I've received a few more requests for this, this year, and at this point I feel okay posting it publicly. Here was what my admissions cycle looked like:
A bunch of waitlists, both at schools where that was kind of a "wow, I'm flattered," and "what the hell?" They weren't really YP schools, either -- I suspect that this personal statement simply turned a number of schools off. For reference, WL at Chicago, Penn, UVA, Cornell, UCLA, Vanderbilt, and University of Washington.
Denies from Yale, Stanford, Michigan (well, a girl with a fee waiver can dream, right?).
In with a bunch of money at Illinois, in with a bunch of money at Georgetown, in with some money at Wash&Lee and Emory and Wake Forest and probably a couple I'm forgetting. The big surprise was getting into Boalt. If you want to know what kind of weird personal statements get you put in the "faculty review" pile and get chosen from that pile, this would be a pretty good example. I strongly suspect my GPA was in the bottom 10 for admits at Boalt. I knew when I wrote this personal statement that submitting it would be a significant risk to my admissions cycle; I also didn't really care.
It's hard to know how close you are to rock bottom until you actually get there. I knew I'd arrived in late February of 2002. I was sitting in my shower, with all my clothes on, while the water poured down scalding hot – and I wanted to die. I'd given $2100 to the landlord just a few minutes before, in twenty-one crisp $100 bills, money for back rent and the new month's rent. Nine more green copies of Benjamin Franklin's face stared at me from the bathroom sink. When I got out of the shower, I took one of the bills aside for groceries, and I put the rest into the toilet and pulled the handle. I didn't care what the next month brought: I wouldn't spend any more of those hundred dollar bills.
The night before, I had done something that I'd been doing for almost two months, starting soon after I'd run away from home to Southern California. I'd arranged to meet with a man for dinner, drinks, and – it was assumed, though unspoken by both parties – sex. For this, I would receive three hundred dollars. I owed back rent and had just finished paying for car repairs, but this three hundred dollars would mean a reprieve from my landlord and maybe even some food for my pantry. A year before, I had dreamed of attending law school. That night, stomach growling, I dreamed of having enough to eat.
I was supposed to have met this man once already, two weeks before, but my instincts kept me away. Something hadn't been right. Days later, he contacted me again and wanted to set up a new time. Alarm bells went off, but I needed the money more than I trusted my instincts. When I met him, he seemed witty, charming – and for a few minutes, my fears were gone. We went from our prearranged meeting place at the Huntington Beach pier to his apartment, and when he shut the door behind him, he locked it. I laughed a little nervously and my trepidation came back. I couldn't keep ignoring my instincts. I made some excuse about needing to leave, and I moved toward the door to unlock it.
He didn't let me. He had a knife.
When it was over, four painful and slow hours later, his demeanor changed. Now he was laughing and smiling, to all appearances a man on a date. He took me to his car and back to my neighborhood, chatting as if nothing had happened. I replied with automatic laughs or stunned silence, saying only as much as I had to, hoping only to get home. Visions flashed in my head on the way back: television morgues where Jane Does lay on cold steel. Imagining them, I shivered. When we got to my apartment, he pulled over, got out of the car, and opened the door for me like a perfect gentleman. As I got out, his hand went back into his pocket, pulling out a wad of hundred dollar bills and stuffing it, awkwardly, into my hand. I ran back to my apartment and realized how much money he'd given me: three thousand dollars, ten times what we'd agreed on. The next morning, when I flushed the last eight hundred dollars down the cheap toilet in my barren apartment, I knew I was as low as I would ever get in my life. Defeated, sobbing, I picked up the phone.
The phone call was to friends, not to my family. It wasn't pride that had kept me from calling home – it was fear. My mother had beaten me until I was purple with bruises, called me unprintable names, and threatened to kill me if I ever exposed her as an abuser. When I was caught by police while running away the first time, I demanded to be held in a juvenile detention center for as long as the law would allow. Anything – jail, prostitution, even rape – seemed better than returning to the house I had grown up in. But I was, in many ways, lucky. I wasn't just one of the thousands of underage prostitutes who line many of the streets in Los Angeles and its surrounding counties. I'd graduated high school, even gone to a semester of college before my mother pulled me out. I had been given opportunities and lived a middle-class upbringing that gave me immense privilege compared to other runaways.
I left home with delusions of invincibility. When my savings dwindled and my car broke down, I had too much pride to ask my friends for help and too much self-preservation to go back to my mother's house. I sold off my possessions, all the while assuming it would have to get better soon: first my CDs were pawned, then my movies, then my computer. Finally, I had only one thing left to sell: my body. With it, I sold my pride, my dignity, my dreams. That night in February of 2002, I realized: there was a time for pride – and then there was a time to ask for help. I didn't want to be a statistic, a Jane Doe with a toe tag and a burial no one would attend. I called my friends. I didn't tell them why I needed help, just that I was in trouble. Within two weeks, I was living in a different house, among friends who helped me to get a new job in journalism, a career I would stay in for five more years.
I had worked as a journalist in my hometown, part-time, and my first journalism job led to others, including working as an associate opinion editor for a daily newspaper with a circulation of almost 100,000 – and making well-researched arguments for a living was my dream job. However, as journalism jobs began to become scarce, I decided to change my life for the better yet again by finishing my college degree.
While job security concerns and a longtime love of teaching initially motivated me to major in education, my journalism experience gave me a background in conducting in-depth research, and I began presenting the results of my original research in history and education at national and international conferences. As college continued, I became involved in my university's Mock Trial Team. On that team, I quickly began winning awards as both a witness and attorney, using rhetorical and persuasive skills gained through my journalism jobs, and was elected into a leadership position. My love of research and argument led me, once again, to the law.
Even with my interest in the legal profession, I didn't think I'd be able to enter law school. I had heard there were ethics reviews, and I heard I would have to admit anything in my past that might have broken the law. I thought I would end up in a history Ph.D. program, and while that didn't trouble me (after all, by my junior year, I was creating a new world history curriculum with one of the professors at my school), it didn't excite me as much as the study of law, either. One night, in a late strategy session for mock trial, my teammates discussed their law school chances. “I'd love to go,” I said, but quietly added, “I just don't think anyone would let me in.” When they asked what I meant, the whole story came out, and the room was silent. “[Name],” my team captain, [Friend's Name], said, “you need to apply.” With my choice to sell my body, I was sure I had given up on a dream I had held close for years: my hope to attend law school. Nearly a decade has passed since then, and today, I reclaim that dream and that hope.
I have learned and grown so much since the time that I was 17 that my lost, terrified teenage self seems very distant now. However, nine years later, I talk about my time as a prostitute to a number of people, because I don't want to be a party to the conspiracy of silence about sex work, poverty, and runaways. Every experience in my past, even the most traumatic and difficult, helped to make me into the person that I am today. I know, from my experiences in Los Angeles, not to judge people who have fallen into hard times, or jobs that society regards as disgusting or immoral. I know to ask for help when I need it. Most importantly, I know what it feels like to hit rock bottom and return, kicking and screaming, to the surface for air.
When I went to college the first time, I was abused and scared, and both legally and emotionally a child. Since then, I have become a woman, with a strong sense of empathy and justice. As a lawyer, I intend to use my hard-won skills to advocate for sex workers who are in situations that may feel hopeless. My past has taught me that no one is ever beyond hope, and I know that sometimes, hope can make the difference between a life resigned and a life redeemed. My life's story will always have these chapters, and I would never tear out these pages to make the narrative less painful or more palatable. I have come full circle in ten years – and I do not regret a single day of that decade.