Xiu Chen
School Without Walls High School
Washington, D.C. 
12th Grade
Grand Prize Winner

She Took the Metro Train, Going Anywhere

“Doors opening. Step back to allow customers to exit.”

Every morning, I am greeted with the familiar chime as I weave through rush hour crowds, squeeze into overfilling trains, and avoid bumping my overstuffed backpack into nearby passengers. Eleven years ago, I had heard that chime for the first time as I helped my parents drag four suitcases—packed with wool sweaters and puffy coats, dog-eared dictionaries and laminated photographs—onto the train. We had just stepped off a plane that carried us from a landscape of rice paddies to a horizon of skyscrapers; from the villages of Taishan, China to the heart of America.

Bright-eyed with optimism, my family had escaped a life of subsistence farming in pursuit of the proverbial American Dream. My parents, who never finished junior high school, hoped that through sacrifice and grit, they could secure an education for my sister and me. Their ambitions, in certain aspects, echo the Puritans’ desires for a safe haven in the exodus of the 1630s and the homesteaders’ hopes for a parcel of land on the Western frontiers (Isaacs 34; Czajka) Whether it was a quest for educational opportunities, religious freedom, or private property, they had all envisioned an American Dream with an ultimate goal in mind.

But, my American Dream beats a different rhythm and sings a different tune. It is a Dream that encompasses the essence of “unsullied newness” and “infinite possibility” which is reflected in philosopher John Locke’s observation that, “In the beginning…all the world was America” (Hochschild 15). Similar to the idealistic freedom that Locke envisioned as the foundation of the New World, my American Dream is one where I can explore my curiosities, both academic and personal, with unrestrained liberty. It is a Dream in which I can start anew on a crisp blank page, where neither my citizenship status nor socioeconomic background has any determination on a predestined path that I must follow into the future. Whether I become a mammalogist or an environmentalist, an economist or a computer scientist, I have the unlimited resources to explore these foreign, uncharted territories on my map and blaze my own trail.

Growing up in the nation’s capital, a nexus of opportunities in a land of possibilities, my American Dream is fortuitously thriving. Through the innumerable opportunities and financial resources in Greater Washington for internships and independent research, academic competitions and exposure programs, I am in control of the needle that weaves my own ever-changing tapestry of wonders and aspirations.

First Stop: Smithsonian Station
The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, home to the magnificent fourteen-foot-tall African Elephant and the iridescent Hope Diamond, was the first place where I had pursued my passion for the sciences outside of the classroom. In the Youth Engagement through Science (YES!) Program, a career immersion opportunity for students from the District of Columbia, Maryland, and Virginia that are “traditionally underrepresented in science,” I shadowed a Smithsonian mammalogist as a paid summer intern (“About YES!”). At fifteen years old, I had cleaned, skinned, and prepped jackrabbits and mountain lions for storage in the museum. I was delegated the responsibility of numbering and documenting tiny bone fragments in the national archives. Although I walked in clueless about the field of mammalogy and the work of museum curators, I was granted the resources to explore my curiosities. Opportunities similar to the YES! Program, which invest in the success of the Greater Washington youth who may be inexperienced but have the willingness to learn, are at the core of my American Dream.

Second Stop: Shaw – Howard University Station
While the YES! Program sparked my excitement for scientific inquiry, I was able to fan that flame of interest through other opportunities in the Metropolitan area. Since I started high school, I have participated in EnvironMentors, a program created by the National Council for Science and the Environment in Washington, D.C. Through the afterschool program, I am partnered with a local scientist to investigate an environmental issue through a year-long research project. I have collected water samples along the Potomac River to study bacteria levels. I have studied how heavy metal toxins lurking in drinking water can affect human health. More importantly, I have learned to think analytically, gained laboratory experience, and competed for college scholarships. EnvironMentors has not only provided an opportunity for me to ask freely and explore liberally, which are the tenets of my American Dream, but it has also equipped me with a valuable set of skills to excel inside and outside the classroom, in high school and beyond.

