The Atlantic has recently published JFK’s 1935 Harvard application. It is fascinating to see how the school’s application process has evolved in the past 8 decades. Though JFK’s essay revealed that social status and personal connection were primarily the keys to Harvard admission, which might still be the case in today’s world, I think it is (nearly) fair to say that our school is now valuing more about prospective students’ appetite on solving the world’s problems and their EQs.

The essay Qs I was given during my admission was the following:

” Write an essay describing a challenging situation or interaction you faced. In this essay, please tell us the background on the situation or interaction, who was involved, your role, and the end result. Please note that positive outcomes do not always make the most compelling essays.” (2 pages MAX)

I am not here to prove to you that my application essay was the model answer. Rather, I want to share with you my personal story, in which it has sharpened who I am today.

My Choice Reflects My Hopes, Not My Fears

At the age of 18, I left Hong Kong and came to a small town in Alabama. I was told that the upcoming year would be adventurous and joyful because Guin High School was ready for an exchange student like me.

I arrived at midnight to a cold and empty airport and was greeted by my host mom, Kristin. During the long and quiet ride home, Kristin’s only conversation was to tell me that she had an 8 year old daughter. To this day, Kristin’s background is still a mystery. I don’t understand why she applied to be a host family. She was never interested in my culture or education.

Little did I know my whole world would change again overnight. Kristin told me she was unemployed, broke and needed to move in with her father, who lived in Niceville, Florida. My suitcases were not yet unpacked, but I had to move again. Facing an unknown future, I was scared. No one in Alabama knew I had left and no one in Florida was expecting me. It was not the exchange program experience I had foreseen.

After a 6-hour road trip, we arrived at Kristin’s father’s home. My new host grandfather was a Vietnam War veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder. He was shocked and unprepared to ‘adopt’ me. I was no longer the exchange student on a mission to experience American life; I was now a foreigner in a mental health patient’s home. My only hope was to survive.

There were days when the house was empty and so was the kitchen pantry. Even though I had a mailing address, the life I was experiencing was that of a homeless person. Starvation became a daily routine. The only access to basic necessities was through school. I grabbed extra food from the school lunch program and signed up for culinary class because making meals was  part of the curriculum. To fight hunger, I even ate my classmate’s leftovers. Just when I thought I could be self-sufficient, my experience took a dangerous turn.

One night, when the grandfather returned home from work, we were alone in the house. He came to the kitchen where I was doing homework and stood extremely close to me. His nose was less than an inch from my neck and I could feel his breath. He kept shouting, “I hate you woman! I have guns in this house!” I tried to escape the kitchen but he blocked me. I asked myself, “Do I have to fight for my life?” I burst into tears. When the grandfather spit in my face, I turned around and threatened him with a kitchen knife screaming, “Stay away from me!” I do not recall how long I held the knife, but he eventually stepped back and left the kitchen. I knew if I did not leave that house, I would not survive.

My plan to escape without alarming the grandfather was to use the school bus. My bus driver never disappointed me. He picked me up every morning at 6 a.m., rain or shine. The night was long and lonely. I put my arms around my suitcase, sat in my room and prayed. The bus arrived and my driver made a joking comment about my suitcase. I choked out, “Get me out of here, please!” The moment the doors of the bus closed, I knew I would be safe. I had overcome fear by taking a leap of faith.

In the end, my year did turn out to be adventurous and joyful. I found a family and friends with whom I have stayed connected to this day. I had empowering experiences traveling and competing with the high school forensics team. I was able to sleep, study and assuage my literal as well as emotional hunger. At the end of the year I received a scholarship to study at the University of Nebraska. Through this experience I learned that I could overcome powerful negative situations, a formative lesson that continues to shape the person I am.