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Congratulations to our 2021 essay winner...

Vincent Cisneros

University: University of Southern California

Major: Philosophy, Politics, and Law
with a Pre-Law emphasis

Valencia High School, Class of 2021


Vincent's essay exemplifies the ability to establish a connection between writer and reader, largely due to the writer’s ability to reflect and express their experiences - intimately inviting a stranger, known as the reader, into one’s world and personal point of view.  Congratulations Vincent, on a job well done!

2021 Writing Prompt:

"Whether as a person with advantages or disadvantages, everyone is affected by systemic racism.  What role does systemic racism play in your life and what can you personally and specifically do to help fix the problem?"

Read Vincent's winning essay below:


I have been fortunate to develop in an environment where I was always able to challenge myself academically and push myself to succeed in the most rigorous programs available to me. However,  this opportunity is not available to many Latinx students at Valencia High School. Having grown up in a sheltered environment, I was rather oblivious to bias around me and how it forms. Due to its rigorous academic programs, Valencia attracts a high volume of wealthier students from other areas, of which the vast majority are White and Asian-American. However, it is located in an area of low socioeconomic prosperity, and the vast majority of the population in this area is of Hispanic or Latinx descent. Over time, I came to realize that as a Latinx student, I was not among those typically associated with my level of academic success. 

 I vividly remember a time where my Spanish teacher mistakenly assumed I was in the non-honors science course. She was obviously surprised when I informed her that I was in the honors class. This interaction seems very minor in hindsight, yet it troubled me deeply. Why would she react with such surprise? 

This event created a lot of internal insecurity about my own identity. Academically, I struggled with imposter syndrome as I began to feel that I didn’t belong in the programs I had absolutely earned my spot in. My physical youth, along with my emotional immaturity, caused me to deeply question my own ability. I felt isolated and alienated and I no longer felt comfortable in the same environment I had always been a part of. For something of this nature to happen in a class like Spanish was especially frustrating, as I considered Spanish to be my best subject. The fact that even in an environment where I excelled I was still followed by other’s preconceived notions and biases about me was very hard to stomach.

The instance was toubling, but I choose to better myself and use it to open opportunities for dialogue and emotional growth, rather than dwell on its disheartening nature.  People’s biases may be strong but I knew I had to be stronger. Now I’ve learned to try to bring it back to what is in my control. My culture is a piece of who I am, but above all I am a combination of my experiences, my knowledge, and my values. All of these pieces drive my way of thinking, shaping me into the individual I am today. It is up to me to show others that I am more than what they might assume based on my ethnicity. The culmination of this new mentality came when I was selected to the National Hispanic Recognition Program. Being selected as the recipient of this award, while humbling, also gave me pause. It was a validation and recognition of my academic success along with a validation and recognition of my ethnic and cultural background. I didn't and don't have to choose one, I can be a blend of both and stand strongly in representing both.  


This experience created an acute awareness of individual racist bias around me, however it also inspired me to dig deeper to analyze why there was such an obvious disparity in the wealth and socioeconomic status of different ethnic groups in my community. I began researching de facto segregation, a topic I was previously unfamiliar with, but one that I quickly realized described perfectly what I was observing in Placentia and throughout the rest of Orange County. While by law, segregation in schools has been outlawed in California since the famous Mendez v. Westminster suit, segregation in California schools still thrives today. Sylvia Mendez, the daughter of Gonzalo and Felicita, spoke recently in 2017 about her belief that de facto segregation is still alive and well within our public schools. 

As a student at Valencia, I’ve experienced first hand the effects of this outlet of systemic racism. Students of higher socioeconomic status are afforded many more opportunities, and given access to higher quality education in comparison to the majority population, who, by no accident, is made up of a body of students that is much more prominently hispanic.

I have always felt caught between these two worlds, being a student of color who was fortunate enough to be born into a comfortable middle class family. I proudly acknowledge that in my time at Valencia, many programs have been started that work to directly address some of these obvious disparities. Students of lower income are given discounted access to events and food, and restorative practices have been implemented that work to end the school-to-prison pipeline. As a leader on our ASB executive board, I use my platform to advocate for the continuation and expansion of these policies to continue to fight de facto segregation and other forms of systemic racism within my school.

This year's Willow Tree Scholarship is now open.  To review the new essay prompt and apply, click here.

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