Unfortunately, the EnvironMentors D.C. chapter is not offered for the current school year but I have been able to secure research opportunities elsewhere. After reaching out to several institutions, I received an opportunity to conduct research in a laboratory at Howard University—a testimony to the truly limitless resources in Greater Washington.

Third Stop: Foggy Bottom Station
In addition to the resources in the city, I was able to explore my passion for the sciences through my introductory and advanced placement biology class. However, my high school does not offer courses in other fields, such as economics, that I am interested in exploring and potentially pursuing.

Just as the philosophy of my school encourages students to use the city as our classroom, I was able to fill in the gaps of my curriculum through the opportunities in Greater Washington and fulfill my American Dream of unhindered academic pursuit. During my sophomore year, I participated in the Euro Challenge Competition, which is designed for high school students to learn about an economic issue in the eurozone and identify potential policies to address the problems (“About Euro Challenge”). In a team of four, my classmates and I studied the historical formation of the European Union, researched the faults in the German banking systems, and proposed solutions to address the weaknesses. Although we did not have any prior experience, we were able to answer questions on inflation rates and undercapitalized banks, unemployment percentages and the gross domestic product in front of the judges at the Delegation of the European Union in Foggy Bottom. I may not have been able to pursue one of my interests through my school curriculum, but I was able to secure the opportunity to do so elsewhere in the nation’s capital. There are many more opened doors than closed ones—I just have to actively seek them and enter.

Detour: New York and Massachusetts via Washington National Airport Station
The programs offered in Greater Washington are more than just opportunities to explore future career options—they are also financial resources to prepare high school students for the next milestone: attaining a post-secondary education.

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) in Washington, D.C. is especially dedicated to providing local youth with college preparatory resources. In 2012, the OSSE Scholars Summer Enrichment Program was initiated to provide “academically motivated students who exhibit financial need with the opportunity to attend selective summer college programs” (“OSSE Scholars Summer Enrichment Program”). Two summers ago, I was selected as an OSSE Scholar and given the opportunity to attend college courses at Cornell University free of charge. As I gathered research materials for an essay on leprosy in the medieval era and discussed stock investments with peers, I was able to explore my recently discovered passions for medicine and business. This summer, I continued to pursue new interests as OSSE paid for my travel expenses to Cambridge, where I studied computer science, electrical engineering, and discrete mathematics in the Women’s Technology Program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Through the OSSE Scholars Program, I am not only given the opportunity to study intriguing courses that are not offered in my high school, but I have also gained the confidence that I can aim high and excel in college. By supporting high-achieving, low-income students in Washington, D.C., OSSE Scholars and its mission encapsulate my American Dream. OSSE emphasizes that financial need and the availability of academic opportunities should not be obstacles that will hold me back from pursuing my passions with absolute liberty.

My American Dream is the opportunity to explore my interests and curiosities through the numerous academic and financial resources in Greater Washington. My American Dream is the freedom to decide my future trajectory by first exploring the countless paths along the way. Collectively, my Dream encompasses the inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Whether I pursue happiness in the form of organizing mammal bones or performing scientific research, writing economic policies or coding a computer program, my American Dream is not just alive in Greater Washington, it is thriving, prospering, flourishing.

Every time I step onto the train, I am reminded of my American Dream. One Metro station after another, it is a Dream that echoes the all-too familiar chime of “Doors opening.”

Works Cited
"About Euro Challenge." Euro Challenge. European Union, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

"About YES!" Science Education at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.

Czajka, Christopher W. "Frontier Life: Homestead History." Frontier House. PBS, n.d. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Hochschild, Jennifer L. Facing Up to the American Dream. Princeton University Press, 1995. JSTOR. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

Isaacs, Ann K. Immigration and Emigration in Historical Perspective. Italy: Pisa University Press, 2007. Google Books. Web. 8 Nov. 2015.

"OSSE Scholars Summer Enrichment Program." Office of the State Superintendent of Education. DC.Gov, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2015.