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How to Write Your Way into UVA

In college admissions, essays can serve as the tipping point. Here are some tips, pointers and actual essays that recently made the cut.

To build the 3,974-member Class of 2023, UVA admission deans culled through 40,880 applications. How big a role did the student essays play in the final decision? We asked an expert: Macy Lenox (Col ’94), associate dean of undergraduate admission. Here’s our conversation, edited and condensed.

Virginia Magazine: What carries the most weight in the final admission decision?

Lenox: What we find on the transcript is going to be the first and most important aspect of the application. [Then] we’re going to start looking at impact and contribution, and we get to that through extracurricular activities and teacher recommendations.

The essay is the one time we’re going to kind of sit back in our chair and give students the opportunity to talk to us. So they want to use that time wisely. The best essays are those that you read and you don’t just want to admit the student, you want to take them out for coffee once they get to Grounds.

With that said, will an extraordinary essay make the case for a student who is not qualified? The answer is no. One of my former colleagues used to say: It can heal the sick, but it can’t raise the dead.

Are any essay topics better than another?

There’s no such thing as a golden-ticket topic. What makes the essay is not the topic; it’s how you approach your topic and what it reveals about you.

We read a lot of essays about sports and that sort of thing. And I would say most of them are solid, and they’re grammatically correct, and there are no typos, and they’re well-organized, and they tell me something about a student. It’s going to be confirming that you can write an essay.

But this is a process where you want to stand out. And so it’s a process of not just writing a confirming essay but writing an elevating essay. Don’t tell me everything that soccer has taught you. Tell me the one thing that’s been truly transformative. Tell it to me as a story. Be descriptive. Be reflective.

Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable—you know, to talk about shortcomings or areas where you felt weak. We all have that. It’s perfectly fine to be normal. And at no point should you say, “Soccer taught me to be a leader.” That should emerge from your essay. You know: Show me, don’t tell me.

What’s one common mistake you see in essays?

So many try to be the person they think we want them to be. Stay in your lane, if you will. If you’re a funny person, write a funny essay. But if you’re not really known as a funny person, don’t write a funny essay. It’s probably not going to be funny. If you write about something you love, it’s probably going to come through.

We are comfortable with a 17-year-old voice. We typically know when we’re hearing a 40- or 50-year-old voice.

Any final piece of advice for essay-writing?

What we caution against is what we call death by committee—where you’ve had so many people contributing little pieces of an essay [that] all of a sudden you’ve got five different voices in your essay.

I definitely recommend you get other people to read your essay for advice. But when you hand it to them, the question you should ask is, “Does this sound like me?” You should never hand a pen or pencil to someone when you give them your essay. Just have them read it, and then sit down with them afterward and talk about it, and you take notes.

We say this all the time: If it dropped out of your backpack and fell on the cafeteria floor, your friend could pick it up and, even if your name wasn’t on it, know it was yours.

Enjoy meeting a few individuals from the Class of 2023. In response to writing prompts with word limits, they each submitted several admission essays (both short and long). The ones published here, lightly edited, reveal a bit of the unique selves they will bring with them to the University of Virginia this fall.

Living Out-of-the-Box

A bead of sweat trickled down my temple. A wave of excitement crashed over me. With nimble fingers I tore the wrapping paper off of the Christmas gift before me. This is it. I was sure the box contained the Razor scooter that I had wanted for months. I envisioned myself skating through the neighborhood, Skechers lighting up with each kick off the ground, low ponytail protruding from my hot pink helmet. I would rule my cul-de-sac.

Elizabeth Kilgore
Elizabeth Kilgore Geraldine Kilgore

When I opened the box and dug through mounds of packing peanuts, my eyes finally fell upon the treasure beneath. But I was immediately overcome with paralyzing disappointment. My short life flashed before my eyes. Something had gone very, very wrong at Santa’s workshop. The item within the box had one less wheel than it should have had. In fact, it was not a scooter at all, but a unicycle.

Disappointment faded into acceptance and ultimately enthusiasm as I imagined the possibilities. I could learn to juggle on one wheel. I could unicycle to school. I could join the circus. Abandoning my other Christmas presents, I descended to the basement, which would become my training ground for the next three frozen months. Hugging a wall, straddling the seat and lifting my feet onto the pedals, I was ready to ride. Yet I sat frozen, unsure of how to proceed. I had read the instructions, but they were remarkably uninstructive. Awkward minutes ticked by.

