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My Personal Statement: University of Pennsylvania - Talia S.

16 APR 2021

In the essay that got her into the University of Pennsylvania, Talia wrote about the formative experience of visiting Auschwitz as a young Jewish girl from South Africa in juxtaposition with the experience of marching in memory of the lives lost to the Apartheid regime a year later. She describes how both experiences contributed to her sense of self and desire to step out of her comfort zone and continue growing.

This essay is part of a collection of personal statements written by Crimson students who were accepted to their top-choice universities in the US and UK. By bringing together nearly 25 of our best students’ essays, we want to provide inspiration for future students with the same aspirations and goals. This series will showcase the wonderful variety in our student’s essay creations — powered by their personal voice and supported by their dedicated Crimson essay mentors. Ready to be inspired? Let’s go…

My process of discovering who I am has been strongly influenced by two significant marches. First, I marched to the holiest Jewish prayer, the Shema, then to the beat of Asimbonanga Mandela. First, I marched along the brick paths of Auschwitz, then along the dirt roads of Soweto township. First, I marched with thousands of Jews, then with thousands of South Africans. First, I marched to remember, then I marched to belong - though I wasn't sure I ever would.

'Arbeit Macht Frei. Work makes you free.' As a young Jewish girl from South Africa, I never thought I would walk beneath these infamous words while singing the Israeli national anthem - not only because I lived far away but because I did not think I was brave enough to face the true horrors of the Holocaust. At the age of 17, I travelled to Poland alongside 40 young Jews from South Africa. This trip was aimed to educate us about the horrors of our past, expose us to the uniqueness of the global Jewish community, and encourage us to examine the roots of prejudice, intolerance and hatred.

This march was not merely a journey in our ancestors' footsteps, but a process of self-discovery. My great uncle and great grandmother were survivors of Auschwitz. I never got to meet them; however, I felt as if I walked alongside them during the march. While being surrounded by young Jews from around the world, I realized how grateful I was to be Jewish and a part of this people. I learnt the power of hatred - that not only actions but also words can lead to a horror such as the Holocaust.

Returning to South Africa was challenging. I was met with the realization that South Africa could not offer me the connection and comfort of being close to my heritage. In Poland, I could feel connections to my past through seeing piles of shoes at Mejdanek or reading through The Book of Names in Auschwitz. But after this, I began to feel out of place in South Africa.

A year later, my school invited me to attend a Youth Day March commemorating the youths who were brutally murdered for taking action against the apartheid regime. I knew I would be out of my comfort zone, marching alongside people I had less of a connection with, whose past struggles had not been my own.

As we arrived at the starting point, I felt overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar faces. When a student I didn't know asked me to march with her, I began to feel included. With every step I took, my discomfort began to ease, and I started to enjoy the march. We were singing songs of freedom. We saw people standing outside their homes, waving and smiling at us as we marched.

I realized that the Jewish nation's horrifying past was not so different from that of Black South Africans' under apartheid. I could identify with their feelings of fear, of not belonging and of hope for a better future. Our people had both been wrongly discriminated against. I held a sign that read, 'Calling for youth empowerment,' and for the first time I felt empowered as a South African. I had allowed my pessimistic attitude to blind me from the beauty of my home; we were of different races, religions, and histories, yet this no longer felt like a barrier. I finally felt part of the "rainbow nation."

Today I still march along my own path. I live with the comfort of knowing who I am and where I belong. I still have more to discover about myself, my Judaism and my South African identity; however, I now feel ready to continue my journey. I've found my comfort zone in South Africa, which means that it is time for me to step out, and find myself anew.

NEXT WEEK: Read the essay that got Emma T. into Cambridge!

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