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Adversity Has Made Me Who I Am

On March 14th, 2016, my mother died. Allow me to take you back to that day.

My grandmother’s words hit me like a train, “Eli, your mother is dead.” I felt my legs turn to spaghetti as I collapsed into the nearest chair. My mind raced but my lips were paralyzed. When? How? Why? For the kid who’s always asking questions, I was unusually silent and unable to believe what I just heard.

In just three hours, my school’s Mock Trial team was competing to make school history by advancing to the Pennsylvania State Finals. Before the question was even asked, I made my decision. The team had become a family to me, and I knew what I would do. I would compete.

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I knew that sharing my loss and making myself vulnerable would only strengthen our drive. As we pulled up to the courthouse I gathered the team and shared what happened. “We’ve worked for weeks to get to the point we’re at, and I’m not letting anything get in the way of our success.” Not only did I have to do it for my team, I had to do it for my mom.

My vulnerability served as a catalyst for our team’s best performance. The Milton Hershey School team won the Regional Final that day, and would soon place fifth in the state of Pennsylvania.

From this experience, my biggest takeaway wasn’t a trophy or accolade. It taught me that challenges are inevitable, but to quote Rocky Balboa, “… it ain’t about how hard you can hit, it’s about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.” It taught me perspective.

Eli holding t-shirt

Although losing my mother was one of the biggest challenges I have faced, it was hardly the first.

In third grade when I would get home from school and witness my parents suffering from addiction, I had no choice but to rely on my perseverance. As an eight-year-old kid, I was the most stable member of my family and I couldn’t give up on my dreams. When the social worker told me that “child neglect” plagued my early life, when my father was incarcerated, and when my parents would disappear for days on end, I was never surprised. I knew nothing different.

When I think back to my first memories, all I remember are the circumstances that formed my reality at the time. My childhood experiences led me to believe these circumstances were normal.  As tragic as that was, my aunt always told me to remain positive. Her motivation and my sense of perseverance propelled me to do well in school and to form a strong community of friends and collaborators.

However, six months before my mother died, this aunt passed away. And five months after my mother died, my grandmother passed away. On days when I face my hardest of challenges, I am reminded that I must not only persist for myself, but also for my family.

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I wouldn’t change anything about my life. Although I’ve faced a lifetime of adversity, those experiences have made me who I am. Nights without food taught me compassion, providing for myself taught me independence, and losing three members of my family taught me to trust others.

I have gained the perspective to appreciate every opportunity, the ability to persevere through any challenge, and the openness to share my toughest moments with the people around me.

In college, I look forward to sharing my perspective with my fellow students as I simultaneously learn from their backgrounds and experiences. As a first-generation college student and an MHS graduate, I will undoubtedly face challenges, but my stability and determination will allow me to thrive. I have the perspective and compassion to help others, and my goal is to use it to add value and create positive change at my university, surrounding communities, and the world at large.

Eli Conniff

Eli enrolled at MHS in fourth grade from Pittsburgh, PA.

Milton Hershey School does not discriminate in admissions or other programs and services on the basis of race, color, national or ethnic origin, ancestry, sex, religious creed or disability. Read important MHS policies on equal opportunity and diversity, equal employment opportunity, and more.