To see the winning entries, click here


Winners of THNOC's first-ever student essay contest tackle big issues

by Molly Cleaver, editor


"My grandmother has lived in Gordon Plaza for more than 30 years,” writes Tu’Morrow Howard, a sixth-grader at Bricolage Academy. “My grandmother said she was excited about the opportunity to own her own house. No one told her that the land was contaminated.”

In her essay, Howard describes watching her grandmother advocate for the residents of a New Orleans development built on top of a toxic landfill. “I’ve grown up watching my grandmother fight for relocation. . . . She is fighting to save her life and my life.”

Howard’s personal account of her grandmother’s advocacy work, interwoven with the history of Gordon Plaza, earned her first place in the middle school category of The Collection’s first-ever student essay contest. Open to students across the country, the contest prompted participants to think about “your role as a change maker,” asking, “Where do you see yourself fitting in the history books?” Nearly 200 students responded.

“We were so impressed with the submissions,” said Jenny Schwartzberg, THNOC’s curator of education. “We did not expect the level of engagement or the quality that we saw demonstrated in so many of the essays that we received.” THNOC awarded cash prizes to the winners in the middle and high school categories: $250 for first place, $150 for second, and $100 for third. Most of the respondents were from across Louisiana—New Orleans, Bastrop, Lafayette, and Shreveport were heavily represented—but several essayists hailed from Illinois and Montana. “Instead of us bringing our stories to students,” Schwartzberg said, “we wanted them to bring their stories and their voices to us.”

Themes emerged among the responses, giving insight into the kinds of issues concerning Generation Z. Elizabeth Northup, an eighth-grader at the International School of Louisiana, wrote about participating in the national school walkout day to protest gun violence in the wake of the February 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida. “My generation was left feeling devastated,” she writes in her essay, which won third place in the middle school category.

Environmental awareness was a frequent topic, from Howard’s discussion of environmental justice to other entries addressing climate change, littering, and wildlife preservation. “Living in an area that is directly affected by climate change through rising oceans makes taking action more important than it is for most people,” writes Adrian Ayestas, a sixth-grader at the International School of Louisiana, who took second place in the middle school category. Honorable mention recipient Olivia Boyd, a sophomore at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, used the extended metaphor of a forgotten child to describe plastic, “a product celebrated upon its conception, but spurned as it aged. And industry, its parent, did not have the dignity to cease fashioning new children after the abuse started. . . . It kept on producing siblings.”

Racism was another theme, one shared by the top two winners of the high school category. First-place winner Samarah Bentley, a ninth-grader at Lycée Français de la Nouvelle-Orléans, explained how she uses her role on the student council to speak out about racial discrimination, encouraging other black students to “thrive and bring about greatness—because greatness doesn’t care how old you are.” Second-place winner Samantha White, a sophomore at St. Mary’s Dominican High School, gave a detailed account of the inspiration she found visiting sites related to the civil rights movement.

Bullying and the need for kindness occupied the largest share of essay topics—perhaps unsurprising for a generation that has grown up with the internet and social media. “A lot of people wrote about connecting to other human beings and finding those common threads to practice compassion in our lives,” Schwartzberg said. One honorable mention, by Scott O’Donnell, a senior at Flathead High School in Kalispell, Montana, took the topic a step further by critiquing a school anti-bullying program that he found to be ineffective because of its cut-and-dry, top-down approach. “He’s experiencing this as a student but having the perspective to look at it with a critical eye, saying, ‘This is something we need, but it’s being designed by other people instead of them asking us,’” Schwartzberg said.

Other standout entries saw students questioning systems of thought and power in the world. Ursuline Academy junior Annabel Beatmann made a strong case for better civics education to prepare young people to be responsible voters and citizens. Her essay took third place in the high school category. Honorable mention Janey Hynes, a junior at Mother McCauley High School in Chicago, described how, as a white girl, her eyes were opened to systemic racism through the events of the Black Lives Matter movement. And one student, Jesuit High School senior Ronnie Bergeron, critiqued the entire notion of “going down in history.” Giving the example of Marsha P. Johnson, known for her role in the Stonewall Riots, Bergeron writes, “Yet you have likely never heard of Zazu Nova or Jackie Hormona, the two people beside her. They remain unwritten in most stories.” This lack of attention “does not negate anything done by any person there,” he argues, “but is simply to show that while we can do amazing things, sometimes we will go unrecognized for them in the public eye. This is where I see myself living, on the side of the hero of the story.”

At a time when everyday life around the world has been constrained by the coronavirus pandemic, these students’ examinations of history and visions for the future “were so hopeful to read,” Schwartzberg said. “These are the kids who will be tackling the problems of the world in the years to come.”


Click below to see the winners of THNOC's 2020 Student Essay Contest.



Click here to read the prompt for this year's Student Essay Contest.


This year's Student Essay Contest is closed. The prompt for next year's contest will be posted in early 2021.