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Confessions of a Scholarship Winner
The Secrets That Helped Me Win $500,000 in Free Money for College
By Kristina Ellis
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2013 Kristina Ellis
All rights reserved.
I CONFESS ...
The Imperfect Life of a Scholar
The pounding on the front door echoed throughout our house, and I instantly knew I was in trouble. The towering figure in the window looked very angry. Tears began streaming down my face as I hid in the coat closet, fearful of my impending punishment. As a third grader, breaking my neighbor's swing set felt like an epic disaster. I was terrified, knowing she had come to my house to make sure I paid dearly for it. I pressed my ear to the door as hard as I could but still couldn't hear anything. Mustering up every ounce of courage I had, I slipped out of the closet and tiptoed over to peek through the open front door.
I was surprised and confused to see tears streaming down my mother's face. I had never seen my mom cry—not even after my dad's death just a few months earlier.
I'll never forget the haunting words my neighbor sarcastically said to my mom: "Go back where you came from! There's no way you can survive in the United States without your husband! Just take your kids back to Venezuela with you. At least there, they'd have a chance of living a normal life."
Thankfully, "normal" wasn't good enough for my mom. She took those searing words from an angry neighbor and turned them into ... motivation. Instead of being paralyzed by obstacles or defeated by circumstances, my mother accepted them as challenges. And in her mind, challenges are meant to be overcome.
Finding the Way Through
My life has had plenty of struggles, doubts, and moments of feeling I wasn't good enough to reach my dreams. Yet somehow I stand here today, realizing I am good enough and my dreams have come true.
On the surface, some people might call my story "luck" because, despite the odds against me, I beat them. People have wondered if maybe I was always in the right place at the right time. Oftentimes I was, but how did I get there? Did I stumble my way into success? Did I aimlessly wander until I had "arrived"? Absolutely not!
I learned from my mom that with hard work and the right strategy, you can achieve success no matter what obstacles are standing in your way. When difficulties arise, there is always a way through. Sometimes, you just have to keep trying different paths until the next step becomes clear.
My mom's determination and positive outlook helped shape my attitude and influenced how I handled difficult situations. She laid the foundation for me to be able to overcome the obstacles I faced growing up. Now I get to pass on to you not only the secrets to scholarship success that I discovered on my road to college but also some encouragement for whatever difficulties you might be up against. I can do this because by the time I graduated from high school, I'd battled and overcome some of the most significant challenges any young person can endure.
The very beginning of my story, though, was nearly perfect.
I was born into a wonderful, happy family. My dad was a small-town man from Vincennes, Indiana, who loved music and built guitars. My mother moved to the United States from Venezuela to go to college. My parents met at our local college—Vincennes University—and quickly fell in love and got married. A few years later, they had my brother, and then two and a half years later, I came along.
Though our family didn't have a ton of money, we were comfortable and happy.
Then, just as my parents were hoping to add a third child to our family, our storybook beginning took a terrible turn. My mom was awakened in the middle of the night by my dad convulsing in the bed next to her. In a state of sheer panic, she frantically dialed 911. Moments later, the paramedics swarmed into our home and rushed him to the hospital.
My dad had no prior health issues, so both my parents were completely blindsided when the doctors diagnosed him with a cancerous brain tumor. That night began a journey that no family ever plans on taking.
I was three at the time, but I still remember so many painful details. Dad's symptoms revealed themselves very slowly at first, but soon seizures and chemotherapy became part of our everyday routine. By age five, I was accustomed to holding my dad's head as his body shook uncontrollably in pain. Every week, we were in and out of hospitals, traveling to Indianapolis, Chicago and anywhere else that gave us hope for a cure.
It wasn't long before the cancer spread and he began to lose feeling in his left hand ... then his arm ... his left leg ... his face ... until half of his body no longer functioned and he was permanently bedridden. Ultimately, the doctors said it was only a matter of time, so my mom had him moved from the hospital to our home so we could spend his final few months together. We watched him slowly and painfully fight a battle that captured control of his body, diminished his mind, and eventually took his life. In his final moments on earth, I lay in his bed comforting him before watching him slip off to heaven.
At seven years old, I had already experienced life and death in a way many adults never do.
A New "Normal"
After my dad died, my mom, brother, and I were left to face the sobering reality of life without him. We were all emotionally distraught by the fact that he was actually gone forever. For years, so much of our family's energies had been centered on the fight to keep my dad alive. We'd been able to hide our feelings behind the many distractions his care provided. Suddenly, we each had a world of emotions to confront, with nothing to distract us.
