Sanders Announces Winners of State of the Union Essay Contest

BURLINGTON, Vt., Jan. 19 – With President Barack Obama set to deliver his State of the Union address tomorrow, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) today announced the winner and top finalists in his annual State of the Union essay contest for Vermont high school students.

Leo Lehrer-Small, a sophomore at Mount Mansfield Union High School, was named the winner of the contest, which was judged by a panel of four Vermont teachers. Sanders called to congratulate Lehrer-Small on Friday.

Ryan Taggard of Brattleboro Union High School finished in second place. Two students – Craig Pelsor of Milton High School and Hadley Menk of Champlain Valley Union High School – tied for third place. (The full list of finalists is below.) 

In his winning essay, Lehrer-Small writes: “As we enter the year of 2015, there is one issue in particular that our government, in conjunction with global policy makers, need to address with attention and urgency. This issue, quite simply, is the safety of our planet: global climate change is already affecting the environment through droughts, increasingly frequent heat waves, and rising sea levels.” 

“As the most powerful country in the world, the U.S. must be a driving force in halting global climate change,” he wrote. 

The contest is an opportunity for Vermont students to articulate what issues they would prioritize if they were president of the United States. “This contest is designed to engage Vermont’s high school students on the major issues facing the country. Once again, our students did an outstanding job,” said Sanders, who serves on the Senate education committee. “Our students are the future of our country and they must be involved in the discussion about where our country needs to go.”

This year, 454 students from 27 schools wrote essays of 250 words to 500 words detailing their own view of the state of the union. A panel of Vermont teachers reviewed the submitted essays and selected the top 20 essays, which were named as finalists. To honor their accomplishments, each of the finalists’ essays will be entered into the Congressional Record. 

Sanders will meet with the 20 finalists during a roundtable discussion to discuss the issues they wrote about in their essays. The roundtable has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 31 in the Statehouse in Montpelier. The senator will also hold a town meeting at the school of the winning essay writer.

“Each year, I am impressed by the range of issues students write about, but more so by their solutions,” said Jason Gorczyk, who teaches A.P. Politics at Milton High School and has served as a judge in Sanders’ essay contest for two years. “The State of the Union contest is a great place for them to blend their education with their beliefs." 

During the five years Sanders has held his State of the Union essay contest, more than 1,600 students from schools throughout Vermont have written essays on such important issues as the declining middle class, climate change, gun control, the national debt, the need to raise the minimum wage, health care reform, and the rising cost of a college education.

Winning essays in prior years were written by students from the Vermont Commons School, Winooski High School, Champlain Valley Union High School, and Mount Anthony Union High School.

The top essays and the finalists for this year’s essay contest are listed below.

1st place: Leo Lehrer-Small, Mount Mansfield Union High School

2nd place: Ryan Taggard, Brattleboro Union High School

3rd place (tie): Craig Pelsor, Milton High School

3rd place (tie): Hadley Menk, Champlain Valley Union High School


Finalists (in alphabetical order)


•           Sam Anglum, Burr and Burton Academy

•           Caroline Arthaud, Champlain Valley Union High School

•           Har Wa Bi, Winooski High School

•           Peter Camardo, South Burlington High School

•           Taylor Devaney, Missisquoi Valley Union High School

•           Connor Drown, Winooski High School

•           Spencer Eckert, Woodstock Union High School

•           Jacob Gallow, Missisquoi Valley Union High School

•           Liam Gibbons, Milton High School

•           Eli Hulse, Vermont Commons School

•           Kathy Joseph, Champlain Valley Union High School

•           Emery Mead, Missisquoi Valley Union High School

•           Alicia Muir, Milton High School

•           Curtis Richardson, Milton High School

•           Friedemann Schmidt, Brattleboro Union High School

•           Sophia Seman, Essex High School


To read this year’s winning essays and finalists, click here.