From Chicken Soup for the College Soul


The difference between the impossible and the possible lies in a person’s determination.

Tommy Lasorda

The day I met Hani Irmawati, she was a shy, seventeen-year-old girl standing alone in the parking lot of the international school in Indonesia, where I teach English. The school is expensive and does not permit Indonesian students to enroll. She walked up to me and asked if I could help her improve her English. I could tell it took immense courage for the young Indonesian girl in worn clothing to approach me and ask for my help.

“Why do you want to improve your English?” I asked her, fully expecting her to talk about finding a job in a local hotel.

“I want to go to an American university,” she said with quiet confidence. Her idealistic dream made me want to cry.

I agreed to work with her after school each day on a volunteer basis. For the next several months, Hani woke each morning at five and caught the city bus to her public high school. During the one-hour ride, she studied for her regular classes and prepared the English lessons I had given her the day before. At four o’clock in the afternoon, she arrived at my classroom, exhausted but ready to work. With each passing day, as Hani struggled with college-level English, I grew more fond of her. She worked harder than most of my wealthy expatriate students.

Hani lived in a two-room house with her parents and two brothers. Her father was a building custodian and her mother was a maid. When I went to their neighborhood to meet them, I learned that their combined yearly income was 750 U.S. dollars. It wasn’t enough to meet the expenses of even one month in an American university. Hani’s enthusiasm was increasing with her language ability, but I was becoming more and more discouraged.

One morning in December 1998, I received the announcement of a scholarship opportunity for a major American university. I excitedly tore open the envelope and studied the requirements, but it wasn’t long before I dropped the form in despair. There was just no way, I thought, for Hani to meet these qualifications. She had never led a club or an organization, because in her school these things simply did not exist. She had no guidance counselor and no impressive standardized test scores, because there were no such tests for her to take.

She did, however, have more determination than any student I’d ever seen. When Hani came into the classroom that day, I told her of the scholarship. I also told her that I believed there was no way for her to apply. I encouraged her to be, as I put it, “realistic” about her future and not to plan so strongly on coming to America. Even after my somber lecture, Hani remained steadfast.

“Will you send in my name?” she asked.

I didn’t have the heart to turn her down. I completed the application, filling in each blank with the painful truth about her academic life, but also with my praise of her courage and her perseverance. I sealed up the envelope and told Hani her chances for acceptance ranged somewhere between slim and none.

In the weeks that followed, Hani increased her study of English, and I arranged for her to take the Test of English Fluency in Jakarta. The entire computerized test would be an enormous challenge for someone who had never before touched a computer. For two weeks, we studied computer parts and how they worked. Then, just before Hani went to Jakarta, she received a letter from the scholarship association. What a cruel time for the rejection to arrive, I thought. Trying to prepare her for disappointment, I opened the letter and began to read it to her. She had been accepted.

I leaped about the room ecstatically, shocked. Hani stood by, smiling quietly, but almost certainly bewildered by my surprise. The image of her face in that moment came back to me time and time again in the following week. I finally realized that it was I who had learned something Hani had known from the beginning: It is not intelligence alone that brings success, but also the drive to succeed, the commitment to work hard and the courage to believe in yourself.

Jamie Winship

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