That haunting memory of my mother crying on the porch as my neighbor declared, "Go back where you came from," happened in the midst of this low point in our lives. Unfortunately, our neighbor wasn't the only one suggesting we leave the country. Several other people had told my mom the odds were against us and we'd be better off if she'd just take us back to Venezuela and start over.
Despite these comments, my mom decided to stay in the United States and fight to keep our family afloat. Though moving back to Venezuela would have made life easier on her, she refused to pull my brother and me out of the only life we had ever known right after the tragedy of losing our dad.
That loving and courageous decision came with a difficult downside: my mom needed to work a lot harder to keep our family financially afloat now that my dad's income was gone.
My mother spoke very broken English at the time, which severely limited her work options. The only jobs she could get required long, laborious hours. Mom was often exhausted from working such long hours and trying to deal with the pain of losing the love of her life. My brother, who was just starting middle school, was also trying to navigate becoming man of the house—all while being heartbroken and missing my dad. With two hurting people trying to lead our home, I was caught somewhere in the middle.
We were in turmoil as we struggled to figure out our new life. Explosive arguments were common in our home. My mother and brother fought through their emotions, expressing them loudly and vocally. Meanwhile, I quietly tried to hold my feelings in. But emotions always express themselves somehow, and at some point in middle school, I started hating everything about my life. It all felt so out of control, like there was nothing I could do to fix it. So I started taking out all my pain and frustration on the one thing I knew I could control: my body.
Before I knew it, I had become self-destructive.
For years, I struggled through fits of anorexia, bulimia, and cutting. I learned how to mask my feelings and emotions in front of others, knowing I would soon be able to release the pain once I was alone. I would also sneak out of the house late at night and go walking through the scariest parts of town, convinced that if I could become strong enough to ignore the fear of dark places, I would be strong enough to ignore the pain of what we were going through.
Though I was probably clinically depressed at the time, I was never diagnosed or treated because I didn't talk to anyone about it. Finally, after countless tear-soaked pillows and family blowups, I convinced myself that the world would be better off without me. One night after my mom and brother got into a huge fight and stormed out of the house, I was left by myself. The hurt and pain felt like too much to bear. So I came up with what I believed would be the easiest way to take my own life.
I tightly gripped the bottle of pills in my hand and began to unscrew the lid. I said a quick prayer: "Sorry, God; I can't do this anymore. Please forgive me ..." And I began the final assault on my body.
Seconds before I reached the point of no return ... the phone started ringing.
I ignored the phone the first time, but it just kept ringing. I had no idea why anyone would be calling so incessantly at eleven o'clock on a school night, so I got up to check the Caller ID. It was my Aunt Tonna.
Worried that something had happened to my mom or brother, I answered the phone. Turns out she had called simply to talk and see how I was doing. She is someone I'd always looked up to, and since the two of us hadn't talked for a while, I decided to chat with her for a few minutes. I figured it would be my final good-bye.
Determined to complete my plan, I didn't tell her what was going on with me; I just tried to stick to small talk with her. Before I knew it, though, we were laughing and making plans for the next time we would see each other.
Somehow she drew me out of the dark place I was in. We talked for two hours that night about absolutely nothing—and yet in that moment, it was everything. By the time I got off the phone, I had completely backed off the emotional ledge I'd been standing on. I did want to go on with my life.
The next day I woke up to the sun shining in my window, feeling happy about my conversation with Tonna and imagining how much fun we'd have the next time we hung out. Suddenly, like a punch to the stomach, I was gripped with fear as the enormity of what I had almost done came rushing back. I was terrified by just how crazy I had let myself get and the finality of the decision I'd almost made. I was barely a teenager, and I had nearly thrown everything away in one dark moment.
Waking up and realizing how far I had gone—and what my aunt had unknowingly rescued me from—scared me straight.
From that point on, I chose to fundamentally change my thinking. Suddenly I understood that if I'd followed through on my decision the night before, I not only would have taken my own life but also would have destroyed the lives of the people who loved me. I started realizing how many blessings I had and all the things I had to live for. I even allowed myself to believe that maybe God had a plan for my life after all.
