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From the Archives: The Millennial Class

Admissions essays from the millennial class.

3.30.17

Admissions essays from the millennial class

Admissions essays from the millennial class

Later today, the nearly 40,000 applicants to Harvard College’s class of 2021 will receive their decisions. Only a small fraction of them will be admitted. How do successful candidates pull it off? For a look inside the admissions process, Harvard Magazine in 1996 secured permission to publish application essays from students who applied to the class of 2000: what would be the turn of the millennium—a period not that long ago, when the number of people presenting themselves to the admissions office each year numbered less than half those who apply today. Herewith, a look back at that archival feature, published that fall, as the lucky freshmen appeared in Harvard Yard. The Editors.

By the numbers, today's applicants to Harvard College are spectacular. Among the 18,184 applicants for the 1,600-plus slots in the class of 2000 were 2,905 high-school valedictorians and 9,488 students with Scholastic Aptitude Test scores of 1,400 or higher. Numbers so spectacular become numbing. How to choose? While no one factor is decisive, applicants' writing samples "sometimes do give us that personal dimension," an admissions officer says. "The essay can reveal what a person genuinely cares about, and shows us that someone would be fascinating as a roommate or across the table in a dining hall, at the Crimson or working on one of those 35-hour-a-week theatrical productions." The essays also "hint at the incredible richness of the students' experiences."

As a way of getting beyond bloodless statistics to the students themselves, we present an unscientific sampling of their essays. These extend from a refugee's longings to a football player's dark secret, from a dog's take on life to a 13-year-old girl's immersion in a Chinese culture she barely knew. Along with 1,600 other voices, these writers make up Harvard's millennial class.

~ The Editors

A Place Called Home

"Shhhh!" my mother whispered as the tanks rumbled by under the cold Afghan night, the stars twinkling above the mountains surrounding us. From our hiding place in the brush along the shoulder of the dirt path through the Khyber Pass, I could see tanks stretching to infinity and, try as I might, I could not find an end to the convoy of trucks. Huddled along with my father, mother, and infant brother and sister, we peered anxiously as the Russian Spetsnaz scouts rolled past us in jeeps ahead of the convoy heading toward the Afghanistan-Pakistan border-the very place our destination lay.

My brother began to whimper. My mother began to pray. It seemed as if the line of tanks would never end. Finally, as the last of them rolled by, silence engulfed us. My father had been planning for months for our flight into Pakistan along the Khyber road and we could not stop now. Our nerves were frayed. We had not slept for three days since being smuggled out of the capital and the 15-mile walk across the border might have well been 15 hundred miles. My father stopped for a moment and fished a small, empty black pouch out of his pocket. He crouched close to the earth and paused, grabbed a handful of the dry, fine dust beneath his feet, and gingerly deposited a piece of Home into the bag. He straightened himself and brushed a tear aside with the back of his hand. I was puzzled. We walked on.

As dawn approached with a faint hint of turquoise along the horizon in front of us and we finally sighted Peshawar-the border village in Pakistan-in the distance, my thoughts were not of the next step in our journey, but of the steps already behind us. I knew nothing of war, politics, or Communism. All I could grasp was that I was leaving the only home I had known for the first three and a half years of my life for an unknown, an abstraction, a void that held neither the warmth nor the familiarity of my home in the suburbs outside Kabul. Behind me, just beyond the bend in the road and miles away, were my friends, my teachers, and the only feeling of security I had ever known. Ahead of me lay the worst kind of fear-fear of the unknown. All I knew was that we were traveling to a place called America. After an 18-month waiting period in Pakistan, we were permitted to enter the United States and on March 21, 1983, a plane carrying my mother, father, brother, sister, and myself landed at Los Angeles International Airport, completing our long journey.

Yet through all my experiences, the years have not wiped from my consciousness the memories of the final hours before our crossing of the border that cold September night. My father left behind our property and a house; my mother, likewise, her teaching career; and I left behind the familiar faces of relatives and friends. To this day, I can still remember playing on my swing set in our backyard during the summers, or going to pick apples in my uncle's orchard in the Maymana district in the fall.