Eventually I built up the courage to rock back and forth. But I never made it forth; instead, the wheel shot out from under me and I landed hard on my face. Pride and dignity extinguished, yet undeterred, I mounted again. I fell again. From dawn till dusk for days on end, I wrestled with that wheel. Eventually I learned to balance, and then to pedal.

When the snow finally melted, I was riding at lightning speed around my cul-de-sac, to the awe of friends and neighbors astride their strangely complicated two-wheeled contraptions.

Yet simply learning to unicycle did not quench my insatiable desire to expand my skillset. Uni-juggling bored me, so I taught myself to play basketball atop the wheel. And thus I developed a habit of concocting unconventional combinations, which would give birth to my most epic brainchildren.

I began performing my trademark magic shows on the unicycle. Using my black top hat, I impersonated Abraham Lincoln on the unicycle, reciting the Gettysburg Address from memory. (I wondered if Honest Abe would have been able to unicycle; considering the length of his legs, I concluded not.) I taught myself to solve a Rubik’s cube on the unicycle, a feat that required utmost focus, unwavering balance, and a street with no potholes.

I began applying that out-of-the-box mentality to my life off the wheel. I fused my love for paradoxes and poetry to create poems that could be read forward and backward to convey two contradictory messages. I layered peanut butter, avocado, and bacon atop toast to create an amalgam of my favorite foods, in the process inventing the world’s most delicious and substantial open-faced sandwich.

Conquering the unicycle made me realize that conventions need to be challenged. Just because some cycles have two wheels does not make them better. And who says that poems can only be read top to bottom? I thrive kinesthetically, learning by doing, dedicating countless hours to master anything that excites me in the slightest. But I believe there is more to life than someone else’s instruction book. I prefer to write my own instructions, try the unconventional, and explore the unknown. I am a unicyclist amongst scooterers. I make my own path, usually on just one wheel.

—Elizabeth Kilgore, Madison, New Jersey

Zoom In, Focus, Get Into the Rhythm

Cap off, shutter on. I am ready. There is a rhythm to it. I stand alone with my camera, surrounded by hundreds of people. I slowly scan the field and the stands, prepared for the unexpected scenes; the irony encourages me. Friday nights offer so many opportunities to focus on one moment, on one frame, blurring out all else around me.

Khuyen Dinh
Khuyen Dinh Nicholas Ochoa

There is excitement in my voice and, I have been told, a notable glimmer in my eyes when I talk about those Friday nights under the lights. These evenings challenge and excite me as I zoom in on one moment at a time, one frame at a time, quickly changing perspective and refocusing as the evening unfolds.

What am I looking for? The quarterback’s nervous focus as he stares down his targets in the face of the impending blitz, drum majors attempting to maintain a determined expression among the cacophony of the halftime festivities, and parents concealing their nerves, seemingly willing the team to a touchdown with the pressure of their clasped hands alone. Through the 200 millimeters of my lens, I am searching for the special moments that prove these are more than just games for everyone in attendance.

Endpin out, rosin my bow, tuned correctly, I am ready. There is a rhythm to it. Staring at the eighth notes that dance across the marked up score, I wait for my cue, blurring out the hushed whispers from the audience. As I anticipate the moment the curtains open, allowing me to pull my bow against the string, I am reminded of last night’s football game. I remember the way I zoomed in on each face, story and play, and now place this focus into my performance. Measure upon measure, the perspectives of the notes change, following the tone of the play, and these instant adjustments exhilarate me.

I play out; I am in the dark, but I am lit up by my desire to move someone with a strong melody that I have rehearsed time after time in my living room, until calluses are built, and I can hear the melody in my sleep.

The music that sits before me and the firm hand of the conductor are the only things I take in. Through the weight of my bow and the articulation in my left hand, I am seeking to give flight to the imagination so that the audience will be as moved as the composer intended.

Cap and gown on, Pomp and Circumstance echoing throughout the room, IB diploma in hand, I am ready. I know the rhythm. I know the rhythm because I’ve practiced all of my life. Focus on what’s important. Zoom in on what is to come. Change perspective and refocus when needed. Blur out the background noise. Through the experiences I seek out, I am invigorated and motivated by the challenges that accompany each new endeavor.

