This artcle was originally published in the Nation Associate newsletter.
This year’s Nation Student Writing Contest, the magazine’s fifth annual, drew high school and college students from all over the country who felt called to share their stories of how budget cuts had impacted the quality of their education. The two first prizes were awarded to Amanda Lewan, writing about her struggle to attend college in Detroit, and Melissa Parnagian, a high school sophmore in Matawan, New Jersey.
Amanda Lewan didn’t expect to win with her entry. “I stumbled upon [the contest] online one day and I was just really inspired by the question,” she said. “I felt that there was a story to tell, especially where I was coming from, the area.” In 2009, the erstwhile “Motor City” was a wreck, with nearly 25 percent of its population unemployed. “I felt like I had something positive to say about [Detroit], too.” Amanda is currently tutoring students in composition and working on her bachelor’s degree. “I get a discount at my school now [Wayne State University], but at Michigan State I didn’t. And it’s pretty expensive to go to Michigan State.”
Although the financial pressures she faced as a student have eased somewhat, the precariousness of Amanda’s situation is compounded by the fact that both of her parents are employed by a school system that has undergone yearly budget cuts. Both of Amanda’s parents were born and raised in Detroit. “My parents just have the attitude that ‘Detroit’s always had problems, they’re never going to fix it,’” she said. “Maybe my generation’s more positive about it and wants to work to make it a better city. There are still some really good parts of Detroit, but it’s one of the cities in the whole country that’s having the toughest time recently.”
Amanda hopes the contest will continue to highlight student needs. “It really inspired me to write and share my story, even though my story was one of hardship,” she said. “I hope it was positive and inspirational, too, so that other people who are going through hard times can read that in a magazine and see that it’s not so bad and that they can get through their hard times.”
Melissa Parnagian, who hopes to attend Princeton University and is considering a career in journalism, had already written a letter to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and was poised to send it to him. “My parents—probably wisely—advised me not to,” she said. So she saved the letter. “When I saw the Nation Student Writing Contest, I thought it would be a perfect fit.”
She had not heard of the magazine prior to hearing about the contest. Ironically, the shortcomings of her school have led Melissa and her classmates to enhance their education outside of school. “The overall budget crisis made us all a little more interested in ‘local democracy.’ A lot of my peers shared the same feelings I had: that this was our future, our opportunities being debated, and we needed to do as much as we could to influence the outcome. As a result, we started learning about the school budget process.”
Melissa believes other young people can similarly benefit from becoming more involved in the political process that shapes their future. “People of voting age have a great responsibility, and I just want them to remember who their decisions affect. Especially in the case of a budget—or a governor who vows to cut it—what they decide can influence a whole generation,” she said. “We shouldn’t have to fight for the basic necessities of public education. There is a face behind every issue. On the whole, however, I am thankful for this experience: it’s taught me myriad of things about politics, compromise and the power of words.”