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“Hi I’m Joleen! I’m from Wisconsin! Where are you from?” trills the pretty brown-eyed girl in my dorm room. I sigh. I would love to have a simple answer to give her and, usually, when confronted with such a daunting question, I smile politely and answer some version of the truth. I try to read her. I wonder if it would be enough to give her the “I’m originally from Haiti” retort. This immediately evokes images of me as a little girl sitting at the kitchen table as my mother cooks “Grio” and laughs along to her Maurice Sixto tapes, relishing the Haitian comedian’s depiction of Haitian politics. When coming from a country like ours, it’s nice to be able to laugh at the folly of it all. This would be an honest answer after all. Although we left Haiti when I was one, my parents enrolled us into a French school in Maryland. We spoke French and Creole at home, I spoke French at school, I ate Haitian food, I listened to Haitian music; we even went back to Haiti twice a year every year—until things got really bad that is. I could always go with a different approach and tell her that I went to high school in Kenya. She might think of me as a world traveler. She might see me as riding matatus and playing with orphans, or, she could look at me as some diplomat’s child with a driver and uncanny sense of entitlement; unfortunately, back then she would have been right on both accounts.
The thing is, the world attributes who we are with where we are from, and so, for a long time I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know where I was from and so I couldn’t know where I was going. All of that changed when I got to NYU.
I moved to the big city alone while my parents remained halfway across the world in Nairobi, Kenya. I chose New York because in fourth grade, on a school excursion, I saw Les Misérables on Broadway and it changed my life. I moved to New York having lived a very contradictory life. On the one hand, I was quite privileged. The international community in Kenya lived in their own world with their own set of rules. On the other, I had always had a heart for children and had spent much of my time in a baby orphanage known as “The Nest.” I looked at these two-week-old infants, children of victims of rape who had died from AIDS and I had a piercing sense that something was not right; we were living in a world of disequilibrium and something had to give. I was going to change the world and I knew that I needed to go to New York; the same place that so beautifully told the story of a French orphan girl.
I had moved around before. I had lived in four places by the time I was eighteen and so I hadn’t expected the culture shock to hit me; you always get hit harder when you don’t see it coming. The city’s stresses slowly but surely took their toll on me. I didn’t know what I was doing anymore. Among the actresses and models, away from the slums and the injustice, my big plans didn’t seem so feasible anymore. It wasn’t until the second semester of college, when I joined a Christian fellowship on campus that my vision came back to life. I came to Christ that year and, later, with tentative support from my parents I moved into a house in the Bronx and became one third of the nonprofit organization A House on Beekman. We felt the biblical call to serve the poor and for us New Yorkers, Beekman Avenue was where we could do that. It was a far cry from the Kibera slums but it was the land of single teenage mothers who were victims of domestic violence. It was the place where dozens of kids had absentee parents and appreciated a healthy snack and a good story. These people weren’t as poor as the people in Kenya, but they were marginalized. I started to see the other forms of oppression that existed. My roommates and I began to share all of our clothes and as we grew in community, God grew our ministry. More kids started showing up for family dinner on Monday night. More “gang members” started calling us “Ma’am” and pulling their pants up as they walked into our home. Living here has shown me what it is to serve in the United States. God continued to grow my intolerance for injustice when I received an internship at an immigration law firm. We mostly worked with asylum cases and as I walked into the conference room wearing a suit, and sat across a girl my age who was being forced to be the fourth wife of a seventy-five-year-old or who had to undergo female genital mutilation to be eligible for marriage, day after day after day, something in me snapped. I decided I was going to law school. I decided that I couldn’t live a life that glossed over the gravest injustices of the world. I realized that I could hold orphans for months or give our Bronx kids healthy snacks for weeks, but that one day, I was going to die. One day, my roommates will die as will the lawyers at the law firm that I work at. I need to be a part of systematic change. I need to be a part of something bigger than the one life I have been given. I knew I was graduating in December, and so I applied to the International Justice Mission. I will be working there as the Human Rights intern in D.C. from January through April. My projects will be in Haiti, Ecuador, and Peru. I finally get to partner with lawyers who are changing the system from the inside out.
Through all of these experiences I finally realized where I was from. I realized that I am a child of God and a citizen of the world and this has led me to where I am going. I am going to law school. I am going to get a degree that allows my voice to be loud enough for all us world citizens. I am going to be part of the redemption that far outlasts the one small life that I have lived.
Admissions officers certainly see many tropes repeated in application essay after application essay. There’s the “overcoming adversity” story. There’s the “look at my passion” narrative. There’s the “I have finally discovered myself” reflection. Without a doubt, these archetypes can get stale, especially for someone who is reading them as part of their full-time job. The power of this essay arises from its masterful ability to synthesize those well-worn application genres into a compelling story of personal growth. One of the hallmarks of a successful application essay is the ability to capture the reader’s attention—to draw him or her out of the monotony of reading prosaic bullet points that do little more than list the achievements that already appear on applicants’ résumés.
While Anne-Valerie Prosper does not skimp on her personal accomplishments or her coming-of-age story, she takes those tropes and successfully brings them to life. Rather than account important aspects of her life, she grapples with them vividly, giving the reader a privileged look at both the details of her life and the lucidity of her mind.
Although Prosper does a formidable job integrating the various elements of her identity and development, she occasionally overextends herself. For instance, the reference to Les Misérables is accompanied by minimal interpretation or explanation. And the attribution “it changed my life” sounds odd and exaggerated, especially beside the compelling, real-world examples she provides. Of course, viewing the play might truly have been transformative, but unless the reader can understand and appreciate that influence, a reference like Prosper’s can cause more trouble than it is worth.
Nonetheless, after reading this essay, the reader gains unique insight into who this author is and what makes her tick. She isn’t as she lays out the case for herself, but she does impart a meaningful message all the same. There it is, right in the essay—impossible to pinpoint but also impossible to ignore.
—John F. M. Kocsis
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