—Khuyen Dinh, Fairfax Station, Virginia

Stories From the Porch Swing

The wooden porch swing at my grandfather’s old house was very talkative. It used to creak and moan, irritated with eight-year-old me for attempting to swing so high I could touch my bare feet to the porch ceiling. It hummed as my mother gently rocked back and forth, drinking coffee. It laughed along with my little sister who used to leap off the swing as it was still moving, landing on her hands and knees with a thud. It took part in the family conversations every Sunday, faintly squeaking behind the noise of us chatting and eating dinner outside on warm nights. But when my grandfather told his stories, the swing didn't make a sound.

Audrey Hicks
Audrey Hicks Rich Condit

I remember the evening I first fell in love with stories. Under the weight of both myself and my grandfather, the swing was completely silent, careful not to interrupt. Listening earnestly with my hands resting in my lap, I was silent as well. The robin that was usually chirping in the front yard was quiet for a minute. The white oak trees with their wise faces and twisted limbs stopped whispering to each other. The world was still and listening; I could hear only my grandfather’s voice and my own soft, measured breath.

My grandfather is a storyteller. He always says that it’s his innate ability to tell a story that makes him good at his job. Whether he’s standing in front of a packed, buzzing courtroom or simply sitting on his creaky porch swing, the world listens when my grandfather speaks. From an early age, this has always been what I admire most about him. He is intelligent and kind. He is fiercely strong-willed in the way he values and fights for social justice. But most of all, he knows how to make people listen. His words inspire action. From him, I developed a strong fascination with stories.

Some of my favorite stories to hear growing up were the ones about my dad’s childhood. Although we’d heard the story hundreds of times already, my siblings and I would beg my grandfather to tell us about when my dad accidentally got stuck in a tree. My grandfather would also tell us about his own childhood during the Great Depression, his time as a drafted soldier in the Vietnam War, and the long hours he worked as a graveyard shift police officer to pay for law school.

Stories can be found anywhere. They are catalysts of social change and vehicles of shared knowledge. I find them in the pages of my history textbook, in the spirited conversations of the lunchroom, and in every person I meet. My avidity for learning has bloomed from my obsession with stories. From the fall of the Romanov Dynasty to how Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin by accidentally leaving out a moldy petri dish, stories prompt my active, electrified engagement in school. They have given me an unbounded curiosity about our world.

By reading my favorite novels, traveling to unfamiliar places, and even just talking to the stranger in line at the grocery store, I continue in my search for stories. That quiet evening on my grandfather’s porch swing unleashed within me a deep-seated passion for stories that has seeped into and invigorated my intellectual pursuits.

—Audrey Hicks, Fairfax, Virginia

One Small Touch 

“J’adoube,” I said, adjusting the placement of my queen to the center of her square.

Kyle Goldrick
Kyle Goldrick Chris Goldrick

My opponent looked at me with a puzzled gaze. As the game continued, there came a second time where saying j’adoube became necessary. But this time, after again seeing the puzzled look on my opponent’s face, I said, “It means the same thing as adjust.” This time it seemed to click in his head.

Since I began playing chess competitively, I have heard the word used less and less. J’adoube is announced by a player who is going to touch a piece to adjust its positioning but has no intention of moving it from its square. This one word changes the meaning of touching a piece. Without uttering j’adoube, a player must move the piece they touch, unless moving that piece would result in an illegal move.

The word is not something that you will find in a rulebook or necessarily learn from beginner chess lessons. I imagine that it has developed over time from chess players wanting to associate the beauty of perfectly aligned pieces on the board with the beauty of the French language.

When I hear the word whispered in my direction, I smile because to me it sounds so much better than “adjust.” J’adoube cannot win games, but by saying it, you can prevent yourself from making ill-advised moves. Like in life, saying j’adoube can neither fix the past nor change the future, but it does allow you to control the present.

—Kyle Goldrick, Jamison, Pennsylvania

Sea Creature #3

“Hi, my name is Marin and I’m a piece of coral.” These were my dignity’s last words as I realized I was cast in the ensemble of my high school’s production of The Little Mermaid. In spite of my consistency and experience within the department, I was a lowly sea-creature: a fish on roller blades. As rehearsals commenced, I attempted to decipher a complex emotion: jealousy.

Marin Bronaugh
Marin Bronaugh Charlotte Bronaugh

My best friend of 11 years obtained a highly coveted principal role following her maiden high school audition, leaving me with the role of Sea Creature #3. I looked simultaneously something akin to a prepubescent middle school boy and an ’80s jazzercise instructor. I was mercilessly clad in a deep blue unitard, complete with unflattering biker shorts, neon pink fishnet crop top, and swim cap. My insecurities were further manifested in a pair of rollerblades.

