826LA's Great Los Angeles Personal Statement Weekend 2012

By Darleen Principe

Few things are more rewarding to me than helping someone accomplish a dream. So when 826LA needed volunteers -- to lend a caring ear and a little bit of writing help to an aspiring college student -- for the Third Annual Great Los Angeles Personal Statement Weekend (GLAPSW) earlier this month, I jumped at the opportunity.

It was just after 11:00 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 10. About a dozen volunteer tutors, including myself, sat inside Room S017 at West Adams Preparatory High School, anticipating the arrival of an ambitious bunch of high school seniors.

In several other classrooms down the hall and throughout the building, the rest of day one's 100 volunteers were already beginning to meet their partners for the day.

For most of the 227 high school seniors (and a few juniors) who attended the two-day event, getting four solid hours of one-on-one help with a tutor was an extremely rare opportunity.

Many of the students had never written about their hopes and dreams in such detail before, not to mention explored the personal struggles they've had to overcome throughout their lives.

Our job as personal statement tutors that weekend was to help them uncover and organize those thoughts, and to help translate them into words for the essays that would accompany their college applications.

Finding the gem

Lilian Flores, a senior at West Adams, came to me with little more than an idea for what she wanted to write about in her University of California (UC) application essays.

We spent the first 10 minutes of the Saturday session getting to know each other. But once we had both gotten comfortable, that's when the real work began.

By asking a series of thoughtful, guiding questions -- a method I learned from 826LA's tutor training -- I helped Lilian discover the gem, or essence, of her personal story.

She told me about issues with her family and neighborhood, and how those things motivated her to apply for college. She said her dream is to one day work for a non-profit organization, so she can help others in need.

Even though I was there to tutor her, I couldn't help but be inspired by Lilian's story. At times, she was the one teaching me -- about her world and about how she overcame adversity and found strength.

Besides helping her write, I tried to be a confidante. I wanted her to know that I was there to listen.

Within the first hour, we had created essay outlines for both prompts on the UC application. And as Lilian typed out her first draft over the next few hours, I stayed by her side, editing paragraphs and chiming in whenever she needed some guidance.

By about 2:45 p.m. -- just before the end of the session -- Lilian had finished both essays for her personal statement. She thanked me and said that being done with the essays was like having a "heavy weight" lifted from her shoulders.

For me, seeing the look of relief wash over Lilian's face after nearly four hours of hard work was truly heartwarming. I was so happy to have been able to help her.

The students

Lilian was not the only student who left West Adams feeling accomplished that weekend.
With the help of LA City Council members Jose Huizar and Tom LaBonge, who donated bus services to the event, students from Theodore Roosevelt Senior High School and John Marshall High School were also able to attend the 3rd annual GLAPSW.

LA's Promise, the non-profit organization that partnered with 826LA to put on the mass tutoring session, sponsored the students from Manual Arts Senior High School, as well as those from West Adams.

Gabriela Gomez, one of the Roosevelt students who attended day one, said the best part of the day was meeting her tutor, Louise Steinman.

"She was a lot and very good help," Gabriela said. "I am proud of my personal statement because she helped me a lot on how to express and write my feelings on paper."

Sergia Escalante, another Roosevelt student, received help from a bilingual tutor.

"In the morning, I didn't have anything written," Sergia said. "But then my tutor helped me to get the ideas together. The tutor helped me a lot and now I have [a] personal statement."

Albert Mendoza, a senior at Manual Arts, attended day two of the event, on Nov. 11.

"I learned how to write more about myself and how to catch the reader's attention," he said. "I learned how to make a personal statement like a personal story."

And Nicole Tuong, a student from Marshall High, said she found comfort from working with a tutor who was very "understanding and supportive."

"I feel that the tutor is someone reliable, and can be someone to confide your thoughts in," Nicole said. "The tutor was very respectful and ultimately helped. The personal statement weekend was special because it not only gave me a better look at the personal statement, but also reassured me about what I already have."

The volunteers

Like the students we tutor, 826LA volunteers come from all walks of life. Some, like me, are working journalists. Others are teachers, executives, artists or counselors.

Regardless of our backgrounds and occupations, the one thing we all have in common is a desire to help LA's youth reach their goals.

Elizabeth Arroyo, a master's student at Cal State University Los Angeles, was also a volunteer tutor at the 3rd annual GLAPSW.

"I think it went well," Arroyo said. "Not just for the students I worked with, but also the students I saw working with other people. They were very grateful. They wanted to write the best stuff possible, so they really welcomed the constructive criticism given to them."

Besides helping during personal statement weekend, Arroyo also volunteers in schools, where she has already helped dozens of other students apply for college.

"Each time I have met with a student has been very rewarding," Arroyo said. "I love hearing about students' backgrounds and the challenges they've overcome. They're really strong kids, really motivated individuals. It's so inspiring."

Marisa Urrutia Gedney, Director of Operations and Programs for 826LA in Echo Park, said the 3rd annual event was a huge success.

"I feel and know that it was a success because people left smiling," Gedney said. "Many of the students [recognized] their tutors by name. It shows me that the great thing about this event is that the students get real, quality time with an adult.

"By putting on the personal statement weekend, we're letting students know that there are people out there who want to and can spend quality time with them."