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Learning to Tell Their Own Stories to Better Their Futures

826LA helps underprivileged students defeat writer’s block and discover stories worth telling in their college essays.

Marilyn Ortega could use a binder. She laughs awkwardly as she pages through transcripts, letters, and other loose papers in her lavender file folder, before finding what she needs: notes for her personal statement. This past summer, Ortega thought her college application essays were all but done. Then, she heard about the word count and realized she was clearly over.

“I am going to work on my personal statement, I’m going to finish it this summer,” she says with a beaming smile, remembering her determined mindset. “And I thought I had finished it, until I went back to school and there was a lot of editing that I needed to do!”

Finding the Story Beyond the Numbers

The 17-year-old, a senior at Manual Arts Senior High School in Los Angeles, was one of more than 150 under-resourced students who participated in the Great Los Angeles Personal Statement Weekend, where she spent four hours of her Saturday zeroing in on what she really wanted to convey to a college application reader. Applying to college can be a mind-numbing exercise in checking boxes, selecting from drop-down menus, and typing in test scores. But as the University of California states on its website, a good personal statement can offer the proper context to empathize with a student’s circumstances.

About a 20-minute walk from the sprawling campus of prestigious USC, Manual Arts is in “a completely different world,” says Daisy Sanchez, an in-school assistant from 826LA, the creative writing-focused nonprofit that sponsored the event. The neighborhood around the south L.A. school ranks in the city's top 12 for violent crime, according to the Los Angeles Times. “This is a neighborhood where…it’s normal for [Ortega] to see this lady who’s drunk on the corner of the street everyday or be asked what crew or gang they belong to. It’s a really rough neighborhood, but these kids still aspire to want more than that,” Sanchez says.

Ortega says she’s gone through elementary, middle, and high school knowing that she wants to attend college. Her ambition, she admits, comes from seeing what happens to those who don’t do well in school. “I don’t come from a background where it’s like, ‘Oh, we have movie nights and this is what we do on family weekends,’ and stuff like that,” she says. “I have suffered. I’ve gone through very tough times, and it’s not really easy to put it down on paper.”

Observing the “Puzzle Masters”

And so the challenge becomes conveying that sentiment in 1,000 words, the combined maximum for the two prompts on the University of California application. “It’s really hard, even for adults, to really look at yourself critically and analyze your life. But with the help of these volunteers, them finding that story or that defining moment in their life is one of the most amazing things we can do for these students,” Sanchez says.

To help, each student—who arrived with everything from drafts to proofread to whims of ideas—was paired with a volunteer, including college students and area writers. Ortega was paired with her Manual Arts teacher Derek Ochi, who teaches biology and AVID (short for Advancement via Individual Determination), a college-readiness class.

Ochi edited and reassured Ortega at a desk inside another L.A. high school’s career center—a cavernous classroom adorned with pennants from national universities. Reiterating various forms of “show, don’t tell” throughout the session, Ochi encouraged Ortega to add more detail and figurative language that can help an application reader better understand her circumstances. “I know, but they don’t know,” he said to her at one point Saturday afternoon.

The volunteer handbook from 826LA calls Ochi and the dozens of other helpers “puzzle masters,” who can help a student pinpoint and piece together the stories that will make their applications stand out. And though Ortega walked in with a draft of one personal statement and notes for a second, she still spent plenty of time contemplating her essays, hands pressed to her forehead or eyes cast upwards, searching for inspiration.

Then there’s the grim task of cutting down to meet the word count. A moment of levity came when Ortega highlighted a lengthy paragraph that described her walk to school. She hesitates, finger hovering over the backspace button. “I worked really hard on this,” she says. She eventually deleted the paragraph from one essay, but it may come in handy when she answers the first UC prompt, which asks applicants to “describe the world you come from...and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.”

Making a Dream into Reality

The weekend event was also a chance to witness the close bond Ortega has with both Sanchez and Ochi. “There isn’t a day that she isn’t at my desk, asking advice or asking me to look at her Cal State or UC questions for her personal statement,” Sanchez says of Ortega. And unlike other pairings, Ochi requested to specifically work with Ortega, a decision that did not go unnoticed. “He’s showing me that, ‘Hey, Marilyn. I really care about you,’” Ortega says. She wants to get into college, and so does everyone supporting her.

Ortega’s dream school isn’t even one of the esteemed UC schools, but rather Whittier College, a liberal arts college about 20 miles away from Manual Arts, where she wants to study radio, TV, and film production. (She can easily rework one of her UC personal statements, though, for use in the Common Application, which Whittier uses.) On Saturday, Ortega finished a draft for one personal statement and an outline to create a second one.

A sign at the back of the career center offers a simple bit of encouragement to “keep calm and graduate.” Ortega can hardly contain her excitement at finishing one prompt, so much so that someone may need to create her a “keep calm and finish that other personal statement” sign.

“As soon as I finalize these prompts, I guess I’ll just scan them or whatever it is I have to do to put them in. And you know, just hit that submit button,” she says. “That feeling of relief: This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. This is your future.”

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