An Open Letter to My Graduating Seniors

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It’s here. You’ve finally made it to the end. I’m proud of you.

And I’m not saying I’m proud of you because every single moment of every class period you acted like perfect little angels (we all know that’s not the truth). I’m saying it because…well…it’s easy to say now that you’re gone. Ha! Just kidding. No, really I’m saying it because all of you have so much potential and so much passion for life. I have had the privilege of learning so much from you; thank you for sharing your lives and culture with me. All of you have immense value, and you just completed a major milestone. You have finished high school, and you begin a new, profound journey to university, to your career, to the mysterious (and often scary) beyond. It’s amazing to me the impact and influence you might have as you take your passions literally all around the world. Some of you will continue to impact your home country, El Salvador; some of you will study in other Latin American countries; some in the United States; some in Canada; and one all the way in Korea!

I’m not sure if I ever shared this with you guys, but I was the student commencement speaker at my first undergraduate graduation. There are a million directions to take a graduation speech (I worked at a book store for a year in Boston, and we sold so many copies of Dr. Suess’ Oh, the Places You’ll Go! during graduation season), but I shared and briefly expounded upon two ideas. First, I read a few lines from Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road”: “Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road, / Healthy, free, the world before me…” (in fact, I wrote a longer post about this very poem here). I hope you feel that, that sense of adventure, that carpe diem, that grabbing the world by it’s tail. But I also hope that life is more than that. In my graduation speech I also shared the latter part of Hebrews 11 from the Bible. Of course Hebrews 11 is remarkable, the “Hall of Faith” it has been called, recounting the deeds of faithful men and women. But the last few verses  about the faithful are sensational indeed!

Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated–of whom the world was not worthy–wandering about in deserts and mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth.

And all these, though commended through their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.

Hebrews 11:35b-40 (ESV)

Rather a sobering passage to share in light of graduation, huh? But I say this because throughout history, the most influential men and women have understood that there is a greater law than individual success, money, power, and fame. Always a life worth living involves self-sacrifice (though I hope you never need to experience the physical torture and death that some throughout the world experience). From a Christian perspective, there is the hope of greater reward than what the world can offer. This creates the freedom to serve selflessly. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “If a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.” So what definition of success will you live by? What cause are you willing to die for in order to truly live?

Be workers. Be leaders. Be husbands, wives, fathers, and mothers. But don’t let popular, vain opinion dictate your definition of success and accomplishment. Some of the greatest servants and saints have been relatively unknown.

I’m proud of you. I’m excited for you. Now go and change the world.

 

College Kids (and applications)

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because Dead Poet’s Society is life

someone please save us,
us college kids!
what my parents told me
is what i did
they said go to school and
be a college kid
but in the end
i questioned why i did

-Relient K, “College Kids”

It’s the time of year when seniors are sending off some last minute applications and juniors are starting to realize, “Oh hey! I actually need to start working on this.” This is the same for international students. In our eleventh grade SAT/College Prep class here in El Salvador we are discussing/workshopping successful college applications. Sometimes the strength of the college application can be the difference between being accepted or being rejected or wait-listed (the university equivalent to purgatory). Now, college admissions seem to be trending towards Common App type essays–short essays on a wide range of creative topics–rather than one, general essay outlining the applicants’ desires and merits for applying. But the latter form of admissions essay still exists. Regardless, I decided to post on here the contents of a document I put together for my students compiled from various resources and successful applications. The document can also be downloaded here.

Maybe this could help someone you know. Maybe this is you right now. Happy applying!

