A little over a year ago I wrote an essay that changed my life.
Today – September 18, 2018 – I am boarding a plane to the United Kingdom, where I will spend the next two years pursuing two master’s degrees.
I look back on my Marshall Scholarship personal statement as a manifesto of where I’m from, how far I’ve come, and where I hope to go. I have decided to publish it here to offer insight into my journey, to make known what I hope to accomplish, and perhaps to inspire others to explore and follow their passions.
It is truly empowering to have my efforts and ambitions recognized by the Marshall Commission, and I look forward to making the most of the privileges and opportunities enabled through this scholarship.
(Disclaimer: This is not an official Marshall post, nor is it the only or best way to write a personal statement.)
On a bumpy bus ride to São Paulo this spring, I interviewed a woman for an assignment I was doing about the inequalities created and perpetuated by the city’s spatial segregation.
Mid-monologue, she paused and recalled a television broadcast she had seen a few years earlier that had stuck with her. In it, a journalist spoke about how the people who best understand the inequalities of the world are domestic workers.
I was stunned. A sense of realization washed over me as elements of my identity that I had never previously considered suddenly fell into place.
Of course, I thought. This was why I was in Brazil. This was why I was conducting interviews about the marginalization of Paulistanos. This is what had driven me to want to become an investigative journalist.
During the formative years of my youth, my mother was a housekeeper. A kindhearted, Catholic Polish immigrant, she spent her days driving from our tiny apartment in the ethnic enclave of Wallington to the wealthy suburbs of northern New Jersey. She saw glimpses of how the “other half” lived as she cleaned their homes and washed their clothes. Growing up in an impoverished eleven-child household in communist Poland, my mother could have only dreamt of the luxuries that were so commonplace for her employers.
She became acutely aware of the economic and social hurdles before her, but also of the possibility for mobility. She started community college the year I began kindergarten, and together we learned English and navigated the American public education system. She graduated with an associate’s degree and though I outpaced her in linguistics, I never surpassed her in wisdom. Observing my mother’s interactions with the world shaped the way I thought about justice and ethical responsibility.
At my mother’s encouraging, I began from an early age to inquire into the workings of the world and put those musings to paper. As the internet became increasingly accessible, I began to explore worlds and ideas that enabled and inspired me to reach far beyond the borders of my small town. That curiosity only grew with time, as I began to think more critically about my own place in the world and what my contributions would be.
Beginning university, I struggled with a crippling sense of inferiority as I compared myself to my peers, who include the children of wealthy businesspeople, accomplished professors and even presidential advisers. As I found my footing, however, I came to realize that my inheritance from my mother – her ability to recognize social injustices and to empathize with those who experience them – is just as precious.
I also realized that journalism – the field of study that my mother suggested I pursue – could allow me to further explore, and bring awareness to, the disparities that I had witnessed and was learning about.
It is perhaps one of the strongest human urges to feel heard and understood. Yet in a world with such persistent inequalities, it can be difficult for everyone’s experiences and truths to be acknowledged and validated. The complicated reality is that interpretations of truth vary across cultures, communities, faiths, and even from one individual to another.
In many cases, truth is something that is dynamic and multidimensional, something that can refract a different light depending on how you choose to look at it. Perhaps it is not within our capacity as humans to conceive of the Whole Truth, but it should be the ambition of good journalists to come as close as possible, and to make that truth accessible to all who will listen.
At their best, journalists report stories that capture human life in all its gore and glory – our experiences, our triumphs, our shortcomings, our struggles. They write the first draft of history, hold the powerful and privileged accountable, and help amplify the voices of those who might not otherwise be heard. In order to accomplish this, journalists must also be able to step back and observe larger trends, issues and movements that occur within and across cultures and societies.
My studies, work and travels have served to further reinforce my beliefs about the value and importance of ethical, thoughtful, quality journalism. The existence of multitudinous forms of media is prime evidence that humans want and need their stories to be heard.
I met a woman in rural India who started a community newspaper called Vividha that had large text and simple sentences to accommodate the needs of its readers. The newspaper, which was a compilation of stories reported by the community, was read aloud for those who were illiterate. In San Francisco, I found a newspaper called Street Sheet published by the city’s homeless citizens, which features current affairs, art and poetry. Each paper is sold for $2 by homeless or low-income vendors, who get to keep all the money they earn. And social media, as messy and divisive as it may be, also has the potential to overcome geographic barriers, reconcile disparate groups, and conquer information asymmetry. I have spent time researching and working on solutions that overcome issues like algorithm-induced echo-chambers on Facebook, which breed misinformation and political divisiveness.
What I have learned from all of these experiences is that reporters cannot achieve their mission unless they are tuned into the lives of all kinds of people – across political, economic, social and other spectra. No person should be excluded from information that pertains to their life. Poor journalism has major consequences; so does insufficient journalism.
Being the daughter of a former domestic worker allowed me to become more attuned to struggles for social and economic equity. Practicing journalism enables me to further explore those matters and, simultaneously, gain a better grasp on how my background and experiences shape my values and ethics.
Having this consciousness has filled me with a sense of obligation to work diligently and thoughtfully to use my skills, my privilege and my voice to help others be heard.