LEAD at 10

January 2019

The ruminations of a teenage college applicant can often sound callow. But not always. As many a college essay proves, such thoughts can be utterly inspirational. The same can be said of essays submitted by applicants to the Alumni Association LEAD Scholars Program.

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of the program, we are sharing just a few of the many essays submitted. In this 10-part series, you’ll read of the experiences of those who come from relatively sheltered backgrounds to those who have had to deal with more than their share of adversity.

In this fifth installment, Mariah Cardenas, ’18, describes how she conquered what felt like an academic crisis during her senior year of high school. She completed her undergraduate education in April 2018 and now works part time at the U-M chapter of Destino, a Christian spiritual movement of Latino college students. She is also considering a PhD in comparative literature.


Calming My Chaos

Author Gabriel García Márquez once wrote, “I discovered that my obsession for having each thing in the right place, each subject at the right time, each word in the right style, was not the well-deserved reward of an ordered mind but just the opposite: a complete system of pretense invented by me to hide the disorder of my nature.”

When I stumbled across this quote, I found the paradox that is my mind clearly explained in his words.

Many of my teachers have complimented my organizational and planning skills, but, in my best friend’s words, “I don’t know how they don’t see it. You’re all over the place.” As odd as it may sound, I live in chaos. The single greatest academic obstacle I have had to overcome is my own tendency toward disorder, especially in the case of my senior project.

Senior project is a massive, semester-long project at my school that includes a paper, product, and speech. Of course, I have done papers and speeches before, but I have never done something of this magnitude, especially not in conjunction with such a heavy class load, including calculus, advanced physics, and Spanish IV. This year, the tiny thread that held the mask of perfectionism upon my face was just about ready to snap, and snap it did. At the first gentle gust of wind, the house of cards I had created collapsed. Trying to write my paper, emailing experts in my topic, being aware of deadlines, and trying to get my product together was all too much while trying to maintain a pretense of perfect, rational organization.

At the end of this project, I had to compile a portfolio showing all the work I had done throughout the semester. I could not even begin to think of how to do that. I just sat at my dining room table for 10 minutes staring at the empty binder and the box of page protectors. Next to it sat my folder with all my papers and assignments sticking out at all angles and in no particular order. I can memorize pages of information after one read, but compiling a portfolio baffled me.

So I did what everyone should do when faced with a situation that plays on his or her weaknesses. I came up with a creative solution. I took the eight chairs that usually stand around the table and carried them into a different room. Then I took every single piece of work I had done for my senior project and spread each paper all over the floor and the table. Papers coated the floor like lily pads on a pond, but I could finally think clearly. I then divided them into piles on each chair. By the end, I had organized an A+ portfolio.

By nearly losing my mind with my senior project, I learned a valuable lesson: unique circumstances call for unconventional solutions. Instead of masking the chaos in my head, I am now harnessing it and bending it to my will.


The LEAD Scholars Program provides scholarships to black, Latino, and Native American students who have been accepted into the U-M. Visit umalumni.com/LEAD to learn how you can support the program and, thus, help create a more diverse campus.

Michigan Alumnus is made possible through the generous support of Alumni Association members. Join today to help sustain the future of Alumnus and other alumni programs. Visit umalumni.com/support.