I decided to abandon my patterns of self-abuse and begin replacing them with positive ones. Instead of trying to hide from or numb my pain, I started journaling and confronting it head on. Instead of focusing on how bad I felt, I began helping other people who were struggling. Instead of walking through dark places to confront my fears, I signed up for sports and activities that challenged me to be genuinely fearless. Anytime I felt tempted to fall back into the patterns of self-destruction, I would fight to channel that energy into a positive activity. The change wasn't immediate or perfect, but slowly and surely I began setting the stage for a brighter future.
In the meantime, my mom realized that my brother and I had been seriously struggling. Convinced that our family wasn't recovering from our loss—and believing she could not help us if she was never around—she put in her two weeks' notice and quit her job. She then took her life savings and used them to turn our living room into a hair salon.
It really changed everything. We started learning to live and work together as a family again. Our home again became a place of happiness rather than a battleground. My mom became my brother's and my biggest cheerleader, encouraging and supporting us in finding things we loved to do. Most importantly, we began to heal emotionally and move through the loss of my father.
The one negative effect of my mom's decision to work from home, however, was that we soon fell below the poverty line. By the end of middle school, my brother and I were both working to help pay our family's expenses. We found full-time summer jobs working in the farmers' fields near our town. Though the work was hard, hot, and monotonous, we met really great people and found ways to make it fun. And even though finances were tight, things really started looking up. I can't say that life was easy, but for the first time since my dad died, I felt genuinely happy.
Figuring Out the Future
After my first day of high school, I came home and ecstatically told my mom every detail. We sat on the back porch, laughing about how I got lost after fifth period and barely made it to class on time. I talked about how excited I was about the next four years and all the fun things I wanted to do. Soon, though, Mom's expression changed, and her tone grew more serious.
"There's something I've been wanting to talk to you about," she began. Concerned, I sat up in my chair, listening intently. "It's about college," she said. "You have four years to figure out what you're going to do with your life because you're on your own financially after graduation."
Caught off guard by her bluntness, I sat back with a confused look on my face. I thought, Why is she telling me this? To worry me? What can I do about it?
As I was about to snap back, she said, "Kristina, I'm telling you this because I love you, and I believe in you. You are not meant to live in poverty your whole life, and I know that if you work hard, you can go to a great college and start fresh. The choices you make right now will impact you for the rest of your life."
Mom went on to tell me what little she knew about the steps I could take to qualify for scholarships. We started brainstorming different ways I could get involved and begin building my qualifications as a scholarship applicant. A lot of her ideas seemed outlandish—like going to an expensive private school for free—but she had such faith in me that I started believing in the possibilities myself.
We talked about ideas for volunteering, how I could get better grades, and what to do to become a leader. When we ended that conversation, I felt incredibly motivated and ready to start moving!
That day was one of the most significant days of my life, because it was the first day I really began to believe I could accomplish big goals and do something meaningful with my life. My mom broke it down very simply for me: "If you work hard enough now to prove you are worthy of a scholarship, you can go to college for free." That simple but powerful statement stuck with me. As hard as my life had felt up until then, that conversation gave me hope and set a goal I could work toward.
Not Just for Top Students
I had always thought of a scholarship winner as someone who was supersmart and got perfect grades. As a student with only decent grades and average test scores, I had assumed that scholarships weren't for me. But after the conversation with my mom, I did a little research and discovered this was not the case—there were many ways to prove myself "scholarship worthy." I realized I could appeal to scholarship committees outside of academics and still have a chance of standing out. So I set out to find activities I could excel in.
At first, I wasn't successful in a lot of the things I tried. In fact, I fell on my face more times than I can count. I lost competitions I had prepared months for, was coldly rejected for positions I wanted very badly, and I learned I was very awkward in any sport that involved a ball. Each time I failed, however, I'd evaluate what I could do to improve my chances of succeeding the next time.
I also soon realized that while some of my peers had more natural talent than I did, I was willing to work harder and longer than most. On an average school day, I'd leave the house at 5:45 a.m. for a morning run and then get to school early for tutoring with my teachers. I'd return home around 9 p.m. after a sports practice, club meeting, and/or my job. After many late nights and hard work, I started to see some success: I won two Junior Olympics gold medals for gymnastics, raised enough money to travel to Haiti for missions work, and became one of the fastest runners in my high school.
Excerpted from Confessions of a Scholarship Winner by Kristina Ellis. Copyright © 2013 Kristina Ellis. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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