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In the past, whenever I have been confronted with a question on an application asking about “contributions of your cultural or ethnic background”, I have always thought that such essay prompts were not written for me. Such topics, I facilely assumed, were meant for people whose cultural narrative was far more varied than mine – for immigrants from faraway countries, or for biracial individuals discovering their mixed identities. Ironically, it was my roommate of three years, herself an immigrant from the faraway country of Burma, who reminded me that I do indeed have a relevant story to tell.
I grew up in a semi-rural community in southeastern Massachusetts with a white population of 97% or more. The homogeneity of the community is such that I can count on one hand the number of ethnic minorities in my high school graduating class. Coming to Harvard was thus an enormous change for me on many levels; by the conclusion of my freshman year, my circle of friends constituted a veritable United Nations in microcosm. I had grown close to international students from Burma, Jamaica, and Tanzania, immigrants from Mexico, Poland, El Salvador, and China, and American-born students of Indian, Caribbean, and mixed racial descent. In short, I was thrown into a world where tamarind candy, pickled mango, and taro-root-and-frog-egg soup had replaced burgers, chicken fingers, and apple pie as the delicacies of choice. I approached these newfound challenges with gusto, doing my best to keep an open mind while immersing myself as much as possible in the vastly different and enormously varied cultures and traditions which my newfound friends represented. I discovered many things that were new and exciting – in addition to the aforementioned and delectable taro and frog egg soup, I first experienced the spicy deliciousness of Thai curry and the wonderful sweetness of horchata, first witnessed the beauty and excitement of traditional Indian dance, and first engaged in serious conversation about cultural difference and the realities of racism during my years at Harvard. I also witnessed firsthand a small portion of the challenges presented by diversity during my sophomore year at Harvard, when my culturally diverse rooming group clashed bitterly over issues of privacy and treatment of guests in our suite. Along the way, I made every effort to learn from each experience and each conversation I had.
These experiences with diversity challenged my understanding of the world in a plethora of ways, showing me the enormous differences as well as the striking similarities between myself and those raised in other cultures. It is easy enough to appreciate the fact that I and my friends could all share a laugh over an inside joke, or that each of us could – and did – cry over a broken heart. It was much harder to understand that some of the fundamental assumptions that I had been taught were not always shared by others – for example, that my conceptions of individuality and of political rights were quite different from the mindset of many non-Westerners. Coming hand-in-hand with these realizations was the appreciation of just how much I didn’t understand about people of a different cultural background – I may be able to grasp intellectually the differences separating my worldview from theirs, but I may never be able to truly internalize their different understanding. In a world increasingly beset by racial divisions and self-segregation, I believe that these experiences have left me with a great deal to share with my classmates. I have gained an enormous appreciation for the potentials and pitfalls surrounding diversity; my appreciation for the sensitivity of these issues can, I believe, help me to initiate and sustain dialogue with students of various ethnic backgrounds. I look forward to the opportunity to share my understanding and appreciation of diversity with students on Penn Law’s campus.
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