Essay Contest Winners
In April, the Columbia Political Review launched its inaugural essay contest for high school students, who faced a short but difficult question: What is a student’s role in politics? After reviewing entries by students from across the country, from New Hampshire to California, the editorial board has selected three winners and an honorable mention.
We made our decisions on the basis of creativity, persuasiveness, and style; our hope is that these essays will spark further discussion about democratic participation among students. Congratulations to the winners, and thank you to all who submitted thoughtful reflections.
— Matthew Zipf, Editor in Chief; Anamaria Lopez, Publisher.
Essays were lightly edited by the Review.
First Place: Stella Ho
Richard Montgomery High School, ‘18 (Rockville, MD)
When Michelle Obama spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, her dress spoke too. It was blue, showing her loyalty to the Democratic party. It had a full skirt reminiscent of 1950s house dresses, displaying a comforting maternal image. It was designed by an American, Christian Siriano, affirming her support for homegrown talent (Yotka). And, of course, it was gorgeous. But most importantly, the dress had a message.
We all, but especially students, could learn a lesson from the former first lady’s strategic dressing: there is more than one way to participate in politics. For students, that means their role is finding a way to speak out that matters to them.
Obama gave a powerful speech, but found a way to let the values she focused on—perseverance, hope, tolerance—seep into fashion, a subject that she and many others (including myself) care about. In doing so, the impact of her message reached all who saw even just a single image of her at the podium.
Students today have more varied interests than ever; universities registered nearly 1,500 academic disciplines to the Department of Education in 2010, and that number has only grown since then (Simon). With each college major comes a different way to communicate, and in turn, a different way of political participation. Statistics majors can create polls and surveys to gauge national feeling. Visual arts majors can design advertisements for political candidates they support. And look at Siriano. Running for office is not the only way to advocate for what you believe in.
Applying a wide range of skills to campaigns and causes can be a powerful force for change: individuals being able to do what they love, for a cause they care about, means true dedication and a job well done. By yourself, showing political interest through different means can widen the audience you reach, and even encourage others to join your cause. People are drawn to innovative ideas, which students, who are constantly exploring, have the greatest ability to provide.
But Obama’s lesson affects high schoolers the most. A majority of high schoolers cannot vote, which makes finding a way for them to participate in politics even more important––it allows them to have a voice. At a time when less than half of young Americans vote, letting students know that their actions matter is more important than ever if we want the next voting generation to change the status quo (Harvard IOP). Fostering that awareness, though, is only possible if students take up their role in the political sphere. There is so much they can do in there, when even the simplest dress speaks volumes.
Harvard IOP. “Groundbreaking Report Released on Educating America's Youth for Civic & Political Participation.” The Institute of Politics at Harvard University. The Presidents and Fellows of Harvard College, 9 Oct. 2013. Web. 10 May 2017.
Simon, Cecilia Capuzzi. “Major Decisions.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 03 Nov. 2012. Web. 10 May 2017.
Yotka, Steff. “Christian Siriano Reflects on Designing Michelle Obama's DNC Dress.” Vogue. Condé Nast, 26 July 2016. Web. 10 May 2017.
Second Place: Rachel Abebe
The Beacon School, ‘20 (New York, NY)
I've never been much of a talker. You'd never catch me regularly raising my hand or participating in intense classroom debates. November 9th was no different. It was the day after the election, and in my heavily liberal school, the mood was solemn. When I arrived in U.S. History, I could already tell that tension was broiling.
Would anyone like to share some of their thoughts? My teacher asks the room. Countless hands shoot up, and so it begins. I hear my classmates sharing their frustration about the results, and I hear the side conversations and the whispering. Get over it, a girl next to me mumbles to her friend. There is laughter from the other side of the room when a student gets particularly emotional. I hear it all. I hate it all. I see fists clench, eyes harden, hear the strain in voices. I close my eyes for a second, the emotion in the room too much to stomach at once. Guys, guys calm down, Mr. B now says, his face the mirror image of what I felt on the inside. His words slipped away, erased by the darkness that had now overtaken the room.
In those fifty minutes of class, I discovered something. People with differing views can never have a productive conversation if they are not willing to listen to one another. When I say listen, I don't just mean hearing what they have to say, I mean trying to have an open mind and considering their point of view, so you don't immediately dismiss what they are saying. In order to bring along a future with more unity, it's up to students, the new generation, to be able to do what many people before them have not been able to. Exchange ideas, accept new perspectives, be able to have an effective debate. Without these abilities, everywhere in this country, and across the world, it will be just like my U.S. History class every single day. And there's only so many times a person can close their eyes.
Third Place: Ruby Miller
Beaver Country Day School, ‘19 (Brookline, MA)
In America’s height of division, nearly half of all Republicans and Democrats say their opposing party poses a viable threat to America. Such division lays a foundation for violent hate crimes and social division amidst differing political parties. Students are not exempt, as they, too, find themselves amidst the storm of hate crimes that sweep through universities. Interestingly, those who choose to oppose this new way of life are almost exclusively millennials and young students. Younger people often have their own views on politics and tend to employ their own tactics to express opinions and push change. Students play a vital role in America’s political development, as they assist in the development of liberal parties, draw much media attention to their political movements and may possess a better understanding of social issues.
