Sanders Holds Virtual Roundtable Discussion with State of the Union Essay Contest Finalists

BURLINGTON, Vt., March 2 – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) held a virtual roundtable discussion on Monday evening with the winners and finalists of his eleventh annual State of the Union essay contest. The contest gives Vermont high school students an opportunity to describe a pressing issue they would prioritize as president of the United States. 

Each year, Sanders hosts a discussion with the finalists at the Vermont State House. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s event was held virtually. The students and their families joined Sanders on the video call with Sanders participating from his Senate office in Washington, D.C.

Sanders, who serves on the Senate education committee told the students, “You should all be very proud. You wrote wonderful essays on some of the most important issues we face as a nation. I look forward to this lively discussion every year, so I’m very glad we were able to gather virtually.”

This year, 319 students from 42 Vermont high schools submitted essays on racial justice, gun safety, climate change, mental health care, immigration, the rising cost of college, and more. A panel of six Vermont teachers served as volunteer judges, scoring the essays and selecting the eight finalists and three winners. 

After Sanders’ introductory remarks, each finalist presented their essay topic, which included possible solutions to the issue they identified. Sanders then opened the discussion portion of the event, asking the students their thoughts on what must be done to reinvigorate American democracy. Several finalists wrote their essays about the state of our democracy, and many students spoke up about the threat of extremism, the role the internet and corporate media play in shaping one’s views, the Electoral College, and voter suppression. Sanders and the finalists also discussed gun safety legislation, systemic racism and police accountability, sexual health education, supporting our veterans, and youth mental health. 

“This past year has been a terrible year. We have lost half a million people to the pandemic, our economy has suffered, many have lost their jobs, and many young people’s lives have been disrupted. The statistics are very clear — mental illness has skyrocketed over the last year.” said Sanders. Knowing the importance of addressing these issues directly with students, Sanders is hosting a virtual statewide student town meeting on March 15 focused on mental health. Sanders encouraged the essay finalists to attend and spread the word about this event to further discuss the challenges they have experienced as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Sanders then posed a question to the finalists: “What are you and your friends feeling and what might we be able to do to improve a difficult situation?” 

The finalists acknowledged that it has been very difficult to stay in touch with friends and to learn in a hybrid model, mixing remote and in-person learning environments. While the mental health impacts on students have been extremely challenging, many expressed that  – perhaps because of these challenges –  mental health is discussed much more amongst young people now than ever before. Stephie Siki, a senior from Winooski High School, said, “This has been a horrible year. But I do think it has brought issues forward that have been ignored in the past, like mental health and systemic racism. This year has challenged us to face our reality.” 

Ling Bushey, a senior from Bellows Free Academy, said, “My friends have been struggling a lot with their mental health. Talking about it during this pandemic has normalized it a little bit more since we’re all feeling the same thing.” Ella Partlow, a junior from Missisquoi Valley Union High School, who wrote her essay on youth mental health, said, “We have to increase funding for mental health services and make it more accessible for young people.”

After discussing the finalists’ essay topics, Sanders provided an update on what he’s fighting for in Washington. He spoke of his role as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and the $1.9 trillion relief package currently being negotiated in Congress. The finalists also had an opportunity to ask Sanders specific questions about his legislative plans and his thoughts on current events. 

Sanders ended the event by thanking the students for their participation and encouraging them to continue engaging in the political process, saying, “I want to thank you very much for your excellent essays and your thoughtful participation in this discussion. Please when you leave this event, get the word out to your friends and classmates – what happens in Washington, in Montpelier, at the local level is very important, and we need to have young people involved.” 

Sanders entered the finalists’ essays into the Congressional Record, which is the official archive of the U.S. Congress. Additionally, Senator Sanders has invited the finalists to be interviewed about their essay topic for inclusion in official videos and social media produced by his Senate office.  

To read the finalists’ essays, click here.