But accompanying the loss of those old, sweet memories, are new ones made here in the United States: of going to grade school in Los Angeles, of going to the beach on the weekends and playing under the warm California sunshine, and of visiting friends and relatives here in this country. Without coming to the United States, I could never have had these experiences nor have found the worth and preciousness of a place to call "home."

Today, that pouch of a few ounces of earth that my father gathered during our last hours in Afghanistan lies on a desk in his study, reminding me of what I have lost, of another place filled with memories that I used to call home. But today, what I call home is in Orange County, California, half a world away from Afghanistan. Perhaps one day I will go back to see what is left after the years of war and strife and once again relax in our old backyard, or go to pick apples in an orchard in the Maymana district. But I will go back only to visit.

~ Walid Gardezi

The Harmony of LIfe

I am first in my class, an all-state football player, weigh 220 pounds, and can lift up small cars, yet I have a secret which I have kept hidden for years. It rages within me, yearning to break free and reveal itself in both shame and splendor. I can contain it no longer. I must shed my inhibitions and proclaim aloud, "So help me God, I love musicals!"

Until now, only my family and those who have had the experience of calling my house in the midst of one of my renditions of the confrontation scene between Javert and Valjean from Les Misérables knew about my passion for musical theater. For years I have endured ridicule from my sisters and their friends who have overheard me belting out the lyrics to "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof while in the shower. Ever since my first musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, seven years ago, I have been obsessed with the telling of stories through melody and verse. My heart leaps when I see that Phantom of the Opera is coming to the local theater, or when Guys and Dolls is appearing on television at one in the morning.

Music is the most beautiful and powerful way to relate emotion. Thus, the entire structure of a story is enhanced by presenting action and dialogue through song. The topic of a story can deal with anything from religion, such as in Godspell, to a ravenous man-eating plant (Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors), but no matter which, music brings to life a storyline and places a production forever in one's head by providing a harmony to be continually associated with it.

Musicals also provide me with an emotional outlet. When enthralled by a member of the opposite sex, I am wont to burst into a performance of "Maria" from West Side Story. After an exhaustive football practice, my lips chant "I'm Free" from the rock opera Tommy; and at my desk, feeling haughty after getting the highest grade on a calculus test, I sing quietly, "I am the very model of a modern Major-General," from The Pirates of Penzance. I can delve into the recesses of my mind and produce a piece fitting for any occasion, and I take pride in this ability.

While preparing this confession, a less musically inclined friend of mine happened upon a rough draft of the revelation. As he heartily laughed at me, he asked "Can this be? Can the fact that Michael Jacobsohn is both an academic and football colossus and a lover of musicals be reconciled?" I replied, "The bald, fat Marlon Brando of Apocalypse Now is the same Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls. Just as Kurtz and Sky Masterson are one and the same, so does my love for musicals reconcile itself with the other facets of my personality. It is unwise to stereotype, just as it is unwise to typecast." Inside, I shall sing forever.

~ Michael Jacobsohn

Death Happens Only in Movies

Brothers and sisters are rarely friends. Perhaps comrades and confidants, even inseparable-but rarely do they actually agree.

Take my sister and me, for example: she knew how, in my eyes, chocolate had no rival in the bliss stakes, so she'd wait until she knew I was salivating (every hour or so) and she'd filch it and feed it to our abjectly grateful dog. She loathed grunge music, so I, in retaliation, would play my raucous selection until it reverberated off the walls.

You get the idea.

But we were the only two girls in the family, you see, and very close. Although we betrayed each other's secrets on a daily basis we still told each other everything. Young and naive.

When I was almost four, I remember her gloating about her new boyfriend. I was indignant, invidious, so I got a boyfriend in revenge. Phantom phone calls, withered flowers in the mailbox, love notes posted to my door...until she found out "Jerome" didn't exist. I never did live that experience down.

Five, six, pick up sticks...the era of the bike. She got off her training wheels before me, so I let her tires down.

