For the fourth annual Nation Student Writing Contest, we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing how the recession had affected them. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-four states. We chose one college and one high school winner and eight finalists total. The winners are Jim Miller of Henderson State University in Arkansas and Deborah Ghim of Buffalo Grove High School in Illinois. You can read the essays at The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $250 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. This contest was made possible by the BIL Charitable Trust to recognize and reward the best in student writing and thinking.   –The Editors

It’s been said that when the economy suffers, fast food franchises are the first ones to smile. In a time of tight budgets and dwindling jobs, families have increasingly chosen to treat themselves to cheap fast food instead of formal dining. So sure enough, when I biked to Burger King the other day, I opened the door to find a long line of customers clutching the same mail-in coupon book I’d tucked safely in my pocket. For the sake of buy-one-get-one-free deals, I, along with several families lined up at Burger King, ventured into the land of heart disease, cholesterol, cancer and obesity as a means of staying massively full for few dollars.

With this financial uncertainty, a stronger sense of awareness has inevitably pervaded the American people. Especially for high school students, the impending burden of paying for a college education has left many of us scrambling to scavenge scholarship sites and apply for summer jobs. We’re less likely to splurge on newly released movies, and we think twice before throwing lavish parties. But that is precisely what this recession has taught us to do–cut back on excessive expenses, work toward definitive goals, and take the initiative to explore and plan our careers early.

In a way, I believe the recent economic troubles have shaped high school students like me into more perceptive people. By being aware of the crisis and doing what we can to adjust our lives accordingly, we’ve become more appreciative of the value of education, which was largely taken for granted before. As we approach senior year, some of my peers have begun to consider alternate paths such as spending two years at a community college before transferring to a university, which is more efficient financially and perhaps even academically. We’ve started to recognize the importance of discovering our passions now, so that we don’t waste time or money trying to map out our directions when we come to a fork in the road later on.

Ironically enough, the detriments of this recession have contributed effectively to a learning process in which today’s teens like me have developed the skills to alter our lifestyles in compliance to the unprecedented situation. Whether it’s learning to make the most of every dollar or finding alternate ways to pay for necessities, many of us have grown mentally, our maturity cultivated by a very uncompounded element called hardship.

In truth, this recession has been a sort of rite of passage for the teens of Generation Y, marking our transition to a heedful adulthood. Because when we finally come face to face with a bigger world, we’ll be better armed with knowledge like budget management and job-seeking strategies. We’ll be able to manage our lives with a greater sense of independence and cognizance. And most importantly, we’ll have the experience to not make the same financial mistakes we’ve seen plague Americans today.

There’s no telling when the global economy will resurge. However long it lasts, the recession will be a period of tweaking habits, making commitments, and most importantly, gaining the patience and determination to see it through. Seeing as the economy is hardly predictable, it might be a long wait until the recession ends.

But while we’re waiting–have a fry.