2017 Contest Winners

#UMassDBelieves | Class of 2021 Provost Essay Contest Winners

Jade L. figueroa | 2017, THIS I BELIEVE 1ST PLACE ESSAY WINNER

Perseverance Through Resilience

A set of flashing lights peered through the blinds at two o’clock in the morning. I covered my eyes, attempting to focus my vision. I looked up to a man in a blue suit with a polished badge on his chest. My first instinct was to protect my brother. Where was my mother? I was scared and confused. She was nowhere to be found. The clothes from my bureau were tossed into black trash bags, as if they had no worth. My childhood toys were pushed to the side, just like my childhood instantly turned into maturity. We couldn’t say no, we couldn’t run away, we still couldn’t find our mother. I clung to the stuffed animal they gave me, while my brother was being held in the arms of a stranger.

Where were we going? Did I do something wrong? How will I get to school? So many questions with no answers. The dewy smell of the morning grass filled my nostrils as we exited the official’s vehicle and parked in the driveway of an unfamiliar house. I took one step on a “Welcome” mat; that did not feel so welcoming. My brother and I entered a single bed room, where we comforted each other for the few hours that were left in the morning. A few weeks later we were separated.

I became accustomed to worrying about food, clothing and shelter more than academics. I constantly moved from school to school. I always felt like I had to catch up due to the gaps in learning. The challenges I faced threatened my chances of becoming successful. I did not want to end up as my mother; a drug addict. My grades plummeted and my attendance was negligible, until I arrived at Bellingham, Massachusetts. Now I live with a family that has helped me realize what is really important. I did not grow up with the cultural expectation that I had to strive for goodness and that education was more important than anything else, but now I understand and I am focused on my goals.

I know that if anything was going to change, I had to do it. No matter what anyone said or did, my success depends on me.  My past, my mother, and all the statistics against me do not reflect who I am as a person or how my life will end up. However, not every child who goes through the Foster Care system has such resilience as I. In fact, 3% of foster care kids will graduate from college and 25% of foster kids will become homeless by the time they turn eighteen years old. I believe in perseverance. Therefore; I promise to stick to my beliefs and help those who cannot help themselves through my fundraising campaign to offer children backpacks with hygiene, educational, and comforting products in each bag; instead of the trash bag handed to them.

My future is not predetermined by my past. Instead, in high school, I became a two-sport captain, was accepted into the National Honors Society, graduated high school, and now entering my freshman year at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.

Brianna n. Johnson | 2017, THIS I BELIEVE 2nd PLACE ESSAY WINNER

I Believe in Ketchup

Ketchup- defined as the hero of American condiments- represents more than a tasty sauce to go with French fries. It has become the symbol of freedom, as it can be found on nearly every picnic table on the Fourth of July. Ketchup has become the example of unity as it is shared between family and friends enjoying a cookout. Although ketchup is a fundamental aspect of the American life, did you know that the majority of the world doesn’t even know it exists?

Back in 2015 I had the honor of representing Massachusetts at the Hugh O’Brien Youth World Leadership Congress held in Chicago, Illinois. There I joined 550 other student leaders in an attempt to formulate ideas for ending issues seen in all aspects of society, including: hunger, violence, substance abuse, and more. As introductions began for the members in our group, a student from Pennsylvania, Kensie, began talking about some of the landmarks close to her home; one of which, was the Heinz Ketchup Museum. As the conversation went on, however, one of the representatives from China, Karry, seemed uninterested in our conversation. It was discovered later that day, when we went to the dining hall, that he had absolutely no idea what we had been talking about earlier, considering ketchup, as well as other American condiments, did not exist in his culture. Though this point may seem arbitrary, think about it: ketchup has helped shape the culture of the United States through the food we eat, the plants we grow, and more.

Furthermore, those of us who were representatives of the United States had been discussing not only the Heinz Museum, but also the great controversy in Chicago over whether or not ketchup belongs on hot dogs. Throughout the entirety of our conversation, Karry seemed bored, when in reality he just didn’t understand what we were talking about.

I believe in ketchup because something so simple, and a part of our everyday lives, can be oblivious to those around us. In today’s world, countries are fighting, not just over power, but over changing each other’s governments, religions, and ways of life. They are looking at the big picture of gaining control, rather than understanding and focusing on the little details that make up each and every country’s way of thinking on global issues; in all essence they are ignoring each other’s version of ketchup.

I strongly believe, as the next generation to take over the workforce and government, it is essential that we begin to reveal our “ketchups” to those around us. By revealing the small aspects of our upbringing and cultures, we can begin to understand one another, and only at that point we will be able to make real changes. So, what’s your “ketchup”?