Seven, eight, stay up late...by nine, it was boys' germs, girls' germs...and according to me, my brothers had them with a vengeance. According to them, even germs would die if they touched me.

Nine, ten, friends again. I got pocket money that year, and I bought my own chocolates, but no matter how carefully I concealed them, the dog always enjoyed them more often than I did.

Just before her thirteenth birthday, my sister started walking funny, sticking her chest out and squeezing her behind in. She'd look at Mother cryptically, and ignored me completely. One day I found a tape measure discarded on her bedroom floor, and still I had no idea.

It was only when I found two triangles held together by a bit of elastic that I finally filled in the jigsaw.

It grew worse...she became moody...always yelling or bursting into tears. When I asked Mother what was happening, she said ominously,

"Your sister's a woman now."

How come she got to be a woman, while I was stuck being a girl?

Then, I discovered the opposite sex and knew what she meant.
My God, he LOOKED at me?

He caught my bus on purpose!

(didn't he?)
I found her information about boys invaluable. Our pre-bedtime discussions gave me a massive head start on all my uninformed rivals in the race to utopian couple-dom.

The summer of my fourteenth birthday, I began to notice more changes in my sister. She didn't beat me anymore if we raced, or slaughter me in tennis. In fact, she did hardly anything at all. She even became breathless walking home from the bus stop. She made me promise not to tell, but one day I accidentally let it slip. My sister was livid, turning white in a fit of pique and then crumpled into an exhausted heap. I crouched by her side, trying to help her up, but she brushed me off. As I got up, offended, and turned to go, I saw my mother's face blanch. I followed her wide-eyed stare with trepidation, and saw mottled purple and yellow bruises surfacing on my sister's arms, where I had clutched her. I opened my mouth to protest, but what I really wanted to do was bolt from the room.

Later that week my sister went to the doctor, from there straight to the hospital. From that afternoon on, I was adrift, lost in an ocean of bewilderment.
Waiting rooms,
taxis,
white walls.
Bone marrow transplants...me to her...Mother to her...someone to her.
Hair falling out,
drugs,
money,
injections,
no cure.
My once-glowing sister was fading away.
Waiting rooms, white walls.
disinfectant,

Wigs, blankets, shrouding a hollow shell, drained of life vulnerable.
Catheters,
injections,
money,
life sentence.
Remission...relapse...remission...
relapse.
The blank eyes shone once into mine, and slept.
People die only in the movies. This is not real this is not real this is not real.
Things truly named can never vanish from earth. In memoria tenebitur.
"A child, once quick
to mischief, grown to learn
what sorrows, in the end,
no words, no tears
can mend."

Months later, when I feel like eating again, I go to the pantry and there is a stack of chocolate.

I wish...it had been stolen...and given to our dog.

~ Pamela Ng

Mom

One of the biggest influences in my life is my Mom. She is one of 10 children born to an Appalachian coal miner who could not read or write. Her family lived in the mountains of Kentucky in a little cottage that had no running water and no electricity. She read by kerosene lamp.

As a child, she attended a one-room schoolhouse, which also had no electricity and no running water. There was one teacher for eight grades, and each row in the classroom was a grade. My mom says she liked listening to the lessons of the higher grades. There was a big, black potbellied stove in the middle of the room, between the fourth- and fifth-grade rows. My mom couldn't wait to get to the fourth grade so she could sit by the warm stove in the winter. She got her drinks of water from a big bucket in the back of the schoolroom. She would make a little cup by folding writing paper, and she would use a metal dipper to take water from the bucket and put it into the cup. She says the water tasted like the writing paper.

At Christmas, my mom's family couldn't afford a tree or presents, but they did get hard candy, nuts, and oranges. To help feed the family, my mom's father raised chickens. When it came time to eat a chicken, he would wring its neck, and it would flop all over the back yard before dying. My mother got attached to one chicken and made it her pet. She named it Miss Red. Miss Red would lay brown eggs, and my mom would collect them. My mom's father killed all the other chickens for food, and he tried to avoid killing Miss Red, but she was the last chicken, and the family needed food. He waited until my mom had gone to school, then he wrung the neck of Miss Red. My mom came home from school and discovered that Miss Red was cut up, fried, and sitting in a platter on the supper table. My mom cried and refused to eat Miss Red. Her mother gave her a nickel and tried to comfort her, but to this day, my mom can't eat chicken without remembering Miss Red.

