Teens Tackle Heated Topics in Westminster Civility Essay Contest

two women sitting and talking at a table

May 31, 2022

Have you had it with the insults on social media and the anger of people who feel like their view of the world is the only right one? Having civil conversations on tough topics seems like a lost art these days. Name-calling, attack ads, deliberate mistruths, and even overt violence towards members of the press and political opponents are now common features of public life.

The Honors College at Westminster College sponsors an annual statewide essay contest that challenges all Utah high school students to tackle hard topics but to do so in a reasonable and rational way. 

 “The purpose of the contest is to drive conversation about difficult topics in the high schools of our great state and encourage students to develop their voices as writers, since current students will be our next generation of leaders,” says Richard Badenhausen, dean of the Honors College. “I am inspired each year by the passion and vision our young people have in their solutions to our most pressing problems.”

The Honors College has sponsored the contest for five years. High school students have tackled crucial issues in the past like solutions to climate change, the role of the media in contentious speech, and how to promote civility. One year, students were invited to give advice to incoming Utah Governor Spencer Cox, advice the governor acknowledged in this video!

In 2022, the contest asked students to pose solutions to the stark political and cultural polarization that seems to threaten our democracy in the United States. 187 students from 57 high schools submitted their 600-word arguments for the contest—a massive jump from the 37 students who entered work in the first competition in 2017. 

Ethan Hepworth, a senior at Copper Hills High School, offered the following suggestions in his winning essay. 

“The United States’ current trend toward hyperpolarization is unsustainable. We can, and should, disagree on policy, but to disagree on facts is unacceptable,” Ethan wrote. “By undertaking social media regulation and providing more robust media literacy education, America might be able to move towards a less polarized and subsequently more healthy society.”

Essays are judged by a bipartisan panel of prominent Utah republicans, democrats, and independents. The best essay award comes with a $2,000 cash prize and $500 awards go to 2–3 runner-ups.  Awards are funded under the generous sponsorship of WCF Insurance.

Each year, the Salt Lake Tribune publishes the winning essay in its editorial section. Visit www.sltrib.com/opinion/commentary/2022/04/15/ethan-hepworth/ to read Ethan’s full essay. 

Westminster’s Honors College offers a distinctive course of study for academically and intellectually prepared students who want to challenge themselves in a supportive community of learners. Honors classes put student voices at the center of the classroom experience so they can develop their own way of seeing the world instead of being told what to think.

The annual essay contest is well-aligned with the values of Westminster’s Honors College, which puts a premium on wrestling with challenging topics in respectful ways. As one 2022 Honors College alum and physics major explained: “I learned so much beyond the classroom in these honors classes. How to be respectful of everyone’s opinions, truly listening to people’s point of view, empathizing with others, and being able to have a constructive conversation. I see many people I know without these skills going through life and it is painful to watch their frustration because no one will listen to their thoughts, when in reality if they simply listened to others, they might be heard.”

Made up of one of the most comprehensive team-taught, interdisciplinary honors curriculums in the country, the Honors College guides students towards their best future self. Learn more about Westminster’s Honors College and the Civility Essay Contest