Things to Remember When Preparing Your College Application Essay

  1. Be interesting

Creative. Attention-getting. If you are writing a competitive essay (of course there are universities with a high acceptance rate and the strength of the application essay is not that necessary for acceptance—but hey, why not “knock it out of the park” anyway?) JUST SAY NO to generic writing. What is generic? Well, of course application-readers are subjective, but no one wants to read some second-rate, copied-and-pasted Google search result. “I really want to study at your university. I’m really smart. You should pick me.” If that’s all you’re really saying, don’t waste everyone’s time by somehow turning that into 500 words. Finally, though statistics and quotes have been go-to attention-getters for years and years, I would recommend a better, post-modern approach: TELL STORIES! For example, instead of simply mentioning what you’re interested in studying, tell a story about how that passion was created in you. “When I was four years old my mom set me down in front of the television while she was cleaning the kitchen. It’s one of my first memories in life, but I remember staring entranced as ballet dancers glided across the stage, moving their bodies in a way I didn’t think possible. Ever since then, I knew I was supposed to be a dancer.” “If you’re not careful, your childhood toys might just dictate your future. I was sitting in my room with a brand new Lego set. Unbeknownst to me then, that Lego pirate-ship would initiate an unquenchable appetite for architectural design.” “I was dead. And then I was not. I had flat-lined, but the work of incredible doctors brought me back to life. That pivotal experience has created in me a desire to help others just as I was helped. I want to be a doctor.” This leads into the next point.

  1. Be personal

Application readers don’t care too much about how some random stranger has the sufficient grades to pass their classes. They want to know some special, unique individual will add to the rich cultural life of their university. Like the previous point, this is about telling stories. You don’t have to spend three quarters of your essay telling one long story, but you can weave in anecdotes as you go along. If you have unique life-experiences (maybe you’ve traveled lot) or you’ve overcome adversity or you come from a foreign country, the application reader should know that by the end of your essay.

  1. Be specific/concrete

Don’t just say you’re a hard-worker, a leader, independent, self-motivated, smart. These all sound great, but their just words until you can specifically state what makes you these. If you’re a leader, share that experience in which you led a group of peers for a shoe drive. Or mention that you typically take the lead in group assignments and get positive feedback for your contribution.

  1. Answer the question/prompt

This may sound like a no-brainer, but make sure to address the question or prompt. If you are supposed to write why you would be a good candidate for the university and you only discuss your passion for engineering and how great of an engineering program the university has, you have not answered the prompt. Now, one might deduce that your passion for engineering is a reason why you are a good candidate, but it is the applicant’s job to be direct. Don’t make the reader play guessing games.

  1. Share what YOU add to the program

This is related to the second point, be personal, but as you discuss strengths and such, make sure to share what you bring to the university that will enhance the environment. Do you bring a certain artistic creativity that is often lacking in engineering programs? How (be specific, remember)? Are you from another country? How does this increase the diversity and global atmosphere of the university? Let’s just be real; universities crave diversity. If that’s you, YOU BETTER MENTION THAT. But even if you’re not from another country, you have a unique, cultural heritage. For example, I went to a small university in a rural setting, but I graduated from high school in a metropolitan area. I brought to my university a more urban/suburban experience that was different than many of my peers.

  1. State your career goals

Don’t just stop at your desired degree; share your career goals. As vulgar as it sounds, universities are businesses. They want their “brand” to be connected to the success of their students. So how will your career goals innovate that job or academic field? How will it positively impact that region of the world? I have a student who wants to revolutionize the fashion industry so that products are always sourced ethically, solving a major industry problem. Competitive universities that have the ability to be picky want to choose the type of students that will help their image. Conversely, state specifically how the university helps you achieve those goals/dreams.

  1. Structure

Give your essay structure. Again, this isn’t a research paper, but you should still organize your thoughts. Below is a sample structure, and each new Roman numeral would make a simple paragraph break. Besides the introduction and conclusion, the structure doesn’t necessarily need to be in this order, but it needs to be organized and flow logically.

 

Sample College Application Essay Structure

  • (I) Introduction/Attention-getter
  • (II) (optional) Why the university is great

This one isn’t always necessary, but for some applicants there may be non-academic reasons to study at the university. Perhaps it is one of the most diverse student bodies. Perhaps it is located in a great city where there are a lot of cultural opportunities. Perhaps the architecture on campus was mesmerizing. Perhaps it is indirectly related to academics like a stellar library.

  • (III) Area of study
    1. Why it interests you (great place for a personal story)
    2. Career goals
      1. How the school helps you
      2. How you help the school
  • (IV) Strengths
    1. Life-experiences
      1. Extra-curricular school activities
      2. Awards
      3. Volunteer work
      4. Paid work
    2. Positive characteristics (be specific)
    3. Cultural heritage
  • (V) Conclusion

Here is a great place to tie everything back together and succinctly finish your essay.

