Seated at a table of four, pencil in hand and a blank sheet of paper in front of me, I introduce myself to the students around me, “Boujour, je m’appelle —– et je viens de La Hulpe.” I am so focused on the impending competition that I barely register their names. The professeur begins reading aloud, and I start writing. Competing in the “Concours Régional,” I listen to the French academic passage and write it with as few spelling, grammatical and conjugational errors as possible. I need fewer than six mistakes to move on to the national finals held in Liège, Belgium.
A month earlier, I was thrilled to hear the teacher call my name when he read off the two highest performing students in the class who would represent the school in the “Dictée Du Balfroid” French dictation competition. As an eleven year old American in a class of native French speakers, I couldn’t believe how far I had come with the language in just two years.
When I was eight years old, my parents told me to pack my bags and that we would be living in Belgium for a few years. With limited French at my disposal, I had to apply an exhaustive effort to fit in. A willingness to try regardless of the outcome was the only way to academically and socially succeed. The acquisition of the skill initially felt like balancing on a linguistic precipice, trying not to fall into anxiety and incomprehension, but I now view it as the most valuable lesson I have ever learned, shaping who I am and how I approach the world today.
As the lone American in a school of foreigners, I was eager to fit in and take on the challenge of integrating into their culture. I learned quickly because I had to. Through birthday parties, violin lessons, and week-long class trips, I needed to dig into myself at a young age and figure out how to engage with people and communicate using words, gestures, my dictionary—anything and everything at my disposal to figure it out.
More than just learning French, I had to learn how to navigate the freedom that European children are afforded. As a ten year old, I commuted into Brussels for violin lessons by myself and then took the train home afterwards. Looking back, the experience forced me to grow into a functioning member of European society. The proximity to so many different cultures also taught me how to connect with the forthright Dutch, or the strict, rule-following Swiss. The cross-cultural interactions allowed me to discover a passion I have for building relationships with people from all over the world.
Upon returning to the United States, I was surprised to find how little had changed in contrast to how much I had grown—people still demonized the other political party, my new middle school wouldn’t let us leave the building until 2:25 when school ended, and boys and girls sat apart from each other at lunch. I was used to amicable discussions about political issues; I used to leave school to go to the city for lunch; and I attended bigender sleepovers. Now, I am able to leverage my learnings and willingness to try new things in spite of possible failure. In high school I eagerly sought opportunities to interact with people from other cultures and I quickly found a culturally diverse group of friends. I especially love my school’s Peer Leadership program, which provides the opportunity for me to welcome freshmen from different schools and backgrounds into high school life, providing them with academic and social advice, as well as strategies to navigate the transition to high school.
Though I didn’t advance and compete in the “Dictée finale,” in Liège, I learned that through effort and persistence, I could be dropped into an unfamiliar context and not only survive, but thrive.
Tips for Writing:
I wrote this essay in October before applying for Early Decision in November. It is about a time in my life where my circumstances were very different from before. I moved countries, learned a foreign language, and developed a cultural side of myself that I hadn’t had the opportunity to develop before, and haven’t since. The experience completely reshaped my life, which is why I was so passionate about this piece of writing. When you have a deep feeling for what you are writing about, the process becomes exceedingly easy. Oddly, I had more fun writing this than any other writing assignment I have done in an academic capacity. I hope to find a topic to write about that brings me the same feeling in the future.