was shocked during my Gates Cambridge interview:
During my 25-minute interview with the Gates committee in February, I was completely stunned by a question that one of the British members posed as a research question. It was something like: “Given that you propose to study Latin American film as part of your research, what do you think of the footage of Oscar Grant’s death?”
I was pretty much speechless when this question was asked, and I had a hard time composing myself. Footage of Oscar Grant’s killing was impossible to avoid in Oakland. The cell phone recordings of Oscar Grant’s death were also the first reel of raw film images that I had ever seen to depict the end of an actual person’s life. I had seen American History X, a movie in which a white man brutally commits racist and fatal hate crimes, but those were fictional images. Most of the films that I studied regarding Latin America were also made of fictional images. The footage of Oscar Grant dying was a visceral reality for me, and it came with weeks of rioting in my hometown, a series of incredibly tense conversations with neighbors and family, feelings of guilt about my whiteness, and a deep sense of helplessness about the world around me.
What I learned from writing my Cambridge statement of purpose:
None of those words came out in my interview. Overwhelmed with emotions, I just wasn’t able to express myself in that moment, and I tried to move on as quickly as possible. But since then, I’ve thought a lot about that question. In hindsight, the question was a genuine response to my personal statement, which means that the statement had been effective even before it became timely. Remember, I was selected for the shortlist before Oscar Grant was shot, but the setting that I created by observing my own surroundings in the personal statement is what allowed for the committee to connect with a reality that was still unfolding around me.
When I first wrote this statement, I was afraid it didn’t say enough about my achievements, past leadership experiences, or meaningful accomplishments. I didn’t talk about an obstacle overcome, I acknowledged my privilege, and I didn’t know anything about what the essay was supposed to be like. But after my many years of working with students from a variety of backgrounds on diversity statements and scholarship applications, I understand why this was a successful statement. All I did was observe myself in the world, genuinely and honestly. I described my relationship to Oakland from an insider’s eyes, and an outsider’s eyes, and that allowed the committee to learn about me within the context of where I grew up. Because I described Oakland from the eyes of someone just off of a plane from Rio de Janeiro, I gave the committee concrete insights that they couldn’t have surmised from the first sentence: “I grew up in Oakland, California.”
This is an issue that comes up a lot when I work with people on personal statements. Oftentimes the things that you know about yourself and your surroundings are so obvious to you that you forget to describe these insights to your audience. That’s your job in a personal statement, to explain who you are, what drives you to accomplish your goals, and why your current course of study matters to you, and others.
How to Write a Compelling Personal Statement
If you’re working on a statement like this and you start to wonder what it’s supposed to be, or what you’re supposed to talk about, tell yourself to stop asking that question. Instead ask yourself, what do you know intuitively about how you move in the world? How can you observe yourself so that someone else gets a glimpse of how you think, what you care about, and why you want to do the things that you want to do?
I didn’t end up getting the Gates Cambridge Scholarship, which felt like a blow at the time. But as a result of this same essay, I was shortly thereafter awarded a Cambridge Overseas Trust Scholarship for £10,000 ($17,000) which covered most of my tuition, and I ended up going to Cambridge and studying Latin American film. I also took away some incredible lessons from that interview, and those personal insights made the whole process worth it.
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