Student Essay Winners 2017

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Referencing Pope Francis’ call “to take a clear stand for creative and active nonviolence and against all forms of violence,” we asked students to cite examples of violence and tell what they are doing or could do to promote peace. We received 4,773 essays from students competing in two divisions (grades 6–8 and grades 9–12). Sadly, as we were choosing the winners in February, another school shooting occurred, in Parkland, Fla. With deepest sympathy for all who have lost loved ones to violence, we present the winning essays as hopeful signs that young people understand that peace will only be achieved when we treat each other with respect.


DIVISION I (Grades 6–8)
First-Place Winner: Riva Maendel

It starts with us

With all the strength in my arm, I furiously slammed the door. On the other side, my sister was almost as mad as I was. In my opinion, she deserved getting hurt. Looking back, I am embarrassed that all this anger was about washing dishes, but that’s how walls of hatred are built—one small brick at a time. Later, as I lay on my bed, I regretted my actions and thought about steps I could take to promote peace.

The pope gives me a good direction: he tells us to take a clear stand for creative and active nonviolence. I like that word, creative. Thinking back to my conflict with my sister, I realize that taking a nonviolent stand would have made me so much happier. If I had offered to do the dishes for her, I would be promoting peace!

Our world is full of violence. There are people dying from drug overdoses, shootings, gang-related issues and war. I can’t even begin to take a stand on these bigger issues if I fight my sister. So, my first small step is to apologize, and I realize what an amazing power two small words, “I’m sorry,” can have.

As Susan and Jeremy Maendel proudly look on, their daughter Riva Maendel, an eighth-grader at the Bruderhof community's Fox Hill School in Walden, N.Y., accepts from Maryknoll Brother John Blazo (right) her award for first place among Division I essay winners 2017.

As Susan and Jeremy Maendel proudly look on, their daughter Riva Maendel, an eighth-grader at the Bruderhof community’s Fox Hill School in Walden, N.Y., accepts her first-place $1,000 award from Maryknoll Brother John Blazo (right). (A. Marsolek/U.S.)

Almost everyone in the world wants peace, but we don’t know how to find it. One way to bring peace is by praying. We need to pray every day for peace—in our hearts, in our families, in our schools, communities, churches and the entire world. I think of all the Christians in the Middle Eastern countries who are dying for their faith. These Christians risk their lives to bring the message of peace and nonviolence to those in the Middle East. I also worry about the nuclear standoff that we have with North Korea. I pray that our country will find a peaceful solution to this issue. Another thing that bothers me is the escalation of shootings in our country. We need to pray for all those mourning the loss of loved ones. They are in desperate need of peace.

Before we can achieve peace on an international level, we must work toward attaining peace in our daily relationships with those closest to us. I will probably never get a chance to put my life on the line like the Christians in the Middle East. I pray that my school never experiences a school shooting, but nonetheless, I can take a stand for peace and nonviolence every day. I can show my convictions in the small things I do each day. Respecting my parents is promoting peace. Helping out with chores in my house and avoiding conflict with my sister are definite ways to promote peace. At school, the way I interact with my peers will influence the younger students in our school. I can also show interest and support the local organizations in my community that work for peace: our local police officers, AA and other organizations that work towards bringing peace to those who are trapped in a cycle of violence. Even though our efforts might seem small and insignificant, we are actively working for peace.

As we strive for peace, we must remember how important forgiveness is. When we forgive, we can learn to trust. Every little block of peace will help build the foundation for future generations.

Riva Maendel, an eighth-grader at the Bruderhof community’s Fox Hill School in Walden, N.Y., wins the $1,000 Bishop Francis X. Ford Award, named for the Maryknoll priest who was in the first group of Maryknoll missioners to China and died in a prison there in 1952.


DIVISION II (Grades 9–12)
First-Place Winner: Tasnim Islam

Voice against violence

In the autumn of 2016, I stood on the dirt where not only the Islamic Center of Lake Travis, my hometown, began construction, but where my vision of the community was coming true. As my family spoke to the founders, I could imagine the countless celebrations, connections and prayers that would take place in my town. Lake Travis was finally receiving an Islamic place of worship. However, my optimism lasted only until January, when the building horrifically burned down, along with all hope.

This may have been just another fire to many, but to me, it was a reminder of the hundreds of dreadful hate crimes that have occurred and the importance of embracing Islam instead of fearing it. The wooden skeleton of the Islamic Center may just remain as ashes now, but its spirit has only become stronger. While hearing this news alone strikes terror, it’s when the tragedies affect your life personally that they become truly staggering.

Tasnim Islam, a 12-grader at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, joyfully accepts from Maryknoll Father Gerald Kelly the award for first place among essay winners 2017 in Division II.

