Student Voices

Essay by Ximena Salas, Literature for Life High School Writing Competition Winner and Issue 5 Featured Author of “A Walk Through Memories”

My name is Ximena Salas, I am an incoming junior in high school. I attend Foshay Learning Center which is located in South Central Los Angeles. My school is about 10 minutes away from the University of Southern California. I am part of the USC Neighborhood Academic Initiative program which is an intensive junior high and high school program that provides college readiness and resources to get into college. The program recruits and hand selects their participants when they finish the fifth grade. Throughout middle school the NAI program works with the students on establishing and developing good work ethic. During high school, students are given opportunities to explore their options in choosing which college they choose to go to. Ultimately, every student is working towards earning a full ride scholarship to USC, which is the biggest perk of the program.

I was one of those younglings recruited at the end of elementary. My school had a partnership with USC so students there were highly urged to apply to the program. At first my mom didn’t fully realize the opportunities that the program would offer me. She decided that it would be better to go to another school. When my teachers found out that she didn’t intend to enroll me into the program they all called her to urge her to enroll me. And that she did.

Fast forward to my freshman year in high school. My English teacher has once again revived my passion for writing. When I was in elementary I loved writing those short essay prompts where we drew a little picture at the top. But in middle school it seemed that my love for writing faded away due to boring and unrelatable books and essay excerpts followed by boring and unrelatable essay prompts.

My ninth grade English teacher, Ms. Jones, assigned us a personal narrative essay and once again I was engrossed in the world of pen and paper. I think Ms. Jones’ personality also had a lot to do with how I approached my writing. She was a confident woman that overcame many challenges in her life to get where she was. She was a total hippie, rejecting a lot of social norms and wearing mismatching clothing with no bras. What I liked most about her teaching was that it was relatable. The Odyssey may not seem like a story that a Latinx girl from South Central would like, but Ms. Jones was such a relatable person that it translated into what she taught.

During my second semester, the NAI director, Kim Thomas Barrios sent the student body an email saying that there was a short story contest open for all high school students in the program and that the story that one first place would win a $1000 scholarship to the school of your choice and a spot to be published in the 5th issue of the Literature for Life online magazine.

I was interested in participating in the writing contest but I was intimidated by the older students that I would be going up against. I decided to disregard the email and I didn’t enter the contest. The day before the deadline for the contest, the NAI program coordinator sent me an email saying that she thought it would be a great opportunity for me and that I could have a great chance of winning.

I went home, a little embarrassed that I wasn’t taking advantage of the great opportunity that NAI was placing right in front of me.

I sat down in my dad’s desk in front of his three monitor computer and began writing. The words seemed to type themselves. I was so absorbed by the story I was creating. I hadn’t felt that feeling since I wrote the personal narrative essay.

But this time it was different because it was a short story. It was a thrill, knowing that you have the ability to manipulate the outcome of events but you don’t have full control over the characters you’re creating. I went to sleep at 2 a.m that night. I was proud of my story and the next day I happily submitted it. A couple weeks later, the program coordinator came into the classroom to announce the winner of the contest. I had won first place. It felt really nice to be able to share my art with my peers and the people that had helped me develop those writing skills. Shortly thereafter, I got to read my story at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. It was exciting to share my story with people other than my peers.

The school year kept going and I went on to my sophomore year and I got busy doing other things. For example, I started working with a USC sponsored program called Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship. With them I’m launching my own business. Although I started exploring the world of entrepreneurship, I didn’t forget about writing. I was part of my school’s slam poetry team.

Slam poetry opened up my perspective on life and on myself as a human being.

My English teacher, Mr. O’Donnell, was a very big inspiration to me. He was a very vocal person about his believes and how he saw the world. That showed me that words really do have the power to move people and if you find a way to do it effectively, you can ultimately change the world.
Later in that school year I was invited to the LitFest Pasadena to be part of a panel to read my story. It was so awesome to see so many people come together through the passion for literature and supporting one another. I felt like I had found my community. While reading, I got the response I wanted from my audience. They laughed at the funny parts, said “awww” to the sad parts and gasped and the plot twists. I realized that the writing skills I had learned from Ms. Jones and the performance skills I had learned from Mr. O’Donnell had made my reading so much better.

As you can see throughout this essay, there is a pattern in my journey through the world of literature: teachers and opportunities. It is essential for teachers to have access to have the resources to support their students and it’s also vital for students to have opportunities to find themselves. Organizations that offer programs like Literature for Life have the potential to change the lives of students across the country. Whether it be by giving them a platform to develop and share their writing or by giving teachers content that students can relate to. I believe Literature for Life can revolutionize how students perceive literature and give them a platform to find themselves as readers, writers and as people.

Students are encouraged to write about their experiences with Literature for Life and submit their responses to Literature for Life stories to be featured here. To submit your experience or response, please email:

Jervey Tervalon, Founder
[email protected]