Apr 13, 2017

The girl with eight Ivy League college offers

"In our house, there is beauty in the way we speak to each other ... language is not broken but rather, bursting with emotion. It is a little messy. But this is where we have made our home."

Those were words from 17-year-old Cassandra Hsiao, whose moving college essay caught the attention of multiple US universities and the world.

The Malaysian-born teenager, who now lives in California, had written about her humbling experiences learning English while growing up in an immigrant household.

She has received offer letters from all eight Ivy League colleges, including Harvard, Princeton and Yale. She hasn't made her decision yet but said that she would be visiting colleges in the coming weeks.

"Identity and the desire to belong are two of the most relatable struggles that people face. I wanted to share a slice of our home life, my relationship with my mother and both of our stories," she told BBC News.

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In addition to Ivy League colleges, Ms Hsiao also received offers from top US universities like Stanford and NYU

Born to a Taiwanese father and a Malaysian mother, Cassandra grew up in the southern state of Johor. The family moved to the United States when she was five.

"I miss Malaysia and think about my home country quite often. Growing up, I loved flying kites, going to markets and setting off firecrackers. I spent my childhood babbling in a mixture of Chinese, Malay and English," she recalled fondly.

But tackling the language barrier in a foreign country proved difficult. In her essay, Cassandra recounted a "humiliating" experience which happened to her mother in school. She was criticised and laughed at by her peers after the teacher criticised an English paper she wrote.

A kind classmate came to her defence. "She took her under her wing and patiently mended my mother's strands of language. She stood up for the weak and used her words to fight back," Ms Hsiao wrote.

But the challenges did not end there. "My mother asked me to teach her proper English so old white ladies at Target wouldn't laugh at her pronunciation. It has not been easy."

"There is a measure of guilt when I sew her letters together. Long vowels, double consonants - I am still learning myself. Sometimes I let the brokenness slide to spare her pride but perhaps I have hurt her more to spare mine."

"I believe this essay really embodies values I hold close to my heart: standing up for those without a voice, even when you think you haven't quite found your own yet," said Cassandra.

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Both mother and daughter battled challenges when learning English abroad

The hardship paid off, and Ms Hsiao graduated with flying colours. Her mother shared her pride in learning about Cassandra's achievements.

"I cried with Cassandra when we opened her college acceptance letters. She has demonstrated maturity and wisdom not only in academics but also in her relationship with others," she said.

Cassandra also shared the love and admiration she had for her mother. "My mother is my role model. She keeps me grounded and inspires me not only to dream big but to take action to make those dreams come true. I love her passion for life, her boldness, her compassion and her honesty."

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The ambitious teenager also has an interest in storytelling and the arts, having interviewed several celebrities as a student journalist

News of Cassandra's incredible feat began to spread across the internet, with many on social media congratulating the teenager on her achievement.

"Getting accepted into all eight Ivy League schools is amazing and after reading your essay, I can't think of anyone who deserves it more than you do," wrote Leon Burke on Facebook.

"What a beautiful and authentic essay. I loved how she embraced her experiences and who she is," tweeted Arden Cho.

Others shared how they were able to relate to Cassandra's message. "You're an amazing storyteller and I loved how you were able to spin your tale while keeping it real and relatable. I hope whichever university you choose will help you to continue nurturing your talent, passion and hard work."

Cynthia Low from Singapore commended her on "achieving so much at such a young age".

"We hear of people her age who are getting famous in superficial ways. In the age of Kardashian fame, it's great to hear of someone else making the news for something she has worked hard for. Well done."

But what does Cassandra have to say about critics of her generation?

"It's an honour to be part of this generation. More than ever, young people are recognising the importance of making their voices heard," she said.

"My peers stand up for what they believe in and are unafraid of pushing back. We are the future, and the future is bright."

Heather Chen
(BBC News)

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