My best friend, the mermaid I felt so inferior to, was adorned in a bejeweled crown, which seemed only to further emphasize our distance apart in the hierarchical class system that is high school theater. She was oceanic royalty, and I was a plebian parrot fish. I stood sheepishly in my unitard, in my swim cap, and in the most intense state of jealousy I have ever experienced. My humiliation was complete as I stumbled across the stage, fish puppet in hand, in front of my friends and family, while enviously watching her glide gracefully from stage right to stage left, singing angelic melodies.

Alongside me in this endeavor was someone completely unexpected: a cheeky, cherubic third grader who was cast not in the principal cameo role he’d hoped for, but as a humble sea snail. Wanting to make the most of a mediocre situation, I became the unofficial cast child wrangler for the duration of the show. Rhett and I spent copious amounts of time together doing schoolwork, eating various snack foods, and learning to rollerblade. For safety's sake, I chased him through the most remote stretches of Fairfax High School as he cleared flights of stairs, careened around corners and flung himself down steep ramps in his little plastic red and black roller blades.

We got along swimmingly. Our shared experience connected us. We were inseparable. Rhett was not open to forming friendships with cast members who treated him with condescension. I, however, proved to be a completely honest and consistent friend. I remained by his side, a third grader's loyal sidekick for the entirety of the show. I helped him with his schoolwork and he helped me forget my jealousy. I kept him entertained and he provided me with positive experiences to reflect back on. The attitude he helped me to embrace gave me reason to act with integrity: I assembled a nervous cast for a prayer circle before each performance, comforted mermaids in crisis, and even stepped away from myself to help the former object of my jealousy when she was struggling.

In the end, our small group of fish-wielding jazzercise instructors went on stage and took advantage of each and every moment we had. The tangible evidence that bad situations can reap surprising rewards came in the form of a D.C. area Cappie award for my contribution to our department and our show. My situation went from mildly humiliating to outwardly validating. The jealousy I had toward my friend for her seemingly endless opportunities dissipated daily as I discovered the sometimes hidden blessings found in humility, humor, friendship, and community. My unspoken fear that my value or worth was somehow in part determined by the role I secured in a show was completely and utterly demolished by an extremely sassy, blond, nine-year-old boy, dressed as a sea snail.

—Marin Bronaugh, Fairfax, Virginia

My Mom’s Gifts to Me

The scene is ingrained into my memory. It was 2nd grade, and my teacher asked all of the students in my homeroom to put up pictures of their family on the bulletin board. Kids scrambled to the front of the room to stick on their photograph. I was at the front of the pack, eager to show everyone my picture of my mom and me holding a parrot in Hawaii three years prior.

Kendall Davis
Kendall Davis Sofia Sohail

“Kendall, why don’t you have a dad?” a bewildered Sydney asked, almost skeptical.

Everyone froze and turned to me, expecting an answer. The teacher tried to lessen my humiliation saying, “Sydney, that wasn’t nice,” and some other impotent reprimands, but the damage was done. I looked at the other kids’ photos. Each of them the same: a mother, one kid, two kids, or three, and a father. A part of me was shattered. I believed that the absence of a father would deprive me of something; my life would never compare to kids who lived with two parents.

For a long time, that mindset remained. I was ashamed of having a single mother, so I went out of my way to act like my father was in my life. Talking to friends about “my parents” and fabricating stories about my dad were coping mechanisms I used to fit in. Attending independent schools for most of my life, it seemed like everyone’s family was intact and lived in mansions, so the possibility of people knowing that I never saw my dad was terrifying. It would be something else to set me apart.

Everything changed once I moved from California to Virginia, where I had no family or friends. This forced me to spend more time with my mom, giving me a new perspective on my situation. I began to understand the sacrifices my mom made, raising me on her own, providing me with the best of everything: education, opportunities, experiences, anything a child living with two parents would have.

I now acknowledge the privilege I’ve had growing up with a mother like her. She made a successful career for herself by promoting equity and diversity in education and has passed on her beliefs that all people are worthy of respect. This influenced my love of experiencing new people, cultures, and places. So far, I have traveled to Haiti on a service trip, and France on a cultural exchange. While both experiences had their own challenges, they contributed to my understanding of cultural competence and showed me the value of forming relationships with others abroad.

My mom also instilled in me a dignified work ethic that shows through my academics, athletics, and extracurriculars. I try my best in everything I do, mimicking the strength and perseverance she had while attending college without guidance from anyone. If that means having a softball game at 5pm, tutoring elementary school kids at 7pm, then studying and homework afterward, I do it all with my best effort.

