This may be where I die. A tsunami is heading toward the coast, we don’t know how large it will be or when it will hit, and this draft old woman just made a wrong turn, driving us straight to the water’s edge. I’m sure she’s a perfectly nice person, but, in this moment, I just barely resist the urge to throw her out of the driver’s seat. I’m not panicking, just being realistic: We need to get to higher ground right now. All the stories that the local Samoans have been telling me suddenly flood my mind. By the time you see the “galulolo,” as they call it, it’s already too late. I scan the horizon anyway. When the first tsunami occurred a week ago, the entire harbor at Pago Pago drained as the giant wave sucked out all of the water just before it funneled down the bay and pummeled the coastline. Dozens died in the last tsunami, and hundreds of homes were destroyed. I have assessed many of these homes and heard firsthand the stories of their owners: Wilson, whose niece drowned after the wave pulled her from her mother; Iakopo, whose family barely made it upstairs before the wave crushed the lower story of his house; and Sinatoga, who calmly showed me the site where I would not have otherwise suspected her house once stood. How will the American Samoan people withstand another disaster? Moreover, where are m y friends? I came to American Samoa with twenty other AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) team leaders, and right now I can only account for two of them. Many are constructing tents in some of the worst hit villages on the western end of the island. Without telephone communication, how will they know to run for their lives?
I am a little embarrassed by some of the thoughts that raced through my head on October 7. We received word that we had an hour to get to higher ground, and, once we arrived at a safe elevation, we were informed that the tsunami warning had been canceled. Never did I expect to flee for my life in a tsunami warning (or do so twice, as I did again on October 19). Nor did I expect to be on a tropical island with the American Red Cross in the first place. Two years ago, I began a series of interviews with an eighty-three-year-old Holocaust survivor named Ursula. Over the course of several weeks, she told me her life story.
She related how her father and brother perished after her family was shipped off to Terezin and then Auschwitz. Ursula survived because two German soldiers took pity on her, disobeyed orders, and dropped her off at a factory en route back to Auschwitz after a stint at a work camp. Ursula is adamant about the need to educate youth regarding the dangers of prejudice, indifference, and inaction. I began to realize how important it is for me to do my part.
Inspired by Ursula, I have spent the last year and a half performing a variety of team-based service projects with AmeriCorps NCCC. I don’t know the exact amount, but, during that year, I felt myself come alive. I encountered some of the most idealistic and passionate individuals I have ever met. We came from different parts of the country, were at different stages of our lives, and our futures were headed in different directions. But we shared the realization that we could not live with ourselves if we did not take this opportunity, while we still could, to help those around us. They brought out the best in me. Now in my second year with AmeriCorps, I work as a team leader and am responsible for the service experience of ten eighteen-to twenty-four-year-olds. It is more work than I ever imagined, but each day I have a sense of accomplishment.
In my time with AmeriCorps, I have primarily performed hands-on tasks, such as providing supplies with the Red Cross and repairing hurricane-damaged homes. As I performed these services, however, I came to realize that people require guidance in navigating the “system.” As homeowners attempt to rebuild their homes after a disaster, they need help battling insurance companies that deny payments and contractors who cheat them. Like the parents of many of the elementary school students with whom my team now works, half of whom are currently homeless, people need assistance dealing with landlords and foreclosing banks as well as with government agencies that are sometimes insensitive to their needs. I have learned in the past year that lower income families need access to legal services. I believe that the best way I can serve is by becoming the finest attorney possible.
In America Samoa, community members came out to help one another more than in any community I have thus far visited. What I witnessed in the Samoan people was loyalty and a sense of responsibility to help another. They were inspirational. I wish to follow their example and to demonstrate that it should not be out of the ordinary for a lawyer to devote her time to helping her fellow citizens. I plan to make public service a career. I want to help people help themselves- and then help one another.
The powerful opening sentence catapults the reader headlong into the tsunami—an entrance that promises a vivid essay. Beginning in the middle of the action allows for the more dramatic and energizing introductions that are a hallmark of outstanding essays. Avery Hook’s essay’s initial burst engages because she knows how to tell a story. She drives the narrative with tsunami-fueled suspense. Yet at the same time, by the end of the first paragraph, she has gestured to her relationships with the native Samoans and her impulse toward helping them.
Hook does an excellent job in narrowing her essay’s subject so that it is neither so broad as to be unhelpful nor so limited as to be repetitive. Reading the vivid vignettes illuminates a formative aspect of her life that is not readily apparent from a formal resume. Recounting her experiences rebuilding homes, delivering supplies, leading and learning from the Samoan population transplants the reader into experience. She broadcasts the seriousness of her commitment to service, inspired by her interaction with Ursula that dangles a bit heavy-handedly in the middle of her essay, in order to effectively elucidate her motivations for pursuing law.
After the climatic rush of the anecdotal first paragraph, Hook transitions into more didactic writing. As a general rule, that should be kept to a minimum in personal statements, and it leaves the reader missing the essay’s original strength of feeling. A phrase of commentary like “They were inspirational” risks feeling flat especially next to her much more vivid recounting. Similar phrases, like “I felt myself come alive,” feel weak beside the much realer palpitations of her experiences. Those phrases, paired with the brief, basic survey of families in need form a less-than-perfect bridge to the topic of law school motivation.
Still, Hook is making a successful case, and her experiences are reasons, geared toward answering the question: Why does she want to attend Harvard Law School? Her conclusion needs her own words and commentary to fully provide an answer. Hook’s final words—“I want to help. . .”— might feel hackneyed if they stood alone. But her essay’s stories—the supporting proofs—infuse that concluding promise with the sentiment she wants to impart.