We’re pleased to announce the winners of The Nation’s sixth annual Student Writing Contest. This year we asked students to send us an original, unpublished, 800-word essay detailing what they think is the most important issue facing their generation. We received hundreds of submissions from high school and college students in forty-one states. We chose one college and one high school winner and ten finalists total. The winners are Bryce Wilson Stucki of Virginia Tech University and Hannah Moon of Brooklyn College Academy in Brooklyn, New York. The winners receive a cash award of $1,000 and the finalists, $200 each. All receive Nation subscriptions. —The Editors

“Hey, can you listen to my idea to see if it makes sense?” I asked my sister while we sat on the beach. I was brainstorming ideas for this essay while she was flipping through People magazine.

“Ya… give me a sec,” she answered, willing to impart her wisdom—that of a recent NYU graduate—to me, her brother, younger by twenty months. She sat up from her stretched-out position, grabbed her phone, turned to me and asked, “What’s up, Jake?”

“Well, I want to write about the inability for our generation to be present in time, place, state-of-mind… all of that. You know? I can discuss technology and its influences on our generation… and how the inability to be present relates to various hot-button issues…”

She looked up at me from her phone as I gathered my thoughts, about to continue. “Wait, Jake….what’d you say? Sorry, I was looking up dinner recipes.” She sent a grin in my direction. I laughed sarcastically and proceeded to repeat myself. After all, I needed reassurance that my idea made sense. “Oh! You mean kinda like what I was just doing?” She laughed upon hearing my thoughts. “I definitely see where you could take that.” I did not need to tell her to put her phone down as we proceeded to discuss my theory. She understood the point.

The story of my sister is just one harmless anecdote that exemplifies the concept of a person’s inability to be present. She agreed to do a simple task—listen to her brother who was sitting directly next to her—in an environment that was totally absent immediate distraction. However, she proved unable to carry out that task with focus and respect. Do I think her overall intention was to disrespect me? Absolutely not. However, the fact of the matter was that she got distracted by technology, allowed her mind to float off to the Internet and lost contact with what actually mattered in time and space (her conversation with me).

In 2011, my sister’s behavior is in no way an anomaly. People of all ages remove their minds from their present bodies during tasks big and small. Consider, for example, all of the automobile drivers who decide to text while driving. Or consider the college students who browse the Internet instead of focusing on their professors’ lectures. The drivers risk their own lives while threatening the lives of others when they remove their mind from the task at hand. The students, our future leaders, educators, activists and inventors, waste an opportunity to gain critical knowledge that might help them to solve one of the many global issues that exist today.

Although these two scenarios may seem as they would be insignificant because they are isolated, maybe the pedestrian whom the unaware driver killed with his/her car was the one individual smart enough to find a cure for cancer? Or, beyond that, what if that same pedestrian had no idea that s/he was smart enough to cure cancer because s/he spent so much of her/his education disengaged and focused on unrelated distractions? So as minor as these incidents may seem, the cumulative, long-term effects to the population when these incidents repeatedly occur may be devastating.

The inability of people to live in the present may become increasingly dangerous as it becomes more socially acceptable. Consider, for example, cigarette smoking by the global population. Gradually over the course of history, more and more people followed the trend for one reason or another. People continued to smoke despite increasing medical knowledge of its lethal consequences. Now, in 2011, although the social acceptability of cigarette smoking has undoubtedly decreased significantly in the United States, the practice is far from being eradicated here and especially around the world.. Following a similar path, an increasing societal acceptance of an un-present mind and body could easily spiral out of control to a level of no return at which point mankind would no longer know what it means to focus on one task at a time.

John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.” With Lennon’s words in mind, my generation needs to recognize that, if we spread ourselves too thin, our effectiveness in solving the world’s issues will be compromised. We must control what we can in the present and have faith in the ability of mankind to cooperate so that we can collectively solve our problems.