Polson senior's VFW essay taking him to national competition
BEN ALLAN SMITH, Missoulian
Polson High School senior Joseph McDonald had few expectations when he set out to write an essay about "What makes America great."
A few months later, that essay has launched the 17-year-old into the nationwide competition, and he's in the running for a $30,000 scholarship from the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
McDonald was honored Thursday morning at Polson High for his essay's accolades this far. His work first won first place among the entries submitted to the Ronan VFW Post 5652, earning him $100. Then it topped District 1 for Montana VFW's Posts, which netted another $150. McDonald's essay then won out at the state level, piling on another $2,000.
"I didn't realize how big of a deal it was," McDonald said Thursday. "I really had no idea."
McDonald will join 54 state winners from around the country in early March, all with their eyes on the $30,000 top scholarship prize. The lowest scholarship to be handed out will be $500.
McDonald said it took him about a week to shape his answer to the question, "What makes America great?" He settled on the idea of egalitarianism, a philosophy that each person should be equal. In his essay, McDonald fills out the idea that, in the U.S., everyone has an equal opportunity for success.
"There's a lot of obvious things that make America great, but those things like good government, amounts of quality and fairness, those are things a lot of places have," he said. "I just wanted to think of something that was entirely unique to the U.S.A. and I landed on that."
McDonald's family crowded into a room at the high school Thursday morning to see the VFW present him with the awards earned through the state ranks. His father, Rob McDonald, said he was impressed with what his son created out of the open-ended essay prompt.
"When I am able to step back from this a bit, I can see how Joseph brings a more modern sensibility to a classic topic," said McDonald, who is also a spokesman for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. "He shows me how the younger generation breathes a freshness into traditional American ideals."
Despite the opportunity that's come McDonald's way via his essay, Sr. Vice Commander of the Ronan VFW Post David Bennett said it has been tough to get students to participate in the program.
"My experience in the last five years, it's been like pulling teeth to get people interested in sitting down and taking an hour to write something down," Bennett said. "We're going to take all this information to all the other schools and say, 'Look at this.' They will see that this young man has got $2,250 and all he had to do was write this."
That's not meant to shortchange McDonald, who is on the high school tennis team, the speech and debate team, and also was accepted to Stanford University in December.
For now, the local VFW leaders are excited to see McDonald making it to such high levels, the first ever student to do so from the Ronan Post 5652.
"To see somebody from a small town go that far really is great," said Ronan VFW Post Commander David Oberwegner, who added McDonald's success has encouraged him to keep prodding students to reach for the opportunity.
"Let's keep pushing them," he said. "We got one, one means ten, and ten means a thousand."