A Wider Lens

“No, no, no, you’re all doing it wrong! The secret to developing realistic drawings lies in your ability to study every nuance of the object in front of you,” my art teacher advised. “Try sketching with one eye closed; it’s all about perspective, people!”

My classmates accepted his advice and I watched as they attempted to make sense of the lifeless apples and pears that lay on the desk in front of them. I, too, clamped my left eye shut, pretending that this technique altered my view in the same manner it affected my peers. It didn’t. With one eye closed, my fruit appeared precisely the same as it had with both eyes open.

As a result of a Retinoblastoma diagnosis at two years old, my world, which my parents dotingly refer to as “Jillian’s world,” has always appeared slightly different from that of others. I have no recollection of having binocular vision, so depth perception has always been a non-existent ability. For the majority of my childhood, I felt ashamed by my prosthetic eye, purposely pushing my hair toward the left side of my face and avoiding all eye contact that surpassed ten seconds. I hated that my eyes did not appear the same, and constantly worried how others would perceive my abnormality. It was not until last summer, when I received a government scholarship to study Hindi in India, that my perspective regarding “Jillian’s world” was altered by one unlikely symbol: the swastika.

I encountered it upon entering my host-family’s home for the first time. It was plastered directly on top of their front doorstep in between two mosaic footprints. I had seen the swastika millions of times in history books and documentaries, but blatantly confronting it in person was an entirely different story. My heart started to sting as images of skeletal bodies and families torn apart raced through my head. The swastika was the face of the bigotry and discrimination that I strongly denounced. I could not wrap my head around the fact that I was about to spend my summer with people who displayed a hate symbol in front of their home.

Within a matter of days I discovered that my host-family was the complete antithesis of the negative characteristics I had originally associated with the swastika. They took me to lavish weddings and temples and taught me how to cook Indian cuisine. My host-mom showed me traditional techniques to create art and we shared many laughs at my many failed attempts at bargaining with market shopkeepers in Hindi. By the mid-way point in my program I had fallen in love with my host-family and their vibrant culture. It was then that I realized that I needed to take another look at the swastika through my host-family’s lens.

One afternoon, I asked my host-mom what the symbol meant in her culture, informing her that it was an infamous hate symbol in the United States. Her response is forever ingrained in my memory.

With wide eyes and a furrowed brow, she answered, “A hate symbol? No no, we believe the swastik is a symbol for peace and good fortune. Why is it hateful?”

When I mentioned the Holocaust, she appeared even more confused. After further researching the symbol, I found that the swastika, known as the swastik in Hindi, had been a Hindu symbol of peace thousands of years before it was ever a symbol of evil. We sat across from each other, both amazed at how our views of one symbol could oppose one another, yet be equally valid in their own respect; this was the beauty of perspective. Since returning from India, I now push my hair away from my face with headbands and my fear of sustained eye contact has vanished. My disability does not limit “Jillian’s world,” but rather, gives me the ability to see far and wide, apples and pears included.

Admissions Committee Comments

Jillian’s essay creatively uses the metaphor of imperfect vision to portray themes of different world views, acceptance, and individual growth. She talks about how the swastika as a symbol is perceived differently in various cultures. What her essay does particularly well is show a journey from interest to action to greater awareness. We get the sense that Jillian is motivated to take initiative, get engaged in a topic, and eager to broaden her mind. These are important qualities for a successful student, and qualities that we value as a research university with a liberal arts core.

Shelves One Through Five

Pushed against the left wall in my room is a curious piece of furniture. Initially, it was a six foot tall and three foot wide red oak bookcase. Strangely, as the five shelves began to fill with books, the dimensions of the bookcase slowly evolved into a looking glass. Now, years later, my reflection is almost complete: each bookshelf cradles the stories of my life.

Shelf One is the base, and rightfully so. It contains my building blocks. Among the bright covers and large lettered titles lie countless fairy tales, fables, and legends. My Indian heritage mixes with my American lifestyle as the spines interchange from gifts from my father’s father to Barnes and Noble bought, creating a cocktail of the morals I grew up on. The heroes in my childhood storybooks were my teachers, driving me to my own heroic actions of enthusiastic community service, whether it was volunteering at the Parks and Recreation center or serving at the Special Olympics.

As I grew out of the innocence of Aesop’s Fables, I developed a ravenous hunger for words. I wanted to read as much as I could, absorbing each book that chanced my way. Shelves Two and Three sag with the weight of the dialogues that satiated my hunger. Everything ranging from the science fiction of A Wrinkle in Time to the ridiculous amusement of The Big Friendly Giant to the horrors of Columbine gathers in those shelves. Here is the embodiment of my curiosity and thirst for knowledge. Here is the explanation for my desire to do more, learn more, and see more. My parents aided these passions, constantly introducing me to new cultures and new places. Our travels all over the country and the world taught me the importance of adaptability and an open mind. With these characteristics, I am always able to communicate to whomever I speak to, regardless of their language or culture.

Shelf Four is the stinging slap I received from reality in my early teens. No longer could I spend all my time trying out the delicious foods at this new restaurant or learning from the displays at the rare exhibit. Now my weekends were filled with daunting math textbooks, designed to help me conquer the beast of numbers. While Shelf Four holds the memories of slogging through countless hours of math, it also displays my development of a logical and rational mind. This is where I grew the qualities of being a strong leader. Now, well versed in the feeling of failure, I am also educated in perseverance and success. I use these experiences to help those who come my way. I am able to connect with others easily because I am willing to share the trials I have faced, and the knowledge I have gained from them.

Looking to the very top, Shelf Five waits patiently. It is partially filled with an assortment of articles from The EconomistNew York Times, and Washington Post, all of which highlight my love for the political sciences, fostered by the debate team. Alongside those, stacked neatly, are aerospace engineering papers, about plasma propulsion, pork chop plots, and Hohmann transfers. They feature my fascinations with physical science and innovation for the future. Countless college brochures, scribbled on with notes and reminders, complete the first half of this top shelf, and they are the present.

Now, standing in the front of a bookcase, I find that I am completely content. I can see myself with a simple, yet comprehensive clarity, like staring into a mirror. Though Shelf Five is unfinished, it is no less hopeful or less promising than the previous four. Soon, I will fill this shelf with the ideas that will further define who I am. I will look upon this shelf in the future with a sense of wholeness, because I know that this bookshelf is me.

Admissions Committee Comments

By transforming her bookshelf into a metaphor for her life, Neha’s essay is creative and shows an affinity for learning beyond textbooks. She writes about books in a way that demonstrates a process of self-reflection. We got a good sense of who she is and how she would participate in the intellectual community at Hopkins.
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