Lexus Vasques | 2017, THIS I BELIEVE 3rd PLACE ESSAY WINNER

In Faith, I Believe

Life has been known to change at any given moment, for better or for worse. Through faith, life is meant to prove that nothing is guaranteed and that every moment should be treasured. It seemed for some time, my faith was slipping away. I felt as maybe there was no such thing as divine intervention or a spiritual guidance. One night my life changed forever, in exchange for my faith, my innocence was seized and I was forced into adulthood; but there was always someone watching over me.

My journey back to faith began as I witnessed my dad lay dying on my living room floor. My dad’s face transformed into an unrecognizable shade. He had no pulse. My younger brothers stood frozen, paralyzed by fear. I was the one who called for help, dialing 911, scared for my father’s life. Five minutes felt like an eternity. The medics rushed in. My mother was speechless and my brothers stood fear-stricken.

“Go upstairs, GO!” I could no longer let my innocent brothers witness the mayhem. They ran upstairs afraid and scared of the moments ahead. I looked at my dad once more, the medics placed the paddles on his chest. “Clear” was the last thing I heard before I ran up the stairs as my dad motionless body vanished from view.

The coming days would be the longest I have ever endured. While my mother remained at the hospital through my dad’s surgery and thermogenic therapy, I remained at my grandmother’s house, looking after my little brothers. Faith kept us going. We prayed together as a family for my dad. I needed to stay strong for my brothers. Although, in my own mind, I feared the worst. I had thoughts of funerals and family dressed in black, and I feared that, this was it, I was going to lose my dad. But suddenly, everything changed.  I envisioned my dad’s hospital room, with his family, as he opened his eyes. My mother told me of an angel that protected her and guided her, and I believe that he had visited me too. My mom had called for her evening update.

“We are okay. Mom, you know that guardian angel that protected you when you were younger?”

“I think he spoke to me. I think God showed me something. All I see is Dad waking up Mom. He is going to be okay” …and he was.

The attack that struck home on Sunday, January 4th, 2015 changed my life forever. My faith was slipping and in return, my innocence was taken from me. My father’s heart attack propelled me into adulthood. It made me realize that nothing is ever set in stone, that life could change at any moment, and take a turn for the worst. It was God that was looking down on him. Faith is what saved him. My father’s heart attack transformed me from the faith-lost child to the adult that became a true believer and the stronger woman I am today. In faith, I believe.

Catherine Abrams | 2017, THIS I BELIEVE finalist

Believing in Acceptance

Over the years I have come to realize the most painful event you can endure is one in which you come so close to freedom you can feel the forgotten feeling of hope slowly rising, only to be abruptly burst and buried again by some cruel outside fate. No one ever discusses the harsh reality of living in an abusive household, or what that entails for surviving on a daily basis. No one other than those who have lived through it understands the complete deprivation of any mindset other than that of survival mode. You become so accustomed to living in a state of constant fear and vigilance that it becomes nearly impossible to imagine a reality any other way.

I was emancipated but never free. Physically my wounds healed, but the psychological and emotional damage I carried with me for years, like long, unyielding chains wrapped around me, dragging me down beneath its burdening weight. At age eight I was molested by a close family member, by age 11 I was placed under full custody of my abusive, mentally-ill mother with a history of opioid addiction. By age 14 I was kicked out of my home and sent to live with my father, who had no source of income and mountains of debt. Age 17 was when everything changed, when I slowly became aware of the innate kindness people possess from meeting a girl who gave me the best gift of all, something no one else I held close in my life had ever given me before: pure and unconditional love.       

Before Sarah, I struggled with feelings because the abuse I suffered destroyed me, robbed me of the chance to be anything other than used. For a while I didn’t know what it meant to be worth love, so I closed myself off from everyone around me, becoming emotionally distant and detached. Sarah, though, was different. She saw in me countless wonderful traits I seemed to possess, despite the many walls I put up. With her I felt safe, loved, and cared for. From that, I was able to start reflecting on my past to move on with my future, allowing me to realize the values and ideals that held the most truth for me. More than anything, I believe in acceptance. I believe that within everyone is the capacity for acceptance– of both things they cannot control and past mistakes on the part of themselves and others. There are people in my life who I will never forgive, but I have allowed myself to move on from the pain and learn to accept what happened, regardless of forgiveness. This past year I struggled the most in facing my past, but from it came acceptance and a greater understanding of myself and my capabilities. I released the anger and distress it has caused me for so many years. Stronger now, and more capable, I look ahead for the first time at my future, ready to finally create a better life for myself, regardless of obstacles I may face moving forward. With acceptance I am finally free.

