1 Teramar

Personal Impact Essay

Rachel in Cambodia, 2011

Rachel Heimann, a junior at San Francisco University High School, traveled on our Global Awareness in Action Cambodia summer program for high school students in 2011. Focused on the telling of a people’s story, Rachel explored the history of genocide in Cambodia and the relentless quest to rise above past atrocities. She recently shared this personal statement with us. Rachel plans to submit this essay, which describes a particularly powerful experience she had in Cambodia, as part of her college application package next year.

In 1976, one of the most macabre genocides in history occurred. The corrupt government known as the Khmer Rough took control of Cambodia and killed every citizen with any level of education including teachers, students, and even people who wore glasses. The Khmer Rouge regime also killed 90% of all artists, which led to the threat of extinction of many traditional art forms. Fortunately because of people like Arn Chorn Pond, who survived the genocide solely by entertaining soldiers with his flute, Cambodia was not stripped of its artistic traditions. He founded Cambodian Living Arts, a non-profit organization that teaches traditional arts to Cambodia’s youth, in order to restore his country’s cultural pride and to show the world that Cambodia is more than just the Killing Fields.

Last summer, I was lucky enough to meet Arn while spending a month in Cambodia. After working with students at Cambodian Living Arts and learning traditional dances and instruments, fifteen other kids and I sat down with Arn and he told us his story. He told us of the horrors that the genocide brought him, including having to watch his siblings starve to death. An American family adopted him when he was a teenager, but he returned to Cambodia as an adult in attempts to better the country of his childhood.

Arn could see my struggle to hold back tears and singled me out. “Why are you sad?” he asked. I wasn’t self-conscious of showing my emotions, but I felt guilty crying when I had lost nothing compared to the heroic man looking right at me. There were two moments when Arn was speaking that impacted me. First, he told us that when he was young, Cambodia thrived culturally and socially. “You’d never think something like this would happen in America,” he warned us, “but neither did we.” I’d like to think that every country that goes through something as horrible as genocide is nothing like America, but it only takes one corrupt leader to destroy a society. He then revealed that his dreams as a child were like anyone else’s: to know his brother’s favorite song, his sister’s favorite color, and to hear the story of how his parents met. Arn never learned any of this because his whole family died by the time he was a teenager. I couldn’t fathom not knowing these simple facts, because I had never thought what it would be like to not know. As I shared my thoughts, the tears streamed down my face and I was taking sobs of breaths in between sentences. Arn came over to me, put my head between his hands, and said, “I know it’s scary. It’s a scary world. So what are you going to do about it?”

It was this moment I decided that no matter where life should take me, I will do something to prevent these horrible events. It may seem like a naïve goal or a common dream, but I know that no matter how small my impact, I will make one. Arn simply gives the gift of art, and it has offered hundreds of children real economic opportunities and saved them from having to beg on the streets or go into prostitution. CLA is also restoring Cambodians’ pride in their country by reviving the culture that was almost lost over 30 years ago. If Arn can put aside his suffering every day from horrifying memories of his past in order to create a better future for Cambodia, surely I can overcome academic stress and serve my community throughout the year. Through this conversation I recognized that small gestures can often be the most meaningful and impactful. I don’t yet know what I’ll do or who I’ll help, but I know I can’t go through life knowing that innocent people are being massacred and cultures are being destroyed while I sit idly by. Every culture deserves to thrive, and every person deserves to know how his parents met. The world needs people who are willing to cry, recognize a problem, and do something about it. I will be this person.

The Personal Essay

A personal essay is a broad essay that often incorporates a variety of writing styles. Most personal essay assignments ask writers to write about an important person, event or time period in their life. The goal is to narrate this event or situation in a way that the reader can fully experience and understand. This type of writing generally incorporates both narrative and descriptive writing, which are two of the main modes of writing. 

Here are some tips on making a personal essay more effective:

Focus on detail. The writer’s job is to show, not tell, what happened. Be sure to use plenty of detail to make this happen and avoid overrelying on adjectives. Strong verbs are often better. Don’t tell the reader that the sunset was breathtaking, describe it. 

Incorporate sensory detail. When describing a particular event, most writers focus on how a place or situation appeared. This is because most of us tend to be sight dominant when using senses. However, the reader can be brought further into the essay by incorporating a variety of senses: sound, smell, touch and taste, in addition to sight. 

Connect the event/person/place to a larger idea. As you describe this event, person, place, etc., don’t lose focus on the main idea: how the event changed you. This is the thesis of your personal essay, and it is important that you demonstrate how the details come together to create this thesis. Don’t get so caught up in narrating the actual event that you forget to also go into detail on the importance of it. 

Be careful with verb tense. As you shift from the event itself, which occurred in the past, and how it has continued to impact your life, be sure to use the appropriate verb tense and keep it consistent. Some writers will describe a past event in present tense, hoping to make the reader feel more involved. This can be done, but doing it well involves great writing skill. No matter what, be sure to keep the verb tense consistent. When in doubt, stick with past tense for the actual event and present tense to discuss the change.

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