One of my mother’s qualities that I admire most is the support and acceptance she continually shows me. Regardless of our differences or circumstances, I always know that my mom respects my individuality, something that, for many of my peers, is not true. And in turn, I try to treat others with the same amount of respect and compassion. Whether that translates as talking to a patient in distress while volunteering at my local hospital or simply comforting a friend during a difficult time, sympathy and understanding are traits that hold the highest value in my life.

The trust I’ve formed with my mom is something I doubt I would have experienced with my dad. She has taught me everything about what it takes to be a strong black woman.

If I could answer Sydney's question today, my response would be, “Because my single mom is able to fulfill the role better than any father could.”

—Kendall Davis, Arlington, Virginia

Transfixed by My Toaster

I think that the shower has been the birthplace of more innovative ideas than any other location. Maybe it’s the alone time, the aromatherapy, the water washing off the day, or the ability to watch your troubles go down the drain and step out brand new. I don’t know. But I wish I did. Because it is these very moments, times when a light clicks on or an apple falls on your head, that fascinate me. Even the smallest things, the seemingly insignificant details of our reality, carry with them a story that changed the world.

Laura Boyle
Laura Boyle Soven Bhagat

One day, I was making toast, a pretty mundane part of my day. But as I was staring at my toaster, trying to get the bread to the right degree of toastiness, I became captivated by the beauty of the machine that has become a certainty in my life. For months, I had a tab open on my phone about Charles Strite, the inventor of the pop-up toaster, and would read little bits and pieces about him any time I could. All the man wanted was an evenly cooked piece of toast and that quest, distant as it may seem, led him to create something that I now expect in my everyday life.

That’s magical to me. Every step in his life, every burnt piece of toast that he had to endure, led him to that idea. One defining piece of Strite’s life has become a part of so many others. The simple device that I am accustomed to was the result of a lifetime of experience. We may take his idea for granted, but I find it amazing that he managed to change the world in his own way.

Many creations that are now a fact of life were once brave new inventions. So what will be next? Could my writing down the simple phrase “snack pants” in the notes on my phone a little after midnight change the fashion industry forever? Could my restaurant idea “the Porque-sadilla” (a place with Mexican food and trivia) revolutionize the dining experience? Probably not. But one day some goofy idea might develop into something greater: my origin story. And every step that I took, every shower, every note, every essay that I wrote would have led me to that point. Because this is the one story that I get to live, not just read about.

And that’s what fascinates me. The people around me may seem distant at times, but they are each the center of their own story. You never know which one of the people you pass in the hallway or drive past on a busy road is going to change the world. It could be you or the person sitting next to you.

So every time that I see a small invention, I get caught up in the origin story and the beauty of the creation, and how the lives of others become part of our own, and how they connect us and bridge any physical or emotional gaps that arise, and all of this comes and washes over me simply because I wanted a piece of toast.

And so I thank Charles Strite and the inventors, pioneers, iPhone note-takers, and shower-thinkers. I hope one day to be among their ranks, a piece of their stories as they are a piece of mine.

(P.S. I have dibs on both “snack pants” and “the Porque-sadilla,” so don’t get any ideas.)

—Laura Boyle, Falls Church, Virginia

What Would I Paint on Beta Bridge?

“Write your story.” The phrase is printed across the face of a notebook stacked somewhere in my room. It materializes in my mind every time I read a different account of the same historical event. I mutter it under my breath for every word, every page I write of the novel I someday hope to publish. I would paint this phrase on Beta Bridge because I believe the most powerful actions start as words and I know the most intriguing adventures begin with a story.

Alexa Clark
Alexa Clark Tom Tylee

To write your story is to hold your life in your hands. Your story is wholly yours, but it may impact your community and beyond, in more ways than you can imagine. The #MeToo survivors wrote their stories. The New York Times published them, and then the world reacted.

It’s important to first tell your story before you tell the story of others, and it’s even more pressing to write your story before someone else can write it for you. Winston Churchill once said, “History is written by the victors.” He was right. Someone will always attempt to distort a narrative; there will forever be stories written by liars, and sometimes those stories filled with half-truths will win. But they only have that chance at victory if the real story never makes it onto the page, let alone to the printer.

Write your story, even when the only light that hasn’t flickered out is the brightness from your computer screen.

