Ali Oak ’23 Shares Essay at Cum Laude Society Induction

As part of the Cum Laude Society induction process, each student candidate shared one of their Common App essays for review by the Cum Laude faculty members. The faculty selected seven essays to be shared at a special luncheon held for the student candidates. The students then selected Penny Chen ’23 and Ali Oak ’23 to share their essays with the Upper School student body during the ceremony. Please enjoy Oak’s essay, below.

The first thing that hits you is the smell; a particularly pungent cocktail of animal carcass and cleaning mixture that climbs up your nose with a viscous tenacity. Despite this jarring introduction to the bird hospital at the World Bird Sanctuary, I stood wide-eyed ready to start my first day. Ever since I was little, I have been a bit of an animal fanatic to say the least. TV shows, birthday parties, and anything else you could conjure up, were all animal themed. When I learned about the volunteer program at the World Bird Sanctuary, it seemed like the logical next step in pursuing my unquenchable fascination; a dream come true.

The dream began with me holding a rag and three different spray bottles. That same pungent smell curled towards me, and I soon found the purpose of these items. My assignment was to clean the cage of a bird who went to be examined. Soon, my opponent was unveiled. My face dropped. Bird feces everywhere, and I mean everywhere. Like Michelangelo, this bird had painted every inch of wall and ceiling with fiery dedication. It’s a feat that still baffles me to this day. After that, the flow of cages never seemed to cease; my daily routine became spritz, scrub, gag, repeat. As I grew into this routine, I began to lose sight of why I was there and couldn’t see past the metal walls that defined my initial work. As the work became mundane and I attempted to find other high-school aged volunteers to confide in, no one met my gaze. The interns and the vet staff were the only ones who knew this crude work. However, one fateful day – as I was body-deep into a cage – a voice woke me from my haze: “Ali, care to join me on a release trip?”. I didn’t hesitate to accept. The red-tailed hawk we were releasing clamored against the sides of the blue cardboard carrying box; it seemed we shared the same eagerness.

We loaded into the van and headed on our way. To my surprise we were not the only ones at the release site; a group of people who had found the bird now stood there waving enthusiastically. I stood a little taller as a sense of importance and appreciation washed over me. To see a community come together over this hawk made my heart full. We opened the box and suddenly the hawk flew. In a flash, the release was over. To see this bird, not in a cage tending to its wounds, but in the air, that was the goal. Upon that moment, everything clicked; the release was a culmination of everything I did there, everything we all did at the sanctuary hospital. Every step held importance. If people are able to come together to help one bird just imagine the possibilities for the future.

Since then, my depth of commitment increased as I realized my clear path. I’ve sought out ways to be an educator and expanded my volunteer work to the sanctuary nature center, where I am now training to be an educator-in-conservation. I help bring awareness about wildlife conservation to the public. As my volunteer journey continues at the nature center, I’ve now pivoted my focus to stewardship. So much emphasis is put on being a good leader, but I think it’s equally important to be a good steward. It’s not only important to inspire and lead others, but also to take action and care for what we have been given. We must go beyond something greater than ourselves and look to the wellbeing of the future, even if it’s just cleaning one bird cage at a time.