“Spongebob Squarepants. Season Two, Episode Twenty-Five: Wormy.”
That was the first line in the essay I used to apply to every college on my list. What followed was an uplifting tale of discovery, self-assuredness and triumph over the racism I endured at my high school, told through an adorable anecdote about overcoming a fear of butterflies (that I never actually had). The girl who wrote it was scared, lost, and confused. I’d like to use this essay as my chance to tell the truth.
I grew up in a predominantly white, conservative suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio. My public high school was well-resourced and the largest in the state, with almost 3,500 students — but only 4 percent of them were Black. During my freshman year of high school, a Snapchat video of a white boy spewing racial slurs to a Black classmate went viral in my town. During my sophomore year, I overheard my teammate on the track team tell her friends that Black people were only good at the sport because they had so much practice running from the cops.
During my junior year, I began working on creating an Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for my school district. At 16 years old, I found myself bustling from panel to panel, speaking with teachers across the state about “inclusive excellence,” the “power of diversity,” and every other buzzword and catchy phrase I could think of. I wrote letters, formed teams, and taught an “anti-bias” curriculum to hundreds of people. In the beginning, I couldn’t be more proud of the work I was doing.
By senior year, after I’d discovered more radical ideas through Black visionaries like Angela Davis, my perception of the world had dramatically shifted. I realized that inclusion should be the bare minimum, but I was preaching like it’d be the final step. Diversity alone is not, and never will be, justice. But I was in too deep with this persona I’d created. One step out of line, one bold idea not palatable for white audiences, and it could all be taken away. Quite frankly, I didn’t care about being my district’s poster child anymore. But now there were younger Black girls looking up to me, a whole community — small but mighty — expecting me to represent them. Who would do it for them, if not me?
The new version of myself I’d created no longer belonged to me. The feeling was deeply unsettling, and it sparked a long period of constant compartmentalization and dissociation that I’m still working through. I was also completely exhausted, drained from reliving my racial traumas over and over to an audience. The only thing that kept me going was the hope of making my school better for some other Black girl. I told myself that the loneliness, the pain, the inner turmoil — it’d all be worth it for her.
When it came time to write my college application essays, I knew what admissions officers did and did not want to hear about. They did not want to hear about the time you sprained your knee before a big soccer game. They did want to hear about the death of a loved one — but only if it was sudden, tragic, and character-building. They did not want to hear about your babysitting job — unless you worked to support your family, who were also very poor and sad but, in the end, resilient.
I understood pretty clearly that the situation I’d be expected to write about in my application would be one that still has lasting damage today — the classic “Black at a PWI” experience, a story so common that when I initially read this essay prompt, I brushed it off. Sure, I turned my racial trauma into a cute essay about Spongebob and butterflies … but hadn’t everyone? There are so many other personal hardships that have been exploited for the sake of getting into Harvard. At the end of the day, I’m just another Black kid from the suburbs.
But when I stopped to think about it, I realized just how much the very essence of a college essay compels your barely 18-year-old self to wrap up one of your deepest struggles into a neat bow and serve it on a platter to a panel of judgemental strangers. It asks you to recall a time you overcame something, but not to focus too much on that “something.” It forces you to lie in order to tie up loose ends that are still fraying years later.
For me, it meant spinning a time that ripped me from my true self into a bold declaration of growth and self-discovery. I reduced an entire lifetime of grappling with my Black womanhood into a single sentence that also served as a chrysalis metaphor. I spoke of insecurity in the past tense, like I wasn’t still tone-policing myself in every space I inhabited — including the Google Doc where I drafted and re-drafted my essay countless times. I wanted Harvard to want me so badly, I never thought about what I wanted for myself.
After arriving on campus, I realized pretty quickly that Harvard actually needs us much more than we need it. Specifically, Harvard needs me. But not in the way I felt a sense of responsibility for the young Black girls in my community. Someone else can be the first or only one to look like me in various places on campus — I am perfectly content being the second, fifth, tenth, or preferably hundredth.
You won’t see me speaking about whatever “inclusive excellence” is ever again. In fact, Harvard needs me precisely because I refuse to do so. With the time, energy, and self-assuredness I’ve gained by protecting myself from any more exploitative emotional labor, I am able to do the real work I care about. I am able to create art and build communities, heal, and become the person I truly want to be.
But in true college-essay fashion, our journey wouldn’t be complete without a full-circle moment. So as I reminisce on my application and its unabashed declaration of my fully transformed butterfly-ness, I can confidently say I am still a caterpillar — happily munching on leaves and napping on branches as I slowly (and messily) reach one of my many new forms. And I’m not really in a rush to get there.
— Magazine writer Mariah M. Norman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariahnorman03.
This is one of six essays published in FM’s 2022 “Rewriting Our Harvard Admissions Essays” series. Read the rest of the series here.