NEWS: Sanders Holds Roundtable Discussion with Student Finalists of State of the Union Essay Contest

BURLINGTON, Vt., Feb. 14 – Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a roundtable discussion at the Vermont State House on Saturday morning with the student finalists of his 13th annual State of the Union Essay contest. The contest gives Vermont high school students the opportunity to identify a major issue facing the country and propose what they would do to address it. 

Find photos of the event here

“The purpose of this contest is to try to get young people to start thinking about the many important issues that we deal with every day,” said Sanders in his opening remarks. “This is about asking you, if you were President of the United States, if you got up in front of Senators and members of the House of Representatives in Washington, what would you say? What is the state of the union? How are we doing? What are our strengths, what our weaknesses, and where do we want to go in the future?”

This year, 382 students from 31 Vermont high schools submitted essays. A panel of seven Vermont educators served as volunteer judges, ranking the essays and selecting twelve finalists and three winners. Students wrote on critically important issues, including climate change, access to mental health care, political polarization, gun safety, disability rights, racial justice, and more. 

After introductory remarks, Sanders opened the discussion portion of the event. Beginning with the three contest winners, each student presented their essay topic and proposed solutions to the issues they identified. Sanders asked questions of the students and challenged them to make connections between the various topics. The discussion covered a broad range of topics, including misinformation, unions, veterans’ benefits, the responsibility of government, mental health, farming, climate change, gun violence, gerrymandering, campaign finance reform, education, and bullying in schools. 

Part of the discussion focused on the how young people in Vermont and across America today are affected by the mental health crisis. Andrew Barrett, a sophomore from Oxbow High School, said, “Mental health is an important aspect of life, but there is a stigma in our society against those with mental illnesses and a stigma against seeking treatment.” Sanders and the students spoke about how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis, the lack of mental health care providers, the impact of social media, and unique stresses facing their generation, like climate change and the threat of gun violence in schools – two topics identified by other contest finalists. 

Alaina Rogers, a junior at Bellows Free Academy Fairfax and Hannah Smiley of Milton High School, wrote their essays on gun violence. During the discussion, Alaina said, “People are losing their lives every day to gun violence. There are steps the government could take like banning assault rifles and strengthening background checks.” When discussing the threat of gun violence in schools, including the incident that had taken place earlier in the week where over 20 Vermont schools received falsified threats of gun violence, Alaina, said “It’s terrifying. The threat is always in the back of your mind and you don’t feel safe. It affects your education and your ability to learn.” 

During the conversation, Sanders and the finalists considered the purpose of education. When speaking about his essay on affirmative action policies, Alexander Califano, a junior at Craftsbury Academy, said, “Congress should pass a law that would ensure colleges admit students from historically disadvantaged backgrounds. Part of attending school is about learning how to become a responsible citizen. Campuses need to reflect the diversity of our country. Students need to interact with people of different backgrounds and perspectives.” The conversation also included discussion of high school curriculum. Samantha Urbina, a junior from Bellows Free Academy Fairfax, wrote her essay on the inclusion of Latino history. Samantha said, “It’s still important for students in rural places, like Vermont, that may not have a large Latino population, to be educated on Latino history and to have these inclusive discussions. Without it, prejudice and biases can form.”

After all of the student finalists had discussed their essays, Senator Sanders invited teachers and family members in the audience to share their thoughts. Terri Vest, a teacher from Twinfield Union School and one of the contest judges, said, “I have done this essay contest every year and I am constantly not only impressed, but overjoyed to read the essays. Sometimes the news is pretty depressing and I would turn to one of these essays. So, thank you to all of these students for your compassion, your thoughtfulness, and your intelligence.” 

Sanders concluded the event, saying, “We are living in tough times. That’s the reality and you heard it here today. There are a lot of very serious problems. But I think as has been said, your intelligence and your decency give us all hope for the future of this country. In the midst of all the difficulties that we encounter every day, and there are many of them, keep going forward with a vision of how we can address those problems and a vision for a better and brighter future.”

Sanders entered the finalists’ essays into the Congressional Record, the official archive of the U.S. Congress. Since Sanders started the contest, over 5,700 students across Vermont have written essays.

To read the essays of the finalists and winners, click here.