*Common App Essay (650 Words): The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
As a sheltered child, I believed that all childhoods were like mine: filled with books, museums, and parents eager to answer endless questions.
But when I began reading newspapers and online forums, I learned about the extreme wealth inequality in modern China: many of my peers didn’t have access to consistent education or books. I began using my allowance money to send my favorite novels (e.g. Anne of Green Gables) to rural students in Anhui province, hoping that a literary escape could mitigate the starkness of poverty. By high school, I understood that donations were not enough: ambitiously, I launched a summer program for the “forgotten” children of Anhui, whose parents worked year-round in distant city factories. Away from my Hangzhou home, that transformative month left me humbled and overwhelmed, but also more determined to transform my privilege into opportunities for others.
While designing the program, I pulled all-nighters planning activities and a “perfect” itinerary. But onsite, I struggled to lead the adult volunteers I had recruited. Simply put, there were too many strong personalities determined to take center stage—often, I had to remind my colleagues to focus on our children, not their own glory. Despite the initial friction, our impact was profound. The volunteers developed respect and affection for the rural children, who were no longer an abstract social problem, but bright young adults with endless passion and potential. Our students, deprived of familial attentions, all blossomed under our encouragements, finally realizing their self-worth and dreaming of brighter futures. For me, an idealistic introvert, that summer was my opportunity to develop confidence and pragmatic wisdom.
Once I returned to Hangzhou, I began reflecting on how to structure an even stronger program for the next summer. This time, I needed to select volunteers who were collaborative and truly empathetic, not just talented. Moreover, to be an effective leader, it was my responsibility to give each volunteer specific roles and responsibilities to set their expectations beforehand.
In 2018, I returned to Anhui with a tighter team, bigger plans, and the same determination to empower those children. I chose “Building Individuality,” as our theme, and also raised enough funding to double camp enrollment. We kicked off the summer by discussing You Are Special by Max Lucado, a good lesson for both children and staff members. We taught the youth why it’s important to recognize their own skills and talents, and most importantly to never compare themselves to others, since we don’t know anyone’s starting point in the game of life.
During the final ceremony, we invited all the students’ parents to watch their kids perform in a production of You Are Special. As the curtains descended, just the beaming smiles on our students’ faces let me know that my efforts were not in vain. Many parents approached me with gratitude and even tears. One mother said she was overjoyed to see her daughter take command on stage because she was such a shy child that even raising her hand during class discussions was a struggle.
Now, I realize that the person most changed by those summers in Anhui was actually me. Finally, I truly proved that I could affect positive change no matter my age. In addition, my innovation and empathy have been contagious, as many of my friends now are planning their own small solutions to address inequality of opportunity.
In order to escape the cycles of migration and neglect that creates generations of “lost children” in China’s countryside, I must do more than provide resources. First, to develop a nuanced understanding of the problem, I must acquire the academic frameworks and vocabulary needed to translate my empathy into concrete solutions (e.g. policy proposals). Armed with a degree in sociology, I hope one day to touch more lives and to cause greater change by becoming first an educator—and perhaps someday, also an influential expert on social change.