An estimated eighty percent of today’s millennials identify as liberal. From Civil Rights activism to Vietnam War protests and today’s anti-Trump rallies, students tend to identify as more liberal than older citizens. Promising cheaper housing, free health insurance and help with student loans, liberal policies appeal to millennials, who are often in need of such commodities. On the contrary, established adults may turn to more conservative policies which give them freedom to do as they please, while exempting them from restrictions which younger people may not be bothered by. In addition, as one ages one’s priorities shift. Many adults are more interested in providing for their family and advancing in their career than in fighting for equality and civil rights.
Student protests often consist of sit ins, boycotts, and commandeering of university buildings. These types of protests draw much media attention due to their entertainment value and extreme nature. Such protests are remarkably effective as they tend to pressure administrations and governments to adhere to commands due to safety concerns for the protesters themselves. Because of their young age, students have the stamina needed to carry out a successful sit-in or hunger strike, along with the appeal and charisma needed to draw a positive public opinion.
Though most people consider participants too young or inexperienced to successfully advocate for social change, students usually have a deeper understanding of these issues than most adults. Most schools force students to think outside the box and explore a range of perspectives, whereas older adults tend to fall into a rhythm as they surround themselves with likeminded people, who often reside in the same line of work. Countless studies have proven that younger people have better critical thinking skills and a greater ability to question rather than comply. Students are at a prime age, with enough life experience to guide decision-making rationally, but maintaining a tendency to question and challenge in a way that promotes social growth for America. Fortunately, many students continue to fulfill their role to advocate for social change by continuing to question and challenge the ideologies which have stunted America’s social growth.
Honorable Mention: Crystal Foretia
Richard Montgomery High School, ‘19 (Rockville, MD)
“History will not be kind to us. So you have a moral obligation, a mission and a mandate, to speak up, speak out and get in good trouble.” — Former SNCC member John Lewis
From sit-ins during the Civil Rights Movement, to anti-war demonstrations during the Vietnam War, to college students in the Black Lives Matter protests, student activism has been at the core of political change in America. Political activism is the most important responsibility that a student has in a democracy. Though voting allows citizens to choose which politicians represent them, activism is what holds politicians accountable after the election. A primary example is healthcare. When congressional Republicans attempted to repeal and replace Obamacare, Medicaid recipients felt obligated to attend town halls and pressure Republican senators such as Rob Portman and Lisa Murkowski into publicly rejecting Trumpcare (Ford). Public backlash was swift and powerful; the inundation of criticism following the CBO report led to the Trumpcare withdrawal in March. Activism does not need to be a massive demonstration to produce change. Civil disobedience, writing to representatives, and attending town halls all show political awareness. These acts incentivize politicians to advocate for the populace’ interests.
Students must partake in these acts because many governmental decisions affect them more than others. Betsy DeVos’ nomination as Secretary of Education mostly affects students, who will suffer from her supporting charter schools and student loan deregulation (Weissman). Policies concerning college affordability and the $1.3 trillion student loan debt crisis affect those who seek higher education (Friedman). Climate change and Supreme Court nominations will have a longer effect on the youth than on the elderly, so students will lose more if they do not speak out. If EPA Head Scott Pruitt deregulates the coal mining industry, their life expectancy will take the largest toll. If the Senate confirms judges who want to limit female reproductive rights, increases in teen birth rates could be the most disastrous results. Given that most incumbent politicians are baby boomers, younger generations must inform politicians of their struggles to ensure that they have youths’ perspective in mind when debating legislation.
History has proven the effectiveness of student activism through the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. The SNCC orchestrated many protests including some Freedom Rides throughout the 1960s. After the pro-integration ruling of Boynton v. Virginia, in 1960, many college students risked being mobbed by angry white supremacists to end segregation in interstate travel. In a telegram to President Kennedy, SNCC member Edward King wrote that Kennedy “cannot remain silent any longer” and has a “legal duty” to protect the rights of African-Americans (King). The SNCC triumphed; the Interstate Commerce Commission issued rules enforcing integration at transportation facilities in November 1961 (Mack). As the SNCC exemplified, activism makes students more than votes or donations in the eyes of an elected official. When students march on Washington or speak at a town hall, their representatives respond to them. Even if others paint them as rebellious troublemakers, the students’ message will pull through so long as they stir “good trouble.”
Ford, Zack. "Meet the Republicans Who Oppose Trumpcare." ThinkProgress. ThinkProgress, 07 Mar. 2017. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
Friedman, Zack. "Free College Tuition: One Solution To Slash Your Student Loan Debt." Forbes Magazine. Forbes, 03 Jan. 2017. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.
King, Edward B., Jr. "Telegram to John F. Kennedy." 23 May 1961. Atlanta: Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Web. 3 May 2017.
Mack, Dwayne. "Freedom Rides." BlackPast.org. Web. 08 May 2017.
Weissmann, Jordan. "Betsy DeVos Is Wasting No Time Screwing Over Students Who Borrow Money for College." Slate Magazine. 18 Apr. 2017. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.