Write your story, even when you think no one else will read it. Write your story, even when it’s only three words painted across a bridge on a university campus. Write your story, before someone else does.

—Alexa Clark, Vienna, Virginia

Quirky Me

I laugh to myself all the time.

Sophia Yi
Sophia Yi Jessica Barber

My sisters say it’s always the same thing: the near-silent, short puffs of exhalation, the shake of the shoulders, the slight rock back and forth. Realizing that no one else shares my amusement or (in some cases) even noticed that I attempted a joke, I’ll chortle all alone.

I am past wanting others to laugh with me. Quite frankly, it makes me sad how the best-received wisecracking almost always comes at someone else’s expense. I have noticed that it simply is not “cool” to find the joke about the hydrogen atom who was positive it lost an electron as entertaining as an unflattering imitation of a blundering freshman’s faux pas. I have noticed it, and I don’t like it.

I don’t want to renounce my own unique sense of humor simply because my jokes aren’t of the trendy sort.

Why must we laugh at the girl who tripped over her hand-me-down, glaringly yellow shoes on the way in? Who cares if the boy in the front row misspelled “February” and then proceeded to badly mispronounce it? Why can’t they all laugh, instead, at the grammar joke that caused so many in the classroom to collectively roll their eyes?

I want to laugh at the harmless puns and one-liners in life, the ones that make people whoop with laughter without grimacing on the inside. Even if that means looking a tad crazy as I laugh absurdly and all alone.

—Sophia Yi, Derwood, Maryland

Hi, I’m Zainab

Tugging at my shirt sleeves, I shuffle through the empty hallways of the new school. The butterflies in my stomach feel more like wasps, for my anxiety is less a nervous excitement, and more a dreaded anticipation of what’s to come. My backpack is filled with freshly sharpened pencils, new notebooks, and my mom has packed my favorite snack. I am more than prepared to thrive at this new school, but I can’t seem to get past this crushing worry: who will I sit next to at lunchtime?

Zainab Faisal
Zainab Faisal Ambreen Hussain

The teacher pushes open the 4th grade classroom door, and all eyes immediately turn to me. She introduces me to the class, and I suddenly develop a great fascination with my fingernails. I avoid looking directly at any of the students and I quietly seat myself near the back. Midway through the year, all the other students have already created their social circles. Out of curiosity, a couple students approach me and ask for my name. Hesitantly, I introduce myself, “Hi. I’m the new kid.”

Being in a new, unfamiliar place will eventually become a normal situation for me after having changed schools nine times by the end of senior year. It would be incorrect to say that I enjoyed uprooting myself constantly, but it would also be incorrect to say that I never learned anything along the way.

From New Mexico, I learned about the magic in color. Our insufferably quaint town was filled with artwork and culture. The intricate tiles and paintings of local artisans in the Santa Fe Art Galleries, and the swirl of color and light in the sky at sunrise during the Albuquerque Hot Air Balloon Festival inspired me to surround myself with color and create art wherever I went.

From Massachusetts, I learned how hard my parents worked to ensure that my brother and I were happy. My mother would frequently come home with bags overflowing with books from the local library to keep us occupied when our one bedroom basement apartment was buried in snow. My love for reading can be traced back to her. She could turn our apartment into a wizard’s lair or a fairy forest during the cold, snowy days.

From Texas, I learned about the fragility of human life. My friend’s dad was battling with cancer, and her family became a big part of our life since they needed our support. He passed away on Christmas Eve, and while the world continued on and most people woke up to presents and holiday festivities, my friend woke up to the reality of her father’s death.

From Virginia, I learned about the importance of family. My social life was nonexistent, so instead of going out on the weekends, I stayed home for movie nights, thought-provoking conversations with my dad, and teaching my little sister her first nursery rhymes. By becoming more present in my family’s daily lives, I was able to escape my own self-centered bubble.

All these places collectively taught me two things. First, never knowing if this is the last time you ever see someone or go somewhere, you begin to appreciate everything more, including the little things in life. Second, I learned how to be adaptable and how to relate to others. In the early moves, I tended to dwell on everything I’d left behind, never stopping to reflect on what I’d gained. I’ve picked up flavors of people and places from all around the country, seeing that there is beauty in change, even if it took me more than a few moves to see it.

So, when I moved to my new school last year, instead of immediately labeling myself as “the new kid,” I started with a smile and “Hi! I’m Zainab. Is anyone sitting here?”

—Zainab Faisal, Ashburn, Virginia