Thursday, August 22, 2013

Berkeley Application Essay #1: Personal History Statement

I thought it might be fun to post the application essays I submitted for the MPH program at Berkeley to give anyone interested a small glimpse into where I hope to be headed through this degree. (Yes, they let me in!) This first essay I am posting is the shorter of the two and is called the "personal history statement." The prompt was as follows:

Your Personal History Statement gives you an opportunity to add some individuality and depth to the basic information contained in your Statement of Purpose. You may write about who you are as a person, about your family, your ethnicity, and the experiences that make you unique. This essay will play a large role in consideration for fellowships.

There is also a "personal statement guide" that lists other suggestions, such as discussing non-traditional educational backgrounds, cross-cultural experiences, ability to articulate the barriers facing women and minorities, etc. The limit for this essay was 4800 characters (which amounted to 649 words in my essay).

So without further ado, here is my personal history statement for the Health and Social Behavior concentration:


A Cambodian proverb: Men are like gold; women are like white cloth. 

The implication of this axiom is that women have little intrinsic value, and once a woman is “dirty,” there is no way to redeem her. Men, on the other hand, are portrayed as naturally valuable, and their transgressions are easily erased. Some read this proverb and see a concise explanation for gender-based injustice in Cambodia; I perceive a complex set of circumstances, of which this is but a single layer. Recognizing the complexities of a problem, however, falls short of a plan to restore dignity. My passion is to help those regarded as “dirty cloth” realize their infinite worth, and I believe a graduate degree in public health will equip me to develop solutions that change lives. 

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer in Svay Pak, Cambodia, a destination village for pedophiles. Looking into the faces of young children, some of whom were sold nightly for sex, I saw a juxtaposition of beauty and human depravity. While the injustice of trafficking is evident, one of my greatest gifts is an ability to see the hidden complexities in a problem; Cambodia’s challenges are no exception. Let me explain. The issue of child sex trafficking is a mosaic with roots in dictatorial oppression, war, culture, poverty, and a lack of mental health resources. Among other factors, attitudes of disrespect for women (as described in the proverb) have contributed to the prevalence of trafficking in Cambodia, as well as the inability of victims to reintegrate into communities. These attitudes have allowed exploitation to perpetuate as a societal norm, creating a public health crisis. 

A simple-minded approach is to outlaw underage prostitution. But historically this alone has done little to change the environment. I believe a complex problem necessitates a multi-faceted solution, and it gives me hope that an organization such as Agape International Missions (AIM) has fostered change by taking this requisite seriously. Through victim recovery programs, job creation, community-building activities, and even a gym where perpetrators can interact with aid workers, AIM is having a transformative impact in Svay Pak. AIM’s efforts reveal that my eye for complexity need not lead me to despair, but can be a valuable tool as a public health professional in discerning how to assist women in mental health recovery toward becoming advocates of change in their own communities. 

I also recognize that complex situations resulting in disregard for human dignity are not unique to Cambodia. During my time studying in Ecuador, I saw my classmates disrespect their indigenous heritage, and I learned that few Afro-Ecuadorians attend college. In reading “Half the Sky,” I have been deeply troubled by indifference for women’s reproductive rights worldwide, including poor prenatal and emergency obstetric care. Through my job in health insurance, I have become critically aware of the millions with inadequate healthcare here in the United States. Locally, as I have volunteered as a Court Appointed Special Advocate, I have been grieved by the roles of mental illness and poverty in the child welfare system. I have even personally experienced the effects of being a “lesser-viewed” person, as a woman in the male-dominated field of mathematics. 

I believe my diverse experiences are not random, but have coalesced to uniquely shape my heart for all cultures, to open my eyes to intricacy, and to develop my desire to serve. As long as any person is perceived to be lesser than any other, or is held captive to unjust institutions that remain from such views, I feel called to dedicate my life to restoring human dignity through public health justice. Graduate school at Berkeley is a critical step in transforming my eye for complex problems and love for people into an ability to create adaptable solutions. One day, I hope to see the “white cloth” of the world revalued based on the “gold” inherent in every human spirit.

Update: Be sure to check out my second application essay, the "Statement of Purpose."


  1. You are so smart. I love your combination of nerdiness and caring. ---Liz

  2. Well done... You packed some serious punch in just a few short paragraphs! =) - BLEE

  3. thanks for sharing this. it was helpful. and impressive.

  4. wow! Im trying to write my essays for berkeley. I hope i can churn out something this brilliant

  5. I am simply wowed by your experiences and your ability to beautifully string them together with words. Wish I can the same with my application.

  6. Great tips! One of the best residency application help that I have came across! Thanks !

  7. Wow, thank you for sharing. Your writing is beautiful.