As a child, my mom suffered through the death of her mother. After that, she was put in foster homes and was constantly moving from home to home. She was able to get through college all by herself, receiving scholarships and working part-time. She now works as an editor for McGraw-Hill books and takes night classes toward an M.B.A. She says, "Education is a lifelong process." I find it amazing that the daughter of a man who could not read or write is now a book editor.

One quality my mom possesses that I admire is her ability to persevere and overcome hardship. She has always taught me that my true dwelling place is in my mind, and that I have dominion over my thoughts. It is always important to monitor my thoughts and make sure they are positive. As a child, my mom thought a lot about the future, and she just knew it would be brighter. She says, "I wrapped my will around the future and pulled myself through."

Sometimes my mother remembers how she never had the things she needed when she was my age. She remembers how little love she got, and how embarrassed she was that she didn't have the right clothes and such things. Now my mom goes out of her way to make sure I have everything I need. She's a very loving, nurturing mother.

I once asked my mom how old she was when her mother died. She whispered softly, "I was 10." I try to fathom what it would be like if my mom had died when I was 10. I can't imagine, and I'm glad I haven't had to experience that.

I must admit that my mom and I sometimes disagree because we're both so strong-willed. Actually, my father affectionately calls my mom "just plain stubborn." But now I realize that her will had to be powerful to pull her through tough times. I am thankful that she taught me to be determined and to focus on the positive. She says those two things can help everyone survive.

~ Rachel Glover

A China Year

I had lived in Beijing for a year and a half at the age of four, and had attended Chinese nursery school. I had also grown up speaking Mandarin at home. However, I was not at all prepared for what met me the year we spent in Beijing when my father headed an international program for a small group of American students.

At the time, though I spoke Mandarin without a foreign accent, my vocabulary did not extend far beyond a grade-school level, and I was next to illiterate. Well aware of that, my parents, fond followers of the "sink or swim" theory, dropped me off at the local Chinese school the first day of classes and promptly disappeared.

In thinking back, I can honestly say that during the first few months I was completely in the dark both socially and academically. There were so many intricacies of the classroom that no one had prepared me for. I was shocked by the power that the Chinese teacher held over the students: the volume with which she scolded them even after they had been reduced to muted sobbing and her unceasing rhetoric about their duties to the ancestral land. I was shocked at the same time, however, by her extreme involvement in and dedication to the lives of the students. The relationships shared among the students were foreign to me as well: I had to get used to girls holding hands with girls and boys likewise with boys. Arguments were settled in the open, often with loud screaming and eventually crying. Nothing was suppressed.

I made all sorts of blunders, such as wearing my hair down, crossing my legs when speaking to the principal, or forgetting to stand when answering a question in class. Actually, the students greeted everything I did with laughter, giggling, and stolen glances in my direction. It took me so long to understand and accept the nature of that laughter. Gym class (or rather, military marching drills class) provided me with the ultimate chance to be a blundering fool. Though the students assured me that the teacher was speaking Mandarin, I could hear only a garbled shout of "Fragrance," followed by some vowelless consonants, while the others somehow heard "Face right and march." Of course, my being run into was not beneficial to the appearance of the drill. My favorite class, calligraphy, was taught once a week by an ancient man who spoke with an accent more foreign to me than that of the gym teacher. The students were astounded one afternoon at my callous behavior in response to his complimenting of my characters (Guo Lei poked me in the back with her pencil): they did not realize that I had no idea what the dear man was saying. We had math and language class each at least two times a day. In math not only could I not read the problems or understand the spoken terms, my math ability was so far behind that of the Chinese that I did not even know how to begin the problems which they practiced by the tens in one-minute speed drills. I was not used to being the dunce, and many tears were privately shed in our bathroom after school those first few months.

