BRATTLEBORO — Brattleboro Union High School sophomore Sasha Lann is the first-place winner of U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders' 12th annual State of the Union essay contest with their essay about voting rights.
Isabelle Tupper, also a sophomore at the school, was a finalist.
The contest offers Vermont high school students an opportunity to take on a major issue facing the country and propose what they would do to solve it.
This year, 409 students from 38 high schools submitted essays. A panel of six Vermont teachers volunteered as judges, scoring the essays and selecting seven finalists and three winners.
Sanders invited the finalists to join him for a roundtable discussion at the Vermont State House on Saturday, March 26. He will also enter the finalists' essays into the Congressional Record, the official archive of the U.S. Congress.
Top honor goes to voting rights essay
Lann wrote their essay as a social studies class assignment in January. They say their class “brainstormed ideas, but the topic of voting rights really stood out for me.”
“We definitely did do a lot of research but there was also a lot fresh in my mind especially from the recent [presidential] election,” Lann says. “I think there was a lot of effort to restrict voting, especially with mail-in voting, and, of course, the struggle after the election to finalize votes.”
All the students in Lann's class were encouraged to submit their essays and Lann felt that doing so was also part of being civic-minded. Lann learned from Sanders himself via phone that they had won.
“It was very, very surprising,” Lann says with a happy laugh. “I wasn't super-confident about my essay when I submitted it, so that was a shock.”
Lann said they were excited and “really nervous” to visit the State House and speak.
“I've been thinking about it a lot,” Lann says. “I'll look back into my essay. It would be helpful to know a bit about the state of things right now.”
Tupper in top 10
Tupper participated in the contest as part of a history class final exam.
“I went into the contest hoping to inspire other young writers and make a real difference in this world, and I could not be more grateful for the opportunity I was given,” she says.
“I chose to write about Black mental health because it is constantly overlooked, despite the tragedies and hardships that accompany it,” Tupper says. “When I go to school, I see Black students struggling with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and more. I see those same students seeking guidance and support, and I take note of the fact that there is only one black teacher at my school.”
“This infuriates me,” she says.
“How is it that so many students are being let down by those who are meant to stand by them? How is it that people truly believe that discrimination and inequities do not exist in the school system and in our country?” Tupper continues.
“I am this outraged, and I do not even face racism myself,” she adds. “As a white person, I cannot begin to imagine even 10 percent of what Black people go through.”
Tupper says she did extensive research to educate herself on the topic.
“I wrote this essay to try and reveal all the ways in which Black people are let down by the system,” she says. “I wanted those who read my essay to understand how they could support Black people in their life. Most importantly, I wanted all people to recognize that mental health is important and that black people encounter innumerable disparities that harm their confidence and physical well-being.”
The sophomore is “incredibly honored” to be a finalist.
“When I first sent in my essay, I had no expectations of winning or even making it to the finals. I wanted - more than anything - for my writing to make it into the Congressional Record, but I didn't want to get my hopes up,” she says.
“I was so unbelievably surprised when I got the news that I placed in the top 10,” Tupper says. “To be honest, I thought that they had sent the email to the wrong person because I didn't see it coming.”
Youth 'hold the future of the nation and the world in their hands'
Since Sanders started the contest, more than 5,300 students throughout Vermont - representing almost every high school in the state - have written essays about critically important issues including climate change, racial justice, access to mental health care, the opioid crisis, the state of our democracy, and more.
“It is no exaggeration to say that young people hold the future of the nation, and the world, in their hands,” Sanders says in a news release.
“In these difficult times, what perhaps makes me most hopeful is young people like these Vermont students who are engaged in their communities and on the issues and challenges that face us today,” the senator continues.
“Young people have a beautiful vision of what the future should be, and I see them out every day fighting for that future,” Sanders says. “And that is no small thing. I want to sincerely thank all the students who participated in this year's contest. I look forward to hearing your ideas on how best to move our country forward.”