 

 

Sample Application Essay (578 words)

You never know what might grab your heart unexpectedly. I’ve grown up reading and have always enjoyed it, but for most of my life reading has merely been a pastime, nothing more. That is, until the end of college—not the best timing. I remember staring transfixed at my friend’s computer screen as I finished watching—feeling!—an emotionally-charged spoken-word poem. I was fascinated at the power of language and art. Strangely enough, it was that moment that initiated an unquenchable pursuit of art and literature, and it is this reason that I am pursuing a second degree in literature at SNHU.

One of the greatest appeals of SNHU is its accessibility and support for non-traditional students like me. I have already finished undergraduate and graduate degrees in other fields, and I am working full time, so I need a program that will support this reality. SNHU does that. Not only that, however, but SNHU is one of the top online universities, so it was an immediate attraction for me. I know it will support my passion and my new career direction.

There are multiple reasons that I would like to study literature at SNHU. On one level, I am simply curious; I am a learner, and I want to gain knowledge in this area. I want to rediscover beloved stories that I’ve already read, and I want to open my mind to new stories, new manners of looking at the world. I simply desire to learn. However, on a more practical level, I hope to use literature in my future career. I have spent most of my life in various mentoring roles as a pastor and a store manager, and so the field of high school education has become very appealing to me. It allows me to combine both teaching and literature in a way that will better satisfy my vocational desires. I have already done the research, and there are various alternative tracks to obtain a teaching certificate after graduating from SNHU.

Though my journey to arrive at applying to SNHU has not exactly been normal, I believe that it is this very journey that makes me such a strong candidate for your university. My previous degrees are in religion, and though they are not technically literary degrees, they are still in the field of the humanities and compliment literature. In fact, I have already demonstrated my literary potential by obtaining a 4.0 in two graduate level literature classes. Furthermore, I was an academic honors student in my previous university, I was the student speaker at my graduation ceremony, and I was an award-winning speaker on our debate team. I have also traveled extensively, an attribute that will allow me to bring a unique cultural perspective to SNHU’s online community. I have always scored well academically, and I believe that I have demonstrated both my ability to thrive in a literature program as well as to bring a unique voice to the learning environment.

The arts are a dying breed. Science seems to rule the day. But there is a distinct community of passionate writers, artists, and thinkers that know that beauty, that art, will save the world, that it will add life and color and meaning. I am one of those people. Thus, I am excited for the tools that SNHU will provide which will equip me to grow in the field of literature and to pass on that same passion to the next generation.

 

At the Intersection of Books & Dreams

“I have come to believe that coming true is not the only purpose of a dream. It’s most important purpose is to get us in touch with where dreams come from…”

This weekend I watched a TED talk by Lisa Bu entitled “How Books Can Open Your Mind.” It’s a fascinating account of a young girl scorned from pursuing her dream (Chinese opera) and finding solace in books. Eventually reading also gave Bu the tools necessary to “re-start” her relationship with her parents. However, as the quote above points out, the ultimate benefit of reading in Bu’s life was not an actualization of her dreams but rather an actualization of her identity.

Through reading we live a thousand lives, and I believe that by surveying those multitudes we better understand our own. Books empower and they teach and they console. And in a sense, they allow us to live out those lives that our world won’t allow (our dreams). Furthermore, as Bu points out, even shattered dreams can help us understand ourselves better. Therefore (motivational soap box), find your dreams, find your books, find your dreams (yes, it’s cyclical). Even in the pursuit of understanding a dream realized or a dream dreamed, you will find yourself more deeply I believe.

PS Check out this 6:16 video in full:

That’s Not Old English! (how to act like a total tool…and enjoy doing it!)

You know the person…the type of person who tries to act so sophisticated, like they know everything. They’re the people who say “That’s sooo bourgeois.” You know, like this…

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And yet, all of us secretly enjoy when we’re the overly smart ones. When we can stop someone and say, “Actually, you’re wrong…” with our noses in the air (okay, let’s not put our noses in the air). So, if you’ve always desired this kind of moment, here’s a great piece of trivia to flaunt in someone’s face.

