My name is Stephen.

I like to write and tweet.

I work, code and photograph.

Learn more about me and my blog.

Stanford Essay: Starting from the Bottom

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

“It’ll take at least four years for your English to catch up.” The verdict came from the owner of Kittie Land Tutoring Center. Looking out the window to an early September overcast, I prepared myself for an uphill battle ahead.

I came to the U.S. in July 2008, not knowing any spoken English. Eager yet naive, I immediately dreamed about starting a business in the land of entrepreneurship. However, I never realized the difficulty of overcoming the language barrier until the first day of school, when curious students bombarded me with questions like “What’s your name?” and “Where’re you from?” Embarrassingly, I couldn’t answer them, so I sat cluelessly in the last row while immature kids made fun of my thick glasses and outdated T-shirt. To make matters worse, I had no friends who could help me out.

I needed serious assistance. Soon, my family found a tutoring center called Kittie Land. They offered one-on-two English training at a hefty price, but we had no choice. Before we signed the contract, the owner told me, “Even with a daily two-hour session, it’ll take at least four years for your English to catch up.” I promptly activated my mental math machine and figured out how much I’d be spending my parents’ hard-earned money in the next four years. Feeling guilty yet desperate, tears dropped from my eyes for the first time in seven years.

Things didn’t make an upward turn. As the owner accepted more students, I was instead receiving one-on-seven help. Meanwhile, I was still failing every class except for math. Three weeks later, I told myself, “I can prove the fraudulent, incompetent owner wrong. I will learn English by myself, and I will catch up in two years.”

The next day, carrying a yellow notepad with four distinctly-labeled columns - vocabulary, definition, translation, sentence, I started executing my plan right away. I quickly jotted down new vocabulary, at a pace of 30 words per class. When I got home, I opened up translate.google.com and dictionary.com and learned every word’s definition and translation. Then I put the words in context by creating coherent sentences. The following morning, I got to school half an hour early trying to converse with classmates on first-grade topics. After school, I practiced dialogues with teachers without realizing they had lessons to plan.

Despite the awkwardness, mockery, and occasional all-nighters, I was making tremendous progress. In 3 months, my ESL teacher promoted me to the mainstream English class. In 6 months, my writing was evaluated as beyond my grade level. In 12 months, I received Student of the Month award for working diligently to improve English and earning the highest grade in my mainstream English class. In 24 months, I could communicate with anyone without problems. I was no longer the kid who “didn’t speak your language” or “acted differently”. I achieved the goal of catching up my English in two years, half of the time the owner claimed, all without going to her tutoring center.

This journey has fundamentally shaped the way I approach challenges. Without the resourcefulness I acquired through learning English, I wouldn’t have become proficient in four programming languages in two years. Without the independent learning I constantly practiced, I wouldn’t have successfully created and operated eight web applications by myself. Without the confidence I built up trying to become a better speaker, I wouldn’t be brave enough to speak on interviews with KCBS, Inc. Magazine, and The Mercury News about young entrepreneurship.

Steve Jobs spoke accurately in his 2005 Stanford Commencement Speech, “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards.” When I first set foot in the U.S. in 2008, I had no idea what I would become five years later. Looking back now, it’s amazing to see how my dots connect.