Erin Stoeckig had a big question to respond to: "Is this the country our founders envisioned?" The question may have piqued her interest quickly, but the answer she would eventually give took time.

But, it was time well spent.

The Mayo High School junior was named first-place national winner in the Veterans of Foreign Wars 2020-21 Voice of Democracy scholarship program. As the winner, Stoeckig is the recipient of the $30,000 T.C. Selman Memorial Scholarship award.

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"I thought the prompt was really interesting," she said. "I thought there's a lot to dig into with that question."

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Taking the top spot in the essay contest is no small feat. According to the Veterans of Foreign Wars, more than 64,000 high school students from across the country compete in the program every year.

Once she was named as the national winner, the VFW came to Rochester to recognize her achievement. Stoeckig read her essay at Soldiers Field, speaking about how the founding fathers built a nation able to change — that they built a nation striving to be better than it was before.

Video courtesy of VFW.

Within her essay, Stoeckig compared the country to the ship of Theseus:

"The story goes that in the space of a single voyage, all the planks of the ship were replaced one by one. Does the ship remain the same, philosophers have asked for centuries. Is it still the same ship, even if nothing of the original remains? Is it still the same country with the people who built it so many generations gone? Is this the country our founders envisioned?"

In addition to being successful in her own right, Stoeckig's win was also a bit of a nod to family history. Her father, Mike Stoeckig, was the state-level winner in the essay contest from Montana during the 1980-81 year. She remembers hearing stories about his trips with the VFW when she was younger.

For his part, Mike Stoeckig said it was rewarding to see Erin succeed in such a good program.

"It just made me very proud," he said about Erin taking the top honor in the essay contest.

Even though she had always known about the contest after hearing about it from her father, it first came across her radar as an opportunity for herself when her teacher mentioned it in class. The next year, she became interested in submitting an essay when she heard the prompt:

"Is this the country our founders envisioned?"

From there, she started putting pen to paper.

"Thomas Jefferson wrote that laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind," Stoeckig read from her essay at Soldiers Field. "The founding fathers built a government that could change, that could grow with their nation and their children."