My Personal Statement
Two years ago I drove to Louisiana to visit a friend I hadn’t seen in ages. After we sat, I listened to him tell me about his new life in Baton Rouge and what it was like to be a graduate student. He was doing a Master’s in Cultural Anthropology. Books were scattered all over his apartment. “So,” he paused, after discussing his upcoming thesis on the Roller Derby girls. “How’s Spain?” I told him that questions like that are always hard to answer in one or two sentences. “I thought about you last week,” he said, pulling a textbook out of his backpack. “We had to read this article about the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao and it lead to this huge discussion in class. Here.” He opened and handed it over for me to skim. There was a black and white photo of a woman pressing herself against a wall, like she was trying to eavesdrop on the adjacent room. Her skirt was pulled up high above her waist and her mouth was shaped in a silent oh. My eyes wandered to the caption. She had been stimulating herself against the wall of the Guggenheim while onlookers gawked. She was making a statement against the marketing of this museum, which boasted a sleek and sensual aesthetic. “I was there in Bilbao a month ago,” I said finally. “By the time I got to the Guggenheim it was loaded with tourists, and the tickets were way out of my budget so I never got into the exhibit.” Then I told him about how I had spotted two people shooting up under the bridge I stood from, which overlooked the Guggenheim and a river that ran through the city. Then I crossed the bridge to the other side, where the scenery changed. There were no hotels or monuments, no tapas bars mixed with Spanish people and tourists. I could feel all eyes on me in an uneasy manner. Someone followed me for several blocks until I managed to find another bridge and run back across. That was the first and last time I would cross that river alone. “The article talks about some of that,” my friend pointed out. About the socioeconomic groups geographically divided by that river in Bilbao, about the lingering dismal state of businesses during the Spanish crisis, and the impracticality of the Guggenheim, the fancy museum most locals could not afford to visit.
I could feel the tension in my shoulders soften as my heart swelled with pride. I did have something to bring to the table. I had exhausted so much energy worrying about the future, convinced my years abroad had somehow made me irrelevant to institutions and employers in the States. That little chat in Louisiana helped me realize the benefit of seeing things in the world that others spend their lives reading about. I returned to Spain to continue my work as an English teacher, knowing that when I was ready, I would become a graduate student myself.
My military, single mother had raised me to be independent, so she was 100% supportive when I announced my plans to move to China in 2008. I had received my Bachelor’s degree in Mass Communications with a minor in Creative Writing from Valdosta State University in 2004, and I was ready to try my hand at a career that utilized my degree. My first teaching position was at Hebei University, outside of Beijing, where I taught English Writing. I found myself giving a lot of the same advice my college professors had given me, like show, don’t tell, and to trim the fat and be concise (which is easier said than done). It was challenging to teach a class of 40 students to write creatively in a society that encouraged communal thinking. I received several assignments that had been plagiarized and this I had no time for. When I realized this had been accepted before they had me as their teacher, I gave each of the students a second chance to complete it themselves. For the final assignment, they had to write me a persuasive essay explaining the grade they felt they deserved. I received so many papers from students telling me they had never done anything like that before. Knowing I had challenged them, I left China on a high-note. I spent four years teaching in Spain after that, where I earned a TEFL-certification and became bilingual in Spanish. In 2013, I went to Ukraine and taught in the village of Pereiaslav-Khmelnytskyi, outside of Kiev. This was the experience that really changed me. I learned so much from my Ukrainian students, who ranged from 8-17 years old. Many of these young people understood suffering beyond what I’ve experienced in my own life, and I was blown away at not only their motivation to be the best in class, but at their impeccable talents! Beat poets, ballroom dancers, it was amazing to see these kids get up on stage and perform during the talent shows that I organized. Going to Ukraine was the best professional decision I’ve made to date, as I tackled tasks of leadership and developed a thicker skin. I left Ukraine feeling so much more confident, capable and fearless. I took these attributes with me to Moscow, where I worked for another year in a language school and loved every second. My experiences in Ukraine and Russia sealed my conviction to return to the U.S. and get a Master’s degree. I’ve known that I am an intelligent person with artistic talents. But now I feel as though I’ve traded in my self-doubt and intimidation for real determination and ambition. Perhaps this flux comes with maturity, as I feel more in control than ever at 33. I’m 100% ready to start the next chapter in Columbia, South Carolina. I’m out to get a Master’s in the program I truly love, and it’s the one solid thing that propelled me through many years of hardships. I’m here to study—and succeed—in Creative Writing, with a concentration in Fiction.
