From the moment I first heard about No More Deaths, I wanted to support their work. No More Deaths was founded by an interfaith group of religious leaders from Tucson who were concerned about the fact that thousands of deaths were occurring along the U.S.-Mexico border as migrants travelling through the treacherous Sonoran Desert succumbed to thirst and heat exhaustion. In order to prevent these deaths, No More Deaths volunteers began patrolling migrant trails, providing food, water, and medical attention to individuals in need, and established semi-permanent water stations along these trails.
Growing up in El Paso, many of my closest friends as a child were Mexicans, or the children of Mexican immigrants. As such, I have always taken a deep personal interest in the immigration debate and in the plight of Latino immigrants. I was heartbroken about the tragedy occurring along the border, and felt compelled to try to help. But when I first had a chance to do so, during spring break of my sophomore year at Arizona State University, I almost let it pass me by. It was not that I had to choose between No More Deaths and another compelling opportunity. Rather, my choice was between embracing fear and overcoming it.
At that point in my life, I had not yet sought treatment for my anxiety disorder. This disorder first began to affect me early in my college years. One of the first panic attacks I remember occurred after a train I was taking from New York City to my girlfriend’s hometown in New Hampshire hit and killed someone who was walking along the tracks. When the conductor announced over the loudspeaker that someone had been hit, I was overwhelmed with sadness and fear. I began to shake and hyperventilate; I felt intensely claustrophobic; I felt the need to run away, to escape the tragedy, to find a place of safety.
These sensations soon became all too common. Between the first panic attack and the panic attack that convinced me to finally seek treatment – which occurred in July 2010 – I had over a dozen full-blown panic attacks, while less extreme periods of unexplained anxiety became almost a daily occurrence.
The night before I was to ride with the other volunteers to the No More Deaths campsite in southern Arizona, I had another panic attack. The emotions that filled me were intense. I was afraid of leaving the security of an American college campus, afraid to enter the uncertainty that I knew awaited me in the desert, afraid of the anti-immigrant vigilantes and the violent drug cartels that I knew were operating in southern Arizona. Most of all, I was afraid that I would be unable to cope with the suffering and sadness I might encounter. The volunteer training packet we had been given included instructions on what to do if we discovered a corpse. I was afraid that I wasn’t psychologically stable enough to handle such a difficult environment.
Somehow, I went anyway. I didn’t have an epiphany, a moment when my fear suddenly faded. I just gritted my teeth and forced myself to go, to do what I thought was right, in spite of the fear. And I ended up having one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Over the course of the week, I carried countless gallons of water and large quantities of food from our camp to various stations along the migrant trails. I didn’t run into any anti-immigrant vigilantes or drug runners, but I did meet a father and his son from Chiapas, who were receiving medical treatment at our camp. Spending just a few minutes with this extraordinary pair was enough to dispel the stereotypes that many Americans have about migrants. They were polite, friendly, and very grateful for our assistance and for the chance to live and work in the United States. The son talked at length about how sad he was to have to leave his high school in Chiapas, and how he hoped to be able to continue his education as soon as possible. When asked why they decided to come to the United States, the father said that the economic situation in his community was simply too dismal to support his family. The son said he hoped to have his own chance at the American dream.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s famous statement about fear is, of course, not literally true. There are many things that we ought to be afraid of: the prospect of nuclear terrorism, the evolution of antibiotic resistant bacteria, the effects of climate change. But FDR was right that our society must overcome the “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance” if we are to live up to the high-minded ideals that have defined the self-image of our nation since its inception. Just as it was necessary for me to overcome my fears of the border in order to be the person I wanted to be.
This is a powerful essay that goes beyond the usual trope of overcoming adversity. All too often, application essays contrive stories of obstacles they had to circumnavigate in order to reach their current position. While this has become standard fare, it operates from the egocentric notion that there are not thousands of other applicants who have faced challenges of some nature at some point in their lives.
The potency of this essay is derived from the simple fact that its use of the tried-and-true “overcoming adversity” conceit is more than bromidic exploitation. This application truly tugs at the heartstrings of the readers, not because Richard Davis’s story is any more compelling than his rivals, but because it is so personal. This story of conflict is not me-versus-the-world, but rather about the inner strength it takes to overcome the personal limitations. When reading this piece, the reader does not necessarily sympathize with Davis – instead, that commonplace emotional reaction is replaced with genuine empathy at the courage it took for him to end up where he is today, at a point to confront his own demons toward the goal of personal fulfillment.
The story of challenge overcome is not perfect. The nature of Davis’s struggle comes across unclearly. It appears he has a serious medical issue. While the grin-and-bear-it, cold turkey approach he employs might be both brave and successful, it feels a bit simplistic – is avoiding a panic attack because Davis “gritted my teeth” or is it something more complex? Think carefully not merely about a challenge you’ve had, but also about how you overcame it, and what that shows.
That aside, in Davis’s case, it helps matters that his success is manifested in such a way that it is used to assist others – specifically those for whom Davis deeply cared. Whereas many applications – both successful and otherwise – attempt to utilize sadness for their personal gain, this applicant takes that poignancy and turns it into an admirable tale of triumph over oneself and eventual amelioration of the lives of others.
John F. M. Kocsis