Congratulations to the winners and honorable mentions of the 2016-17 First Generation College Essay Contest!
In the fourth grade, I had to complete a mile run. I was nervous because I had never run a mile in my life. I ran as fast as I could, but not for long. Halfway through my first lap, I stopped. I was panting, confused, exhausted, and alone. It took everything in me to keep running. I remember the last thirty seconds of the mile vividly. Being the only one left on the track, I felt everyone's eyes on me. “The fat girl who couldn’t run,” they thought. Or at least that’s what I assumed until I heard their cheers of support. I can still see Ms. Wright’s face scowled tightly at my lack of ability. I remember finishing my mile, and feeling personally victorious.
There is an old African saying my father would always tell me:
Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up. It knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn't matter whether you're the lion or a gazelle – when the sun comes up, you'd better be running.
On some days I am as bold and fierce as a lion. Others, I am as tender and quiet as a gazelle. And on others, I am that fourth grade girl: exhausted, in pain, ready to give up halfway through her first lap.
That same year, my parents had both grown tired of each other. I can still recall the faces of every police officer who would come to take one parent away on nights that disagreements became wars. I can still map out the faded scars on my body from getting caught in the crossfire. Abuse and hate had taken over my home, causing my mom to flee, abandoning us for three years and leaving me to take care of my little sisters. Still, I kept running.
At North Branford High, I suffered extreme anxiety and anger issues from the battles I fought. Most due to the color of my skin. Being the only African American girl in my graduating class, I was frequently referred to as “nigger” or “jigaboo”. I received threats and teachers refused to help me, but it didn’t stop me from running. I kept breaking glass ceilings simply by speaking or raising my hand.
However, shattered ceilings come with a price. Mine was weight gain as I turned to binge eating to deal with stress. I had no one to look to: my mother was a deadbeat, my father stretched thin from being a single parent. I had no friends at school. I was back on that track—trying to outrun my problems and fears. I ran away from problems at home, ran for a healthy body in unhealthy ways, ran to be the best student I could be despite sleepless nights caring for of my infant sister.
Yet, I was only halfway through my first lap, with so much more ahead of me. Some days I am that bold, fierce lion, others, the tender gazelle. But most days, I’m that fourth grade girl ready to give up halfway through her first lap. Yet I continue to run.
These adversities have only made me stronger, smarter, and more resilient. Despite everything, today I stand as a high honor student, taking the most rigorous classes my new school has to offer. Notwithstanding it all being enough to break me, I am a leader in all my communities. I’ve kept a humble, loving heart that shines through everything I do. Most importantly, I keep running. As a first-generation Togolese woman, fighting for equality, I continue to run for the future I deserve. There is no finish line, no victory, no rewards, or trophy. There is only a track full of trials, tribulations, and me… running.