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I found my college essays.

December 14, 2014

It's yet another finals week! My second to last one until graduation. How time has flown.

Finals week wouldn't be finals week without a healthy dose of procrastination. So, what happened was I was going through my e-mail inbox for no particular reason and I happened to find my college application and my "why Oberlin" essay. As I was reading them, it became so apparently clear to me how much I have and haven't changed. I turned in these essays in 2010! 2010! That is so long ago. Anyhow, it was definitely a bit cringeworthy reading them. And also kind of adorable and it made me smile and laugh. So instead of me studying, why don't I analyse these essays for your entertainment?

My general college application essay was an anecdote about Christmas holidays and also a reflection of the economic travails (hyperinflation) that my country was going through. It was a very simple narration of me going about my day doing ordinary things and describing the things that I was encountering. Here is an excerpt:

I take the time to observe the immediate environment. Across the street a street citizen burrows the nearby bins in search of sustenance. He reaches deep... 'Yes!' he declares, pleased with his find, fresh remains from a meal of chicken and chips. Yards away a beggar puts up a solemn concert for the passing masses, arms outstretched in anticipation of the proverbial crumb. His song making elicits little from the passers by, who are too preoccupied with sprinting after a UNICEF truck with buckets and plastic bottles to fill up with some of the water being given away. There are reports in the paper that people in the very remote countryside are eating soil and vile tasting roots to stay alive. I think of my grandparents and cousins out in the dry, parched countryside. They too must be among those digging for these roots and walking miles for a drink of water. My own struggles dwindle in the wake of this new knowledge, and I feel a surge of gratitude: both for the food we have at the house and my continued education. Other children my age are out of school, which has become virtually unaffordable, and are now scratching the earth in search of diamonds, only to be handed a few dollars for their toil. Even more are swimming bravely across crocodile infested rivers to illegally cross into neighbouring South Africa, all in search of a more bearable life. These are hard times.

I return to reality. The bread queue I have joined moves promisingly, and the yeasty smell of fresh but limited bread permeates the mid morning air. There is pushing and shoving as the people in the queue, charged with desperation and motivated by hunger, do anything to get their heads worth of the much needed sustenance. Ultimately, I reach the front of the queue. By all accounts, it is a miracle. I start to feel that Christmas may have been salvaged. Midway through that train of thought, I suffer the anti-climax of realising that the price of bread has galloped to 100 trillion Zimbabwean dollars, more than ten times what it cost the previous day and more than ten times what my pockets could yield. These are hard times.

When I read this again, it was through the prism of my Oberlin education. First things first, the essay was SO dramatic. It deserves an Oscar for having THAT MUCH drama. I promise, I am a much better, more subdued writer now. (Thank you, Oberlin.) But I sort of get what my teenage self was trying to articulate. I was definitely reflecting upon my own privilege, being from a middle class family and having the means and ability to escape much of the poverty that surrounded me in my environment. The thing is, I was experiencing something that I did not have the language or tools to be able to organize for my own comprehension. My education at Oberlin has definitely given me a lot of tools to be able to articulate my own lived experiences in a way I wasn't able to before it.

Now here is a gem, this time from my "Why Oberlin" essay:

Finally, I want to come to Oberlin to savour a unique collegiate experience and the richness of diversity that Oberlin offers. I want to be among passionate students and faculty that have never been scared to be different. I want to join them in their service to others and the community, and finally, I hope, at the end of my education at Oberlin, to end up with what some Oberlin literature describes as the "insight and determination to make a difference."

Okay! I could not have been any more dramatic, idealistic, and possibly, naive. The essays are dripping with sugary optimism and sentimental kumbayaisms. Nonetheless, in a strange way, I admire the idealism I showed. I am much more jaded now! What's funny about this is that despite my experiences in the interim having pointed me to the brokenness of the world, I still very much fundamentally believe in, and stand by, what I wrote 5 years ago.

Now here's the last paragraph from my common app essay. I am a little bit struck by the timeliness, and dare I say, wisdom of the words in it. I don't remember writing it or what was going through my mind when I wrote it, but it makes me think that my values have remained somewhat steady over the years:

Somewhere within the great machine that is our mind, heart, soul, or whatever it is that produces in us resilience, lies a well fashioned tool for survival. At some point in our lives, we may be called upon to seek and find such a tool, sometimes because or in spite of a crisis. We may be called upon to marvel at its potential, or to merely sharpen and replace it. Others, like myself, will realise that in fact they do not have such a tool, and must therefore find it within themselves, or through others, to fashion it, and rely on such qualities as faith and a touch of hope to polish it. And at the end of it all, prevail.

My Oberlin educated self looks back at this and says, I was writing about resistance to systemic oppression. Ha! Not bad, Sims, not bad! Somebody stop the presses and give this boy a PhD immediately!

What I got from all this is that I have obviously changed and improved but my outlook and my values haven't really changed. I'm just better able to express and think about and make sense of them. Oberlin gave me that.

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