“Dear Evan Hansen” College Essay Writing Challenge Winners—2022

This year, the production of Dear Evan Hansen, the Broadway Education Alliance, and Gotham Writers invited 11th-grade and 12th-grade students to write a college-application style essay describing their experiences with or ideas about reinvention, at any stage of life. We received more than 800 essays this year.

Here we present the winner, who will receive a $10,000 college scholarship from Dear Evan Hansen Executive Producer Stacey Mindich, and a free Gotham Writers 10-week class.

Five regional finalists will each receive a $1,000 college scholarship.

You can watch a video of the winner reading her essay, and read the finalists’ winning essays as well, here.

Overall Winner
Oreoluwa Adepegba
Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Merivale High School

Midwest Regional Winner
Sumedha Yarlagadda
Sun Prairie, WI
Sun Prairie West High School

Mountain/Southwest Regional Winner:
Lillian Lemme
Denver, CO
Denver School of the Arts

Northeast Regional Winner:
Mairéad O’Neill
New York, NY
Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School

Southeast Regional Winner
Shaadi “Iris” Ghorbani
Chevy Chase, MD
Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School

West Coast Regional Winner
Riley Murphy
San Diego, CA
Point Loma High School

The Winning Essay

by Oreoluwa Adepegba

Queen Victoria.

The 19th century Queen of Great Britain was the first person I remember who shared my new name. When I arrived in Canada at six years old, I did not understand why I needed a new name; all I remember hearing was that it would be easier for my new friends to pronounce. So I was registered everywhere as Victoria, and everyone started calling me by this foreign name. I was a foreigner in a new country with a name I could not pronounce. It was hell.

However, as months went on, I started appreciating this name change. As the kids in my class made fun of me for my accent, how weird my food smelled, and how long my surname was, I appreciated that at least my first name was not added to the list of my embarrassing Nigerian traits. I started reducing Nigeria’s presence in my identity, as if it were a pimple I could cover up. I often kept quiet in fear of mispronouncing another word like “papaya” or “salad,”—“It’s sa-lid, not sa-lad,” my elementary school friend told me. I asked my mom to make me sandwiches for lunch because the smell of my egusi soup or akara was too much for the kids my age whose palates only knew the chicken finger delicacies of their own country.

By Grade 6, I had learned how to fit in, I had the same straight hair as my classmates, I wore the same clothes, and I spoke the same English they did. I finally belonged, but I still felt so ostracized, like no matter how hard I tried to be Canadian, I was always doomed to be Nigerian-Canadian. Throughout the rest of elementary school until the beginning of high school, my efforts became more desperate. No longer did I only wear my facade at school, but everywhere I went. I spoke perfect English to my entire family, even to my grandma, who only spoke Yoruba back. I favoured pizza and alfredo pasta over Nigerian food. I even dreaded when my mom would pick me up from school because her accent would alert everyone around that I was, in fact, not from a perfect English Canadian family, but from a foreign one.

However, one day changed my entire perspective on life and myself. Early one Saturday morning, my mom called me to talk to my great-grandmother. I had not called her in months if not years. I was so excited to talk to her, but I was quickly reminded that she only spoke Yoruba, and I was all of a sudden struggling to speak. The call was filled with painful awkward silence where I would try to find the Yoruba words for my English thoughts as if Yoruba were not my first language. After the call, I was humiliated, disheartened, and, most importantly, disappointed in myself. I realized that I was lost, and in the 10 years I had tried to fit into the country I moved to, I lost my footing in the only place I did fit in—home.

So I realized I had to be authentically myself, even if I did not know who that was yet. I knew that I could not keep trying to conform to the country I lived in if it meant I lost connections with the people I loved most. I knew I had to become a new person—one that embraces their culture, traditions, and languages. And so I renamed myself. Oreoluwa, gift of God—that is what my mother named me when I was born, and it is what those that I meet are going to call me. I cannot keep changing myself for those who do not change the way they see me. I am different, but I am okay with that. I am Ore. I am a gift.