Tasnim Islam, a 12-grader at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, joyfully accepts her first-place award of $1,000 from Maryknoll Father Gerald Kelly. (M. Islam/U.S.)

“We have to do it. We have to change our name,” my own mother demanded, frantically running upstairs. Sinking into the couch, she cried silently as the news showed the Islamic Center of Lake Travis bursting into flames. I stared at my mom, and we both knew that it was not an accident. After I had lived 17 years with my last name—Islam—my mom sat me down and pleaded, “Imagine how much easier your life would be if your name wasn’t automatically associated with terrorism.” And that’s when the arguing began. I always fought with my mom about doing laundry or cleaning dishes, but I never imagined fighting for my own name. These gruesome events have brought fear into our hearts, but I aimed to rise above it. I channeled my outrage by supporting and fighting for Muslims who are without a voice, but before I could, I had to understand how to raise awareness.

I have felt isolated by my own religion for as long as I can remember, and I knew from middle school that it was not easy to make friends. “Why is Islam your last name? Is your dad a terrorist?” were among the frequent questions I received about myself. I tried to find other ways to prove my capability, so I joined the Government Club and ran for office so that I could reshape my peers’ perspectives. As I finally began to find my voice, we moved to California. I had support from the Muslim Student Association, but after six months, I moved back to Texas, where I felt isolated again. I realized I had to work twice as hard to get people to look past my exterior and my name. I joined a committee for International Outreach, where I created and sold wristbands to go towards refugee relief. For months, I would spend every lunch convincing even the most reluctant students to participate, increasing mindfulness for Muslims.

All of those funds went to the innocent refugees in Austin who came here looking for hope, only to be faced with more oppression, and I made sure my classmates were aware of the Islamophobia. After years of raising awareness, I finally had the potential to make a prominent change. I achieved what I wanted since the moment I realized my community was not as friendly to me as it was to others. But during that time, not only did Lake Travis High School elect me as a Muslim student body president, but the community itself was adhering to this level of acceptance.

Although the Islamic Center burned to the ground, the overwhelming amount of aid was incomprehensible; there were volunteers from all over helping rebuild and fundraise for the mosque. This was only the beginning for me; this newfound mutual respect between my community and myself led me to finally convince my mom not to change my name. I am Tasnim Islam. Islam is a part of who I am, and I refuse to alter my identity just because of people’s ignorance and intolerance of Islamic people. Instead, I will educate myself and others and, in turn, break the immense negative stigma on Muslims. I will forever continue to strive for peace and acceptance by raising awareness, using social media as a platform, and bringing attention to politicians who directly want to alleviate Islamophobia. I would like to unite all Americans and continue using the opportunities I’ve earned to build a world where my loving mom and other underrepresented souls can live without fear of persecution.

Tasnim Islam, a 12th-grader at Lake Travis High School in Austin, Texas, wins the $1,000 Bishop Patrick J. Byrne Award, named for the missioner who died on a forced march in Korea in 1950.


Essays of all 2017 winners will be published on For future news on the Maryknoll Student Essay Contest, stay tuned to



Ariana Avalos, Grade 8
St. Raymond Catholic School
Dublin, Calif.
Ariana says reading the life stories of applicants for college scholarships her father offers to high-achieving students from low-income families has opened her eyes to the fact that violence does not affect only one person but all of us. “We need to come together as a family,” she writes, “standing as one to stop the innocent bloodshed.” (Read essay.)

Rose Benas, Grade 11
St. Ignatius College Prep
Chicago, Ill.
Delivering bagels to emergency shelters run by different religious groups has given Rose a valuable insight. “I have witnessed firsthand the various faiths working together for a common good,” she says, referring to their efforts to overcome poverty. “Instead of creating barriers that lead to conflict and war, world religions can work together to build bridges of peace.” (Read essay.)



Emma Lavallee, Grade 8
Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic School
Vienna, Va.
Emma addresses the role racism has played in causing violence throughout American history and laments that racist attitudes still exist. “The God I believe in cares for all people equally,” she says. She offers these words of wisdom: “To end racism, we must confront it in ourselves, in our communities and in our nation.” (Read essay.)

Asher Newman, Grade 12
Mercer County Technical School-Health Science Academy
Trenton, N.J.
In the face of today’s overwhelming violence, Asher says young people are often left asking, “What can we do about it?” He offers some suggestions, including raising awareness about racism and gun violence and denouncing violence on social media as well as attending interfaith programs to “promote goodwill and understanding through diversity.” (Read essay.)

Read More:To read the essays of last year’s winners, go to Essay Winners 2016.

Featured Image: Flanked by her dad, Mohammed Islam, and Maryknoll Father Gerald Kelly, Tasnim Islam displays her first-place award in the 2017 Maryknoll Student Essay Contest. (M. Islam/U.S.)


Magazine Past Issues

About the author

Maryknoll Magazine