During my years as an undergraduate, I was fortunate to study under two wonderful professors. Dr. Marty Williams was my poetry instructor and the first mentor I ever had. His kindness and patience helped shift me from a 19-year-old girl who enjoyed word play to an adult writer with a real voice. In 2002, he awarded me with the American Academy of Poets Award Scholarship. This was the first time I had ever won anything for my writing. Earning that bit of confidence was essential for my courses with Dr. Jeffrey Vasseur, my mentor in fiction. In the beginning, I was terrified of him until I understood that he was merely trying to challenge us as writers. He introduced us to a variety of authors I hold dear, such as Andre Dubus, who took his time to tell a story. His works reward committed readers with a lustrous ending that stays with you for a long time after. Amy Bloom’s short stories possess an addictive quality, and she can transform any peculiar situation into something completely normal. And of course, he introduced us to works by Alice Munro, who deserves all the accolades she has received. I consider her to be the Meryl Streep of fiction, as her voice is both compassionate and versatile; each of her stories leave me with some kind of lump in my throat. Queenie is a stunning example of the respect she has for her readers. Instead of spoon-feeding the plot, she allows us to explore the depths of our own imaginations and figure things out for ourselves. I had to really work hard to impress Dr. Vasseur with something I had written, as I knew it would not be an easy task. When he granted me the Raymond Register Fiction Award Scholarship in 2003, I was so elated and in utter disbelief that I had managed to do it, let alone achieve both coveted scholarships.
Writing has always meant more to me than a skill or a set of courses I excelled at in college. Whether it was from the strenuous circumstances of divorce during adolescence or getting bullied at school, writing provided the solace I needed to stay strong and be patient. It was there for me again at age 22, when I was kidnapped and sexually assaulted during my last year in college. I composed hundreds of ballads to sing in a jazz-rock band in order to process everything that had happened. This experience shaped me into a better artist. The biggest reason writing means so much to me is that it has helped me embrace these events in my life and regain control of who I am. Writing has made me a survivor. I learned a lot of valuable things as a writer at 22. I learned you must separate yourself a little when you write something autobiographical. Even if every waking detail is identical to reality, you have to pick and choose the things that matter in order to make it literary and just. I also learned that it is important not to get infatuated with your own work and get your feelings hurt when receiving constructive criticism; allowing an alternative pair of eyes to peer at your work from a rational distance and taking their ideas into consideration graciously is one of the most important virtues in this field.
My psychology professor wisely once told me that I should wear as many hats as possible in this lifetime. My future ambitions stem from that piece of advice—to live in as many places (check) and hold as many different professions as I can. I’ve worked in restaurants, real estate, customer service and education. I would like to publish a book of memoirs and/or fictional short stories, even if it takes me a lifetime to do. I desire a career that utilizes my artistic abilities, such as in copywriting and travel journalism. I am also interested in international affairs, as well as exploring non-profit organizations and agencies that help victims of sexual violence. And finally, teaching will always remain an option, as I enjoy it dearly. In the meantime, I want to fill my palette with the knowledge and tools of your esteemed professors, surround myself with others of similar interests, and focus on composing quality work.
Before this personal statement reaches novel length, I would like to finish it by expressing my deepest gratitude, for your efforts in reading my material, as well as your consideration of me as a candidate for the University of South Carolina graduate program. Your program has received much praise from my Creative Writing professors for being modern and savvy. If you do decide to take a chance and invite me to become a Gamecock, you’ve got my honest word that I will listen, I will take you seriously, and I will work harder than I ever have. Creative Writing is the one true passion I possess, and I want to honor that by becoming a part of your program.
Tara A. Sherman