Brandt headed to Washington, D.C. for Voice of Democracy essay contest

Esther Noe
Hill City High School junior Lexi Brandt is heading to Washington, D.C. for the final round of the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Voice of Democracy (VOD) essay contest.
According to, the “VOD audio-essay program provides high school students with the unique opportunity to express themselves in regards to a democratic and patriotic-themed recorded essay. Each year, nearly 40,000 ninth through 12th grade students from across the country enter to win their share of $2.1 million in educational scholarships and incentives awarded through the program.”
Brandt was encouraged to enter the VOD essay contest by her high school english teacher, Jennifer Muller, because it was a good opportunity and had a scholarship possibility.
“When I heard about it, I was really interested because I want to go to the Air Force or Naval Academy. So I thought that would be really related,” said Brandt. “It’s just kind of like a really cool thing to do because it relates to our country and the way that everything’s going right now, especially with election year. It’s important to go back to the fundamentals and write about that.”
So Brandt decided to enter because it was a chance to win some money, related to what she wants to do and might help her in the future.
The topic was “What are the greatest attributes of our democracy?”
It took Brandt some time to come up with her ideas because she wanted to be creative rather than give a typical answer. Eventually, she decided the greatest attributes were our individual freedoms, our right to free and fair elections and the checks and balances within our government.
After that she created three different outlines to start with based on templates provided by Mueller. She wrote her first essay, and then reversed the structure and rewrote it.
To support her chosen attributes Brandt used a few different quotes from the Founding Fathers. 
“And also I used a couple of quotes from past prime ministers that are relating to our democracy and just showing how democracy is one of the greatest powers in the world,” said Brandt. 
Finally, after more editing, Brandt had her essay ready to submit three weeks before the deadline.
“And then the night before, I looked at it again, and I was like, ‘I want to change it.’ So I rewrote the entire thing the night before actually and was just spending a lot of time on it. And I realized my second one was a lot better. I really liked it,” said Brandt.
One thing Brandt added was an anecdote from when she attended Rep. Dusty Johnson’s Level Up Youth Conference as part of the student council.
“I heard him speak there, and a lot of it was about debating respectfully and what our democracy is about. So I ended up quoting something he said and tying it to an anecdote of me being there,” Brandt said.
When it came time to submit it, Brandt thought, “Honestly, I’m probably not going to win. I’ve worked hard on this, but I’m really not expecting anything. I’m glad that I did it. It’s kind of a nice essay to write.” 
Since it was an audio-essay, Brandt said, “I got to include some of my own character and personality into reading it.” 
The school technology coordinator, Christine Goodpaster, helped with this since there were some technical issues. After hearing the essay, Goodpaster said, “I really, really like this. You’re really good. You’re going to win.”
Brandt still was not sure, but four weeks later Joe Noyes told Brandt that she won the district contest. Initially, when it came time for the announcement, Brandt thought she got third. 
“That was just so surprising that that wasn’t the case,” said Brandt. “I was just so happy.” 
Brandt went on to win the regional contest as well, earning herself a trip to the South Dakota State Capitol in Pierre. 
While waiting for the trip, Brandt said, “I tried not to think about it too much. I was just like, ‘You know I get to go to Pierre. I get a free tour of the capitol. I get to meet people. It’s going to be fun.’” 
However, once she got to Pierre, Brandt said, “I wish I just knew right now so I didn’t have to wait for the awards ceremony.” 
Brandt went to dinner and met all the VFW members who were judging the essays for the state level Jan. 20. The next morning she and the other contestants got a private tour of the capitol and met Gov. Kristi Noem. 
For the awards ceremony there was a banquet and speeches about what the contest meant and what the VFW was about. After that, they announced the Patriot’s Pen winners, which is the middle school essay contest. 
Then came the time to announce the VOD winners. They started with fifth place and slowly moved up. 
“Every time I was like, ‘It’s going to be me,’ and then it wasn’t,” said Brandt. When it came down to two places yet to be announced, Brandt said she really wanted to get first so she could go to Washington, D.C. 
When she won, Brandt said “I was just shocked. I was so happy, and it was really a great experience.”
After winning, Brandt spoke to quite a few of the VFW members, and they said they might be able to help her with her Air Force Academy or Naval Academy applications. 
“It was really kind of a neat experience. It just kind of all came together. I honestly don’t know how that happened. It’s just pretty amazing,” said Brandt. 
Thus far for her efforts, Brandt has received a plaque to commemorate her state victory, $950 in scholarships plus $500 of spending money for her all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. Mar. 2-6, which will include museum tours and seeing the White House. 
Brandt is traveling alone but said the VFW takes really good care of all their people. There will be people going with her on the flights and meeting her on the other side. 
“It should be pretty fun. I’m excited,” said Brandt. “I honestly just hope that I can go and have a good time. Just enjoy it. I don’t want to stress out too much about winning or not because just going there is an honor. I’m glad to be there.” 
The state winners are guaranteed a $1,000 scholarship. The higher the student places, the higher the scholarship is. The national winner will receive a $30,000 scholarship. 
“That would be really nice to have to go toward college,” said Brandt. 
To the veterans of the VFW who made the experience possible, Brandt said, “I just want to especially thank them for their services and thank them for being in that program. They’re truly the people that are running and built America, and they’re truly why we’re free and why we have these opportunities, why we have these great attributes of our democracy. 
“So I want to thank them wholeheartedly for this opportunity that they have provided to me. Going forward from there, I kind of hope to pay it back at the Air Force or Naval Academies if I get to do that.” 

User login