Three Stuyvesant Students Place as Finalists in the Gilder Lehrman Essay Contest

Getting to know the three Gilder Lehrman essay finalists.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Ivy Huang

This fall, Stuyvesant seniors Charlotte Peterson, Eshaal Ubaid, and Ivy Huang were selected as finalists in the David McCullough essay competition. This competition is an annual essay contest hosted by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, recognizing particularly exceptional student research essays on an American history topic of their choice. The contest is open exclusively to high school students, who submit essays over the summer. 

Peterson placed third in the contest and received a $1,000 award for her paper “Physics, Patriotism, and Propaganda: American Education’s Continuity and Changes After Sputnik.” Peterson’s paper dealt with the effects of the Cold War on propaganda and the American education system in the late 1900s.

In her paper, Peterson addresses both the U.S. government’s motivations for the changes in its education system and the effects of these changes on the public. The promotion of American patriotic sentiment through government-funded bodies that Peterson analyzes throughout her paper would go on to have significant effects on the public education system known today. “As a result of startling Soviet progress in the Space Race, the U.S. government made significant efforts to bolster American performance by encouraging youth to pursue STEM fields,” Peterson said. “[They pushed] to win the ideological battle by improving public morale and confidence in American ideology through the implementation of pro-American, pro-capitalist, anti-Communist, and anti-Soviet propaganda in students’ education through biased textbooks and lessons.”

Many of the finalists were encouraged by their AP United States History (APUSH) teachers to enter the competition. Peterson first found out about the competition from her APUSH teacher, Dr. Lisa Greenwald, who supported Peterson and gave constructive feedback before submission. “[Dr. Greenwald] indirectly encouraged both me and [Ubaid],” Peterson said. “She advised all of her students to submit their work if they were proud of it, as the deadline was a bit after we were to submit our final versions to her and we’d have time to incorporate her feedback into our contest submissions.”

Peterson encourages peers interested in entering the competition themselves to utilize prior works when developing their papers. “If any other students are interested in submitting work to writing competitions like these, I’d advise that they look through essays they’ve already written and work with what they’ve got if they feel that it’s strong,” Peterson said. “Writing a 10 plus page research paper from nothing is an extremely daunting and arduous task, and I doubt I would’ve submitted anything to the McCullough competition if not for my APUSH assignment and constant feedback from my teacher.”

Huang, another finalist, is passionate about English literature and intertwined this passion in her research paper on the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston. Similar to Ubaid, Haung was encouraged by her APUSH teacher, Robert Sandler, to submit her paper to the David McCullough essay competition. “Ivy did a research paper for [National History Day] for my class last year, so when I spoke to a member of the education staff at Gilder Lehrman about this contest, I strongly encouraged her to enter the competition,” Sandler said.

However, though Huang did her research on Hurston for a National History Day project that she worked on under Sandler, it was Huang’s discussion with English teacher Lauren Stuzin, first introducing her to Hurston’s work Their Eyes Were Watching God, that led to Huang’s interest in the writer.

Huang’s research paper frames Zora Neale Hurston as the architect of a literary frontier where black personhood is unapologetically authentic and tangible. The story of Zora Neale Hurston isn’t just about Hurston’s accomplishments alone, but rather a story about women supporting each other in the literary landscape beyond the strictures of time.

In addition to being encouraged by Sandler, Huang received continuous feedback from him on her paper prior to submission. He also directed her to helpful resources to enhance her essay. “I read Ivy’s paper on Zora Neale Hurston several times and gave her feedback about content, style, and future resources,” Sandler said. “I was not surprised [that] Ivy was a finalist because I think Ivy is an exceptional writer and a great history student.”

Finalist Ubaid has always had a passion for the humanities and research. As an Extemporaneous Speech captain, Brooklyn Debate League intern, and researcher at a hospital, Ubaid finds herself enjoying activities that require extensive research and analysis. Currently, she is working on developing a publication focused on historical topics to provide a platform for uplifting social studies writing. Ubaid’s paper, “Manufacturing the War: The Prevalence, Mechanisms, and Political Impacts of the American Yellow Press in 1898” was a final contender in the competition.

Ubaid’s research essay focused on yellow journalism’s impact on America in the 19th century. Yellow journalism is a style of journalism that exaggerates news to attract attention and garner circulation, which in turn generates profits for the news outlet. The term and the tactic were created as a result of the fierce competition between the New York World and The New York Morning Journal. “[Yellow journalism is] often said to be [what] pushed America to war, and ultimately imperialism, with its unflattering reports on Spain,” Ubaid said in an e-mail interview. “I was really looking for how publications achieved this effect, and whether it was more effective on some groups than others. Spoiler—[yellow journalism influenced] basically everybody by the end because of the incredible reach these papers used to make a profit.”

In her paper, Ubaid established how yellow journalism would ultimately shape the landscape of American media and solidify the influence media outlets have on developing the opinions of the general public. Ubaid analyzed the technology and techniques that made yellow journalism so effective, as well as the motivations behind creating such publications. Yellow journalism even played a large role in pushing the United States and Spain into war with Cuba in the Spanish-American War. This form of journalism convinced the United States population to believe that the Cuban people were being oppressed by the Spanish and that the only way to end this oppression was for the United States to get involved.

One strategy that helped Ubaid’s paper succeed was her willingness to take risks with research and writing development. “I did take a risk or two with the writing. I conducted my own analysis of publications in addition to using what others had already observed, attaching the primary documents as images at the end,” Ubaid said. “It felt pretty vulnerable to put my own observations out there for a first attempt at winning a competition, but I’m very happy it did, and it’s made me more confident about trusting my gut and going with my passion.”

With only 20 out of more than 150 students selected to become finalists, and 11 out of those 20 finalists receiving a cash prize, ultimately all three finalists are immensely proud of what they’ve achieved. “I think it was absolutely a worthwhile experience,” Peterson said. “There is really nothing I would want to change. I wasn’t expecting to win anything, so I’m very happy with my results.”