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A 15-year-old freshman at Essex High School has won the State of the Union Essay Contest, sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders office. The student, Firdaus Muhammad, was among 590 students from 50 Vermont high schools to enter the contest.

Students were required to write an essay consisting of 250-500 words on which issue they would prioritize if they were president of the United States. Muhammad wrote about Islamophobia and her experience as a Muslim American after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“The U.S. is a very open country, built by immigrants,” she said. “I don’t think we should be trying to make them scared. They belong here just as every other American belongs here.”

She says the hatred and Islamophobia has only gotten worse in America and is spreading “like wildfire.”

Muhammad is the first freshman to ever win the contest.

A panel of six Vermont teachers volunteered to serve as judges. They scored the essays, selected the 20 finalists and chose the three winners.

Jackson Maiocco, a senior at Bellows Falls Union High School, chose to write about the military budget. Maiocco spoke of the detrimental effects of Trump’s budget cuts and how American tax dollars are being poured into the creation of tanks that will never be used.

Taking third place was Joseph Brody, a senior at St. Johnsbury Academy. Brody wrote about voter suppression. He called for the elimination of voter ID laws and reforming Election Day to make voting more accessible to Americans.

Muhammad’s essay as well as those of the second and third place winners will be entered into the Congressional Record – the official archive of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. She will also meet with Sanders.

“I’m thrilled students from 50 schools from across Vermont participated in this year’s essay contest,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, who also serves on the Senate education committee. “We need our students to help find solutions for the problems that face our country. This is just one small way to engage them in that process. That’s what democracy is all about.”

The 20 finalists have been invited to join Sanders in a roundtable discussion at the Statehouse in Montpelier on February 16.

Thousands of students from all over Vermont have participated in Sanders’ State of the Union essay contests. The contest is timed to coincide with the State of the Union address, which President Trump will give on Tuesday.