A Polson High School senior's essay placed fifth out of 51 entries earlier this month in the nationwide Voice of Democracy essay contest held by the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
Joseph McDonald, a 17-year-old already accepted to Stanford University, took home a $6,000 prize in combined scholarship money for his piece on the prompt, "What Makes America Great."
McDonald's entry came through the Ronan VFW Post 5652, where he won the local post competition, then the district and then state, which qualified him in January for the national competition.
"I really was not expecting to even win the state or local level, so even being able to go that far in a national competition was really something," McDonald told the Missoulian last week. "I've done well at state level competitions in the past, but my intelligence has never been qualified at such a level and it felt really good."
The VFW flew each contestant to Washington, D.C., where they were given tours of memorials and museums, McDonald said. He said making friends with more than 50 contestants from around the country was an unexpected benefit.
"It was really interesting to see all these cultures," he said.
Looking back at the event, McDonald said the skills that elevated him to the national competition are applicable to the pursuit of any career.
"I think one of the most important skills to have in life, no matter what field, is communication and especially being able to do that through written words and public speaking," he said. "That, in my mind, is one of the most important assets a person can have.
McDonald knows, however, he did not make it to D.C. alone. The Ronan VFW Post 5652 had never had an entry win state before, let alone reach the national competition.
"I'm also really thankful for our post in Ronan and proud to be a state winner for our post and glad for the support they gave me along the way," he said.
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