Gace muir | 2017, THIS I BELIEVE finalist

Horse Girl

I have steady hands, one stronger than the other and both seeming to belong fewer places than other peoples’. Throughout my childhood, I swung them delicately from third to fourth position and from fourth position, plunged them into the depths of the chlorinated pool where I won my first 100 meter backstroke. I covered them in chalk powder to conquer the balance beam and the math class blackboard, alike, and used them to project my life onto a blank canvas. But despite their perpetual exposure to new and unexplored areas, I was never been able to find them a home where they didn’t feel as though they had been laundered too many times. Today, however, my hands feel different, and three strokes of my thumb across the base of my fingers and I know for sure something’s changed since then. The urge to fidget uselessly is gone and my musings of the day are no longer filled with dread; I have found my passion and it has sculpted my palms into two, calloused works of art, perfectly designed to fit into its gloves.

Much like you would with a person, I fell in love with equestrianism the second I felt the horse’s gate beneath me, and ever since, it has become my most prominent trait. “Horse girl” has been used as an identification for me so many times I have started thinking it suits me better than my actual name (besides, I have tripped over my own feet far too many times for ‘Grace’ to be appropriate). “How’s horseback riding?” is the first thing my extended family asks me when we see each other, and it is the subject of every post on my mother’s Facebook. I am not ashamed to admit that I often take things for granted– having food and shelter, having money and people who care so much about me– but my introduction to riding was the most humbling experience I have ever endured, in more ways than one. Whether it be being slammed into the ground at 30 MPH by that 1500-pound animal just as I was getting too confident in my abilities or saying goodbye to my best four-legged friend as the vet pushes the euthanasia solution into his vein, this sport always finds a way to show me that every aspect of life, no matter how insignificant, is precious. My practice is my masterpiece and it leaks like ink into all parts of my existence. I can hear my trainer’s voice coaching me when I build my argument for my History essay and I can feel a resistant tug of the reins in my hands when I try to convince my parents to let me go out after 11 p.m. Horseback riding is my primary motivator and it taught me how it feels to have something to live for and how to devote my efforts towards something that does not exclusively benefit myself, but most importantly, it taught me the meaning of gratitude.

I believe that when one finds their passion, it consumes their body and everything around it so their life becomes a product of what they love. Mine is found in every part of me and has shaped me into the person I am today. As such, I believe that when someone finds their place in this world, they discover what it means to feel grateful.

Marissa k. chan | 2017, THIS I BELIEVE finalist

Rachel and The Ocean

Rachel’s azure eyes sparkled as she flashed a smile. It was 2012 when her older sister drove us to the beach.

The sky was bluer than the ocean and the sun brought out the freckles in my face almost immediately. Today, the waves were a little rougher than my usual preference. We ran to the ocean after I grabbed a Frisbee. Stopping before the water, we exchanged looks and sprinted in.

One step after the other, the water splashed up against our legs, hitting us both with a little sand until we got further in. One wave after another – they hit us hard and sent us back a couple of steps each time. We were finally in deep enough where the waves wouldn’t bother us anymore.

We were out in the ocean for what felt like hours, laughing, playing Frisbee, and swimming. Our legs were getting tired though, and so was the rest of our body.

When Rachel threw the Frisbee to me, it got caught in a wave, so we both went after it. We raced each other, and a massive wave crushed us and sent us under. I was stuck under the wave for longer than I wanted to be because once I was above the water to get air, another one came crashing down over me. Fear and panic spread throughout my body; nothing has frightened me more. I was closer to the shore and was able to steady myself and come above the water. Coughing and catching my breath, I found the Frisbee and grabbed it. I scanned my surroundings trying to tell Rachel I found the Frisbee, but she wasn’t near me.

I screamed her name, and the few people around the area looked at me suspiciously. I saw two lifeguards sprint into the water, but they weren’t headed towards me. They went to a floating figure; I had to squint my eyes to see.

My heart was thumping in my chest so hard I swear I could feel it in my throat. There was blood coming from her head as she failed to respond to CPR. Three other lifeguards ran over and tried to clear the area by blowing their whistles. My eyes filled up with water and blurred my vision.

Rachel…She hit her head on a rock when she got crushed by the ocean.

She lay there, unconscious, as I stared at her chest to see if it moved up and down.

There were sirens blasting but I couldn’t hear them. My ears rang and I felt like I couldn’t breathe either. They placed her in the back of the ambulance and continued CPR on her while driving off to the nearest hospital. They called her death with me next to her; I sat there frozen as tears dripped down my cheeks. Losing someone you love will never be easy; I believe that even though people pass away, they are never really gone. Rachel will always hold a special place in my heart.