Every year, Let Grow sponsors the Think for Yourself High School Essay Contest — and awards $8000 in scholarships to high school juniors or seniors to use for college or other post-secondary options: A $5000 First Prize and three $1000 Runners-up. Unlike most scholarships, we don’t ask for GPA’s or test scores, and our essay isn’t intimidating, either.
Since launching in 2018 we have received over 25,000 entries and awarded $40,000 in scholarships. Winners’ essays have been published in USA Today, The New York Post, The New York Daily News, The San Francisco Chronicle, The New Jersey Ledger, Quillette, and EdWeek.
The essay topic? Students, it’s YOU.
We want to hear a real-world story about the role free speech, curiosity, and open-mindedness have played in your everyday lives. Winners have told us about a time they stood up — or didn’t — for an unpopular view. A time they did something they wished they hadn’t, online. A time a book or speaker that some people wanted to censor ended up rocking their world. The common theme here?
The impact of a “Mockingbird.”
Growth that came from opening up to ideas, voices, art, and people. For instance, last year’s First Prize Winner, Brianne Parker, wrote about the shock of reading “To Kill a Mockingbird,” a book some schools have banned. “As an African-American woman living in the deep south of Louisiana, it was an eye-opening experience,” wrote Brianne:
“My family is always talking about the injustices that African-Americans have to face on a daily basis, so I was used to the problems presented in the book. But seeing my classmates’ reactions to the unfair jury and verdict made me realize that they’d had a different lens on the world. It was the first time that I truly understood what my parents meant by there are “different worlds for different people.”
Thanks to those classroom discussions, I discarded the fears I’d had about my friends automatically aligning with their parents, or not being open-minded. It was one of the first moments that we stopped being kids.”
Reaching out to a foe.
In other years, students wrote about staying friends with someone of a different party even as the elections of 2016 and 2020 tore relationships apart. Others wrote about a time they could have taken offense at something…but chose not to. Still others recalled how scary it was to honestly re-examine a belief, or approach an “enemy” to see if there might be common ground.
Danyere Francis, our First Prize Winner in 2020, wrote about being physically attacked by another student at school for being gay. The attacker, Luis, was expelled. But then Danyere did something surprising:
“I asked a mutual friend to tell Luis to call me.
Six weeks passed, and I received a text from Luis. I was shocked. He immediately stated that he was sorry. I accepted his apology, as there had never been animosity between us before his unnecessary ambush. I asked if he wanted to speak over the phone. He responded with an uncertain “okay.”
I called him and asked him why he attacked me. He explained that he does not agree with my “lifestyle.” He also stated that his father was a conservative pastor.
Though his opinions made me uncomfortable, I respected him for being honest, and I was beginning to understand where his ideology stemmed from. That didn’t make his actions justifiable, but it also didn’t mean we couldn’t coexist.”
Students: The Think for Yourself Contest is designed to get you thinking about what it takes to evolve. We have five writing prompts to choose from. Essays must be 600-800 words and are due April 30, 2023. More information, rules, and entry form here.
Teachers: Feel free to share the link with your students. And then?
Pictured at top of post: 2021 Think for Yourself Winner Daksha Pillai and her published essay.