Sanders announces winners of State of the Union essay contest

REGION – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) Monday, Feb. 4 announced the winners of his ninth annual State of the Union essay contest, which gives Vermont high school students an opportunity to describe which issues they would prioritize if they were president.

This year, 590 students from 50 Vermont high schools submitted 250-500 word essays on issues that included climate change, gun safety, substance use, immigration, political polarization, higher education, and more. A panel of six Vermont teachers served as volunteer judges, scoring the essays and choosing the 20 finalists and three winners.

Firdaus Muhammad, a freshman at Essex High School, won this year’s contest with an essay about Islamophobia. Muhammad is the first freshman ever to win the essay contest.

“Eighteen years have passed since 9/11. It’s been seven years since I started wearing the hijab publicly,” Muhammad wrote. “The racism against Muslims has only gotten worse. The hatred and Islamophobia has spread like wildfire, affecting every Muslim in its path.”

“The United States is a country of diversity, a country built by immigrants. Any person who comes from any religion, deserves to feel respected and welcomed in this country,” Muhammad concluded.

Jackson Maiocco, a senior a Bellows Falls Union High School, wrote about the military budget and was the second place winner. “Every country’s main goal should be the scientific and social advancement of their citizens and society as a whole, so the damage done by Trump’s budget cuts is incredibly detrimental to our nation,” Maiocco wrote. “Meanwhile, we’re pouring unprecedented amounts of money into building tanks that will never see action.”

Joseph Brody, a senior at St. Johnsbury Academy, was the third place winner with an essay on voter suppression. “Ultimately, eliminating Voter ID laws and reforming Election Day will make voting accessible to all Americans. Voting is at the heart of democracy, and once this is realized, the quality of life for all Americans will be heightened,” Brody wrote.

“I’m thrilled students from 50 schools from across Vermont participated in this year’s essay contest,” said Sanders, who serves on the Senate education committee. “We need our students to help find solutions for the problems that face our country. This is just one small way to engage them in that process. That’s what democracy is all about.”

Sanders has invited the 20 finalists and their families to join him for a roundtable discussion at the Statehouse in Montpelier Saturday, Feb. 16. Sanders will also enter the essays of the finalists into the Congressional Record, the official archive of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Since Sanders began the State of the Union essay contest, thousands of students from schools throughout Vermont have written essays on a wide range of important issues. The contest is timed to coincide with the president’s State of the Union address, which will take place on Tuesday.

The winners and finalists for this year’s essay contest are:

  • First Place: Firdaus Muhammad, Essex High School, freshman
  • Second Place: Jackson Maiocco, Bellows Falls Union High School, senior
  • Third Place: Joseph Brody, St. Johnsbury Academy, senior


  • Megan Benway, Missisquoi Valley Union High School, junior
  • Thomas Buckley, Colchester High School, freshman
  • Brendyn Byrne, Essex High School, junior
  • Caroline Cassell, Hartford High School, freshman
  • Collin Chutter-Cressy, Burlington High School, senior
  • Felicia Daigle, Rice Memorial High School, junior
  • Paige Dean, South Burlington High School, senior
  • Anysa Denby, St. Johnsbury Academy, sophomore
  • Isabelle Desroches, Burr and Burton Academy, senior
  • Livia Greenberg, Stratton Mountain School, junior
  • Seth Harte, Burlington High School, freshman
  • Alexis Jablonski, St. Johnsbury Academy, senior
  • Simon Rosenbaum, Vermont Commons School, freshman
  • Andy Siki, Winooski High School, senior
  • Ragulan Sivakumar, South Burlington High School, junior
  • Fiona Therese, Compass School, sophomore
  • Henry Wu, Essex High School, junior
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