Owning Your Story

7 min

Juliana Philippa Kerrest
Juliana Philippa Kerrest

Congratulations on almost reaching the end of the academic year! Some of you may be returning to campus in the fall or entering the job market, others may be considering applying to graduate school or another program. For those of you who are concerned about having a “messy” transcript, I hope my essay below helps. When I applied to graduate school in 2015, I was very concerned about how I would explain the gaps in my college transcript caused by my struggle with depression, so I used the additional essay option they provided to explain my journey.

Whether you’re having to put something down on paper, or you’re worried it may come up in an interview, be prepared and plan out your answer carefully. Most importantly, don’t be embarrassed: if your academic career had been affected because you had cancer, or had gotten in a horrific car crash, would you be embarrassed? (Hopefully your answer is no).

For a job interview:

  • Remember that this is not the most important part of you. They’re looking for context, and that’s all you’re giving them, quickly and simply, so that you can then move the conversation on to why you’re such a terrific candidate.

For a grad school or other program-type application:

  • As difficult as it may be, think of the positives that have come from the challenging times you’ve been through. Talk about the strength and resilience it has taken for you get this far, or maybe how your experiences led you to become an advocate or take a leadership role in a specific club. Find the positive and highlight it, so that you pivot this to your advantage, as opposed to it being a potential detraction.

Below is the essay I submitted with my graduate school applications. I hope that this post helps and good luck on your next adventure, whatever it may be!

I graduated from college in August 2009. I remember the pride and accomplishment I felt walking out of my last class. At the celebratory dinner with close family and friends, my parents surprised me with blue t-shirts for everyone that said “Jules Rocks!”; mine was white and they had all written messages on it. I smiled brightly the entire night.

Less than a year earlier I had called my mom and told her that I knew with unwavering certainty that I was never going to graduate from college. I told her that I would probably not make it to my 23rd birthday, but that I was okay with that. I was in the midst of another severe depression – my 5th since starting college in 2004 – and all I could feel was overwhelming helplessness and despair. This was a call I had made several times before.

I had started the fall 2008 semester feeling supremely excited – I could finally see my graduation finish line in the distance! Everything was going well: I received straight A’s the previous semester; I had just returned from an internship in Niger; and Active Minds, the mental health awareness group I started my second year of college, had over 200 members. In September, I was featured on NPR’s Morning Edition for my work with the group and was astounded by the subsequent outpouring of support from people across the country: strangers thanking me and wishing me well; middle school friends I hadn’t spoken to in ages; Hopkins professors whose classes I’d had to withdraw from because I was sick.

In November we won the Chapter of the Year Award at the Active Minds National Conference. I remember both of my brothers sitting with me as we waited for my name to be called. The reason they had come to surprise me was the same reason I was unable to enjoy the occasion: the depression had returned. Driving back to Baltimore I couldn’t stop crying and had to pull over to the side of the road, unable to see through my tears. One of the most difficult things about that period of my life was that it felt like no matter what I did, even if I was doing everything “right,” the darkness would still come. I felt powerless in the face of what I was battling.

That episode ended up changing everything, but not in the way I expected. As always occurred when I experienced severe depression, my doctors and I adjusted my medical regime to see if some new medication combination could help. And this time, miraculously, it did. A medicine that hadn’t worked before was now able to lift the veil off of everything. Not only did the depression go away, but the way I experienced other emotions changed as well; I no longer felt a shadow over me. Things shifted and it was wondrous.

It’s now six years later and I have not suffered another severe episode. Though I would never, ever choose this, I am able to appreciate the positive things it has given me. It has shown me how much I am able to survive, and that knowledge has been a tremendous source of confidence and empowerment. It has illuminated the resilience and determination that I can employ, even in my darkest hour. Finally, it has given me the gift of gratitude.

Life is fragile and ephemeral, and sometimes almost unbearably painful. Even as a child, I knew I wanted to make a difference in the world and my struggles have only made this more apparent to me. I have a great understanding of the preciousness of time and the necessity to use it wisely, to live a meaningful life, for myself and for others.

In the NPR interview, I said that my advocacy work allows me to create something positive out of a painful and destructive force in my life, and that is still so very true. I travel around the country sharing my story, and while it can be difficult dwelling on the worst times of my life, it can also be a healing experience. It reminds me that what truly matter are our connections to one another, the relationships we form, and the impact we have on each other’s lives – the ripple effect of every action we take and every word we speak.

And whenever I find myself questioning this, or the importance of what I’m doing, I pull out my brother’s college graduation gift to me: Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

“And when you’re alone, there’s a very good chance

you’ll meet things that scare you right out of your pants.

There are some, down the road between hither and yon,

that can scare you so much you won’t want to go on.

But on you will go

though the weather be foul.

On you will go

though your enemies prowl.

On you will go

though the Hakken-Kraks howl.

Onward up many

a frightening creek,

though your arms may get sore

and your sneakers may leak.

On and on you will hike.

And I know you’ll hike far

and face up to your problems

whatever they are.


You’re off to Great Places!

Today is your day!

Your mountain is waiting.

So … get on your way!

—Dr. Seuss, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!