College Essay: Emma Bernstein

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

I was raised on soy lattes and anatomy coloring books.

My mother was an art teacher at an elementary school, and my father a grad student at the local university in the Deep South, where I lived until I was seven.

In my mother’s classroom, I learned art history through boxes of newly sharpened colored pencils and smudgy pastels. We traced movements from Tribal Art to European Impressionism on canvas. Our studio was where I could learn what my mother loved, what civilizations have loved, and define my own point of view in vibrant color.

My father’s preferred workspace was the nearby coffeehouse. He would sit reading Medical Physics with coffee in hand, and I would be given a sheet of graphing paper, a pen, (“Because everything you write is meaningful,”) and a challenge. The answers, though never very concrete, were always achievable.

Through the frustration that came with solving my first quadratic system and the amazement I felt when my father described the structure of the human genome, I learned to approach math and science with creativity and an open and inquisitive mind, a practice that has undoubtedly contributed to my interest in scientific research today.

After my family moved to the Midwest, my mother discovered her own passion for the sciences while caring for hospice patients as a volunteer, and so she resolved to go to nursing school.   She sprinkled her Microbiology textbooks throughout the living room so that my sister and I could explore their contents. Our discoveries in this realm were relatively unmediated and propelled by curiosity alone. We were guided on occasion and allowed to ask her questions as she opened the textbooks for herself at the local coffeehouse.

Here, my sister and I had room to grow, but we always knew that when we came home for dinner to eat from ceramic bowls my parents had decorated with illustrations of apoptosis or mitosis, our family would be around the dining room table.

When I moved to New York City for my freshman year of high school, we questioned whether we could even fit the dining room table. The answer was no, but it was all right because the city was home.

Sitting under the trees on the South side of Washington Square Park between the small dog run and the fountain, looking out onto the Washington Arch, I learned that the people of the park were different. There was the man who wheeled his Baby Grand Piano down Broadway every Sunday, the older man who fed the pigeons so profusely that they covered his body from head to toe, and I couldn’t forget the artist who transformed the stone plaza into a brightly colored and excruciatingly temporary sand masterpiece. It was teeming with life. NYU students gathered to practice dances and stage plays on park steps, to do math on whiteboards and notebooks scattered throughout the lawn, and to host picturesque picnics. It was fantastic.

On the subway, each car was a community of its own. Over shoulders I read poems in the making, and watched busy hands building sketches over shoulders; creation was everywhere.

But my favorite pastime was finding new coffeehouses to work at, where the people were most social—where I had the best chance of meeting someone wonderful: students, cartoonists, poets, and activists. I established my territory within a one-mile radius of my apartment by mapping out daily trails marked by iced coffees—a task made difficult only by the multitude of choices.

Coffee was not just the beverage of the Scientific Revolution, but the beverage of my childhood. In preschool, I wouldn’t play doctor or teacher on the playground, but barista; my café was under the swirly slide where I would hand out imaginary decaf café au laits to my friends.

Wherever I go, I know that coffeehouses will always be my home base.