Of course, some of my classmates shed tears publicly. I remember the first time the teacher caught a student cheating on an exam. The student was screamed at until he was reduced to tears, whereupon he proceeded to tattle on numerous other kids. The teacher was pleased and complimented the boy for fulfilling his duty of tattling "for the betterment of those students." I was dumbfounded. Immediately, students began to stand, confess, and tell on others. A few tried to deny it, but they all knew that it was much easier to follow the "confess and tattle" routine. Within 15 minutes, nearly the entire class was standing before the teacher in tears.

I do not know how I came not only to function in, but to enjoy going to that classroom and spending time with the other kids, so much so that I did not want to return to American school. I guess it started with the teacher assigning me during the first months to blindly copy hundreds, thousands of characters to train my hand. Also, every night my mother translated my math problems to me and helped me to reach their level of math. Gradually, I began to fit in. I learned, after the second class, to put everything away and perform facial massage exercises when the theme of Love Story was blasted over the loudspeaker. I began to keep a weekly journal like the other kids, and to do the same homework they did. I learned to laugh with them at the funny occurrences in class, whether or not they involved me. In particular I remember a day in Communist Virtue class, when the teacher read the class their duties to their nation: "We must be loyal to our nation and try to associate as little as possible with foreigners. Of course, we must be gracious and polite, helping them when necessary, but beyond that, we ought to distance ourselves from them and help our own fellow comrades and" There was an embarrassed silence before she lowered her book below her eyes to hurriedly state before continuing, "Of course, we know that our classmate Pu Lan is exempt from this..." Several students turned their heads toward me and grinned. (My brother, in a similar class, had been asked to pass out little booklets entitled American Imperialism in China, although his teacher never mentioned them again.) I recognized from my own experience and from those of other foreigners that the propaganda and rhetoric of a government cannot be assumed to represent the common people.

By the middle of the second semester, I was completely integrated into the class. The length of the school day and the incredible work load became completely normal. I got As on the math tests, and wrote long essays with the others. I memorized the texts at the same rate and recited them in the same unnatural, passionate voice. The tone of my essays even matched that of the other students: a molded tone of awe at the beauty and bounty of China (and, of course, its Communist virtue). I had made numerous friends, three in particular who came to our dorm every day before our lunch break was over to talk and play card games. I participated in all of the class activities. I even understood the gym teacher. I had become as much at home as I had been in America. It hurt to leave.

Though we left China several years ago, my China experiences have never left me. Back in an American school again, I had to adjust to a "foreign" culture. Again, I had to deal with my reactions toward the mentalities and behavior of the students around me. Again, I was often shocked and frustrated. But I am glad I have two cultures.

~ Jennifer Pusey

Loyalty's Lament

To fetch or not to fetch? This question plagues
My waking mind. Would best the world be served
If caught's the stick, or is't more noble to
Ignore the proffered twiglet, answering
To none but mine own self? Oh woe! The strife!
These troubling choices tax my wit to end.
If not the stick chase I, might I not be
Displeasuring my master? He hath fed
And kept me warm through coldest winter's blows,
With naught a charge but hunt and track. What right
Have I to cast aside this small request?
To bite the hand that feeds me would be crime
'Gainst nature, fitting not th'established mold
Of thane to king. T'would be as if the pot,
Whilst lapped I at its pungent waters, were
To slurp me up and flush me down its depths.
To natural servant be, I must obey;
And yet, have I been natural to myself,
Denying primal instinct for a life
In tandem with domestic humankind?
My heart says no. The call of wilds is strong
Above the muffling dust of tameness which
Itself hath sprinkled lib'rally inside
Me. Honor wild's in pit with honor tame,
But no clear victor's in my sight. The stick
Remains a sticking point for me, untouched
Except by dogged contemplation. Oh,
To fetch, perchance to dream...or to mine own
Self true be I? My nose has drièd up
For taxing, painful thoughts which press too hard
And yet I know not if to cross the yard.

~ Jacqlynn K. Duquette

 

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