BENNINGTON -- Mount Anthony Union High School junior Alexina Federhen was recently selected as the winner of the 2014 State of the Union Essay Contest.
The contest, run by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, is "designed to engage Vermont's high school students on the major issues facing the country." According to Sanders, the contest, now in its fourth year, saw more submissions this year than ever before. It takes place around the time of the president's state of the union address every year and is an opportunity for students to give their own views on the "state of the union."
Federhen, along with the second and third place winners, will have her essay published in the Congressional Record, and will participate in a roundtable discussion with some of the other finalists on Saturday, said Sanders. When asked about the importance of giving high schoolers a chance to consider these topics, Sanders said, "I think its enormously important. A lot of young people, in Vermont and around the country, don't understand the function of government in a democracy. For better or for worse, the decisions we make here [in Washington] impact their lives."
Federhen's essay was entitled "A House Divided" after the famous speech by Abraham Lincoln. In it, she brings up many issues that America faced in 2013, including the bankruptcy of Detroit, school shootings, the Edward Snowden leaks, and the Boston Marathon bombing. However, she wrote that the largest issue the country faced, and continues to face, is "a Congress so dysfunctional that it could not even manage to operate the government for the entire year."
"The 113th Congress was the least productive legislature in our history," wrote Federhen, "passing only fifty-five bills into law. Public approval of Congress sank from a "high" of 18 percent on Jan. 1, 2013 to a current low of 8 percent. In fact ‘69 percent think no matter how bad things are, Congress can always find a way to make them worse (Rasmussen Reports).' We deserve better from our political leaders. We need Congressmen and Senators who will set aside persona gain and divisive ideology in order to build compromise and find consensus on the issues that challenge us: economic opportunity, income parity, gun control, immigration, stagnant academic achievement, climate change, and long-term deficit reduction."
In a phone interview, Federhen said, "There's a lot of issues that needed to be addressed," but she thought Congress was the most important issue she could write about. She said she first learned about the contest through her Advanced Placement English class. Her teacher, Amy Thivierge, offered extra credit for students who submitted essays.
While they are definitely comparable, the largest difference between Congress in Lincoln's day and Congress today, said Federhen, was that Congress at that point seemed "more open to new ideas," while today it seems like politicians believe they have already "achieved perfection," and often seem unwilling to consider legislation that might bring about positive changes.
Federhen, in addition to participating in AP English and History, is a member of the varsity cheerleading team, student senate, Spanish Honors Society, and National Honors Society. She hopes to attend Yale or Princeton, and would like to someday be an interior designer, incorporating energy-efficient models into her designs. In regard to entering into the field of politics, she said, "I think its something I could be interested in part-time."
Federhen will be leaving after school on Friday to participate in a television interview, and then will participate in the roundtable discussion on Saturday. Sen. Sanders will also visit MAUHS, although the senator said the date for that visit has not yet been determined.
Federhen closes her essay, "Abraham Lincoln once observed that ‘a house divided cannot stand.' Our House and Senate have splintered into partisan factions of squabbling inactivity. Americans will continue to soldier on, overcoming whatever obstacles impede our advancement. We can only hope that our Congressional leaders will acquire the maturity and wisdom to help rather than hinder our progress. But for now, we are a union without unity."
When asked what changes Congress could make, Federhen replied that every politician needs to make a personal decision to overcome party affiliations and unwavering philosophical divides and have open dialogue with the other side. "I would hope that they would just get together and talk," she said.
Derek Carson can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @DerekCarsonBB