Write On! V&E Lawyers Teach Students from Underserved Communities How to Ace Their College Essays

“It’s important to help students from underserved backgrounds tell their story and advocate for themselves. Getting into a college they love is a starting point for catapulting them out of that under-resourced background.”

It’s been ten years since V&E associate Francis Yang has had to write a college essay. Nonetheless, he recently found himself thinking about how to piece together thoughts and ideas into a cohesive and compelling personal statement. If all goes as planned, Yang’s efforts will make a big difference — for a high school senior he barely knows.

Last October, Yang, along with Wendy Wang, participated in The Great San Francisco Personal Statement Weekend, a volunteer program organized by 826 Valencia, a San Francisco-based nonprofit organization committed to helping under-resourced students improve their writing skills.

After receiving an hour-and-a-half-long refresher course on college essay writing, Yang and Wang were each paired with a high school senior. They spent two hours with their students working on refining their personal statements. For the V&E associates, the experience provided a chance to help young people from underserved communities move forward during a critical time in their lives.

“It’s important to help students from underserved backgrounds tell their story and advocate for themselves,” said Yang, a litigator who focuses on government investigations and white-collar criminal defense work. “Getting into a college they love is a starting point for catapulting them out of that under-resourced background. If you can help them tell their story, it makes their applications so much more compelling.”

The V&E lawyers helped their students dig into their pasts to find interesting experiences and then worked with them to organize their thoughts. They challenged their students to reflect on what they learned, and how they had changed along the way.

Where legal skills meet writing skills

While the V&E associates didn’t render any legal advice, their legal background came in handy. Both Yang and Wang are litigators skilled at interviewing witnesses and writing briefs. By asking the right questions, they were able to gather useful information that became the foundation for the essays.

Wang’s student, Kelly, grew up in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Her parents, both immigrants from China, were forced to take low-paying jobs. As a middle school student, Kelly got caught up in playing video games, started failing some classes, and almost got kicked out of school. But after the school informed her parents of her problems, Kelly rallied and became an A student.

“As we spoke about it, she started crying,” Wang said. “She reflected on her childhood and understood how much she overcame to arrive at where she is today.”

Finding common ground

In speaking to his student, Benjamin, Yang saw an earlier version of himself. Both are children of single mothers who had emigrated from China to the U.S. The parallels didn’t stop there. Like Yang, Benjamin worked to help support the family. Both share a love of video games. And Benjamin had saved his money, bought parts, and built his own computer, just as Yang had done as a teen.

“I was like ‘Wow, you did that yourself? That’s pretty cool,’” said Yang. “He came into the session thinking his experiences weren’t that extraordinary. But as our conversation continued, his confidence grew.”

Hope and inspiration

In the end, the sessions became much more than writing lessons. While the V&E lawyers spent only two hours with their students, they felt they left a lasting impression.

Wang, for one, is hoping she inspired Kelly with her own story.

Born in China, Wang came to the U.S. after college to pursue a master’s degree in chemistry, and ultimately attended law school. She had to overcome a language barrier, and other obstacles, in her journey to becoming a lawyer. Today Wang focuses on intellectual property litigation.

When Kelly told Wang she wanted to study math or engineering — fields where women are underrepresented — Wang offered words of encouragement.

“I said, ‘Look at what you’ve already accomplished. You were behind in math and now you’re an A student,’” Wang said. “‘You’re going to be great.’”