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)

Image result for dead poets society
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.

 

Transcendentalism, Nature, and Concord

About a year and a half ago I remember having what can only be described as a really good day. Now, if those superlatives don’t exactly bowl you over, it’s simply because nothing truly spectacular happened; I was just able to look back at the end of the day and realize how incredibly refreshing it was.

I had a day off from work (this was when I was managing a cafe in Harvard Square) and decided to spend it by myself exploring Concord. So I walked from my house-converted-into-an-overpriced-apartment to Davis Square, took the red line one stop to Porter and changed to the Fitchburg commuter rail line out to Concord. I then visited various locales including Thoreau’s replica cottage, Walden Pond, Louisa May Alcott’s home, the Old North Bridge, and Sleepy Hollow Cemetery. I felt rather transcendent myself as I ate my lunch by the water’s edge of Walden Pond. It was a clear, mild (low 70s probably) October day. The leaves were just beginning to change. As I sat in that place near Thoreau’s little Walden experiment, and as I later visited the graves of several famous writers, I somehow felt connected to that legacy, that heritage of literature. I don’t necessarily agree with all their worldviews, but I still felt as if I was breathing in the fresh air of greatness. Call their ghosts muses or whatever, I also spent time writing; one poem in particular I am still eager to publish eventually. Thus, it was…a really good day.

In my American Literature class we will be taking a look at Transcendentalism over the next couple of weeks. Here is a small excerpt from M.H. Abrams’ immensely useful A Glossary of Literary Terms (7th edition) under the entry “Transcendentalism in America”:

What the various Transcendentalists had in common was less what they proposed than what they were reacting against. By and large, they were opposed to rigid rationalism; to eighteenth-century empirical philosophy of the school of John Locke, which derived all knowledge from sense impressions; to highly formalized religion, especially the Calvinist orthodoxy of New England; and to the social conformity, materialism, and commercialism that they found increasingly dominant in American life. Among the counter-views that were affirmed by Transcendentalists, especially Emerson, were confidence in the validity of a mode of knowledge that is grounded in feeling in intuition, and a consequent tendency to accept what, to logical reasoning, might seem contradictions; an ethics of individualism that stressed self-trust, self-reliance, and self-sufficiency; a turn away from modern society, with its getting and spending, to the scenes and objects of the natural world, which were regarded both as physical facts and as correspondences to aspects of the human spirit; and, in place of a formal or doctrinal religion, a faith in a divine “Principle,” or “Spirit,” or “Soul” (Emerson’s “Over-Soul”) in which both humanity and the cosmos participate.

It’s amazing how relevant some of these tenets are still today. In an over-commercialized, super-technological, empiricism-is-our-only-truth type of world, we need a return to nature, to unplugging, to spirituality.

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“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life. And see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” -Thoreau

I am most refreshed in nature. I have been blessed to get out into the wild in my life: the Kalalau Trail along the Na Pali coastline in Hawaii, the West Highland Way in Scotland, Acadia National Park, Rocky Mountain National Park, and more. I live in El Salvador right now. And while it’s difficult to be isolated in nature (security reasons), there are some spectacular views, spectacular opportunities to witness another marvelous part of the world.

So here’s my advice. If you’re feeling the grind of the machine (corporate culture, for example, or whatever system is stymieing your life), break free. For a moment at least. Where is it you can go to transcend, to commune in nature? To know that you’re not just useless mass of atoms? You’re made of special stuff.

…a little bit of honesty

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reading at my hostel in Quito, Ecuador (2014)

Because I’ve tried to be more consistent and at least post once a week, and because I’ve spent this past week a bit sick and busy, and because frankly I just don’t have a whole lot of time today, this post is a bit of a ramble. And a bit of honesty.

Confession: I want to be a published writer. I don’t want fame or fortune or success really. I simply want the validation that I don’t absolutely suck at my passion. I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to that. I’ve sent writing in the form of poetry or fiction to publishers or agents probably about twenty times now. Nada. It can be disheartening. But I keep telling myself that this is part of the game; this is the grit and the grime, the how-much-do-you-want-this, the kick-you-in-the-nuts and start again process that all determined people must face. Is publication the great satisfaction in life? Of course not. But if we’re determined to do something and feel strongly about what we do, we have to keep at it.

So today’s post is a renewal of commitment and energy. Art was never meant for notoriety really but simply to say something that’s important to the artist and maybe, collaterally, to their audience. Thus, publication or not, it’s still important if for no other reason than that it is coming out of me. It is reflection and release.

Whatever you’re doing, whatever you’re sweating towards, keep working. Don’t forget to lean in and love others (I guess I’m saying not to be so consumed that we miss the greatest purposes of life), but don’t stop. The world needs YOU. Unique, weird YOU. Thank YOU.

 

The Number One Rule for Developing a Deep Perpetual Ongoing Unceasing Unquenchable Insatiable Appetite for Books…

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DON’T STOP READING!!!

Okay, okay. I know this is earth-shatteringly profound. But seriously, as cyclical a statement as this might seem (the way to develop a love for books is to keep reading but it’s difficult to keep reading without having a deep love of books), I’m learning how important this is. Here is my point: sometimes we challenge ourselves in what we read (as we should), but we hit a dry-spell. The gas runs out. We are weary (“even youths grow tired an weary”–Remember the Titans or The Bible, whichever you prefer). Netflix keeps looking more like a viable option to unwind. If this is you…QUICK! DON’T WASTE TIME…FIND A BOOK THAT REALLY APPEALS TO YOU OR DUST OFF AN OLD FAVORITE.

Keep pushing yourself in what you read…top shelf material. But if you’re reading game is getting a little dry then (to rip a Bible verse wildly out of context) REMEMBER YOUR FIRST LOVE! It’s okay to put something uninteresting down for just a little bit. I’m not suggesting that quitting halfway is a good, ongoing habit. I’m just saying that sometimes we  need a little LTLC (Literary Tender Loving CARE…duh!).

I remember once I was reading this extremely dense philosophy book and, even though I was theoretically really interested in its contents, it was actually boring me to tears. But I felt that if I was going to read, I needed to be reading that book. The problem: I stopped reading altogether! Don’t let that be you. Plus, I can almost guarantee, if you’ll keep yourself reading in general, you’ll find a greater ease and desire to return to that top shelf material. So spice up your reading life!

Finally, here’s my personal reading template to use or toss aside: always I am reading one piece of nonfiction and one piece of fiction. Naturally I finish fiction novels much quicker than nonfiction (this may not be true for everyone), but I’m always reading both. Additionally, I mix up my fiction. This isn’t a hard, fast rule, but I usually go no more than two or three books in a row of either literary classics or contemporary fiction or even pop fiction. I want to read the canonized classics to understand why good literature is good literature (some of my all-time favorite books are more than a hundred years old). But I also want to read new literary fiction (Pulitzer type material) as well as The Hunger Games and other “pop” novels (aside: we’ll often find that “pop” novels have as much depth as “literary masterpieces;” they simply appeal on a different level).

So what story do you need to return to in order to fan that reading flame?

by Zhen-Yang at DeviantArt.com