SHAKESPEARE IS NOT OLD ENGLISH. And if Shakespeare is not Old English, then Dickens and Austen most certainly don’t fit in that category. I have heard many times how somebody was turned off because they didn’t realize the book was written in Old English (actually, I saw this on a book blog recently…gasp!). So if you hear someone say that, prick your ears up because they’re probably wrong.

The most important piece of Old English literature is Beowulf, our oldest manuscript being from around 1000 CE (the story itself probably far older). Old English is basically unreadable to English speakers today.

Not only is Old English unrecognizable, even Middle English (e.g. The Canterbury Tales written in the late 14th century) is extremely difficult for most modern readers.

Shakespeare was actually writing in early modern English while authors such as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were writing in late modern English.

So there you go! Go sound smart with your friends…

And when you have a chance, check out this awesome interactive resource put out by the BBC (HERE).

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The “American Dream” in a Cross-cultural Context

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“Has US literature woken from the American Dream?” is the name of a books blog article put out by The Guardian last year. The author recounts his perusal of an American art gallery in which he was “struck by this wilful avoidance of darker, pressing realities. Art preferred to revel in a certain pastoral romanticism that seemed to promise the limitless expansion of the American dream.” In the proceeding paragraph, though, he makes a different statement about American literature:

“Literature, on the other hand, has always taken a more complicated and occasionally far more direct, moralistic stance on the American dream in the face of everyday struggle – even, or especially, when that dream is packed in a moving truck, driven out of the city, and restaged in some sort of pastoral Eden. One could argue that the American dream is the subject of every American novel, a sort of blurry-eyed national obsession with having it all and coming out on top, or in the case of most plot-driven literature, the failures and breakdowns in that quasi-noble pursuit. I’ve asked a few voracious reader friends to name a book where the American dream is a happy one: most were stuck for an answer.”

This was a novel idea to me. Has American literature always had a nuanced and wary relationship with the American Dream (I’m visualizing an awkward middle school slow dance)? Because I think of the ideology as rather ubiquitous. Curious, I googled (PS, I love that this is a word now) “most famous american novels” and found this page. Granted, I realize the list is not official, but I do appreciate the reasonable diversity listed among the titles. Anyway, as I scanned the list, I realized that few if any of the works actually held a sentimental view of the American Dream. Obviously, minorities write about how the American Dream is oppressive (e.g. Silko), but even white dudes note at least that it’s hollow (e.g. Fitzgerald).

This year I’m teaching in San Salvador: today begins my second week. My eleventh grade classes are studying American Literature, and my objective is to begin by thinking critically about the American Dream ideology. This is an especially interesting goal since I’m teaching non-estadounidenses. So much American culture gets transmitted around the world–especially television, cinema, and music–and the allure is powerful. I’m thankful, however, that American Literature actually creates a platform to discuss the shortcomings of our fractured mythology.

Resources (Literature and Beyond)

Okay, so this is my first full week teaching…exhausting. But exhilarating as well! I’m blessed to teach what I love. And when you teach what you love, you LOVE finding great resources. I’m very fond of various teaching methods, especially visuals and those that increase interaction. Thus, I wanted to share (unashamedly hoping some of my students find this post) one of the neat tools I’ve come across: infographics from Course Hero. HERE is their Pinterest board, and HEREis their teaching resource website. We’re beginning to study Chaucer next week in my British Lit. class, so maybe someone will stumble upon this infographic before seeing it in class.

“What is Literature for?”

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HERE is a wonderful video put together by The School of Life group. As in everything, we should not assume that our learners have answered the question: “Yes, but why is this important?” As a literature student and teacher, I know why I love my subject. But do my students? We need to help make that connection for them. If we really believe it’s important, let’s not assume.

In class we will be examining the importance of literature, but I do not have time (this year) to incorporate this video into my lesson plan. I wanted to post it, though, for any of my students or other teachers who might enjoy its content. Weighing in at just under 5 minutes, it’s a great tool to ignite this discussion: “What is literature for?”