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The Mount Vernon Prize for Excellence in Civics and History in Honor of Dr. Jennifer London is awarded to two projects each year recognizing outstanding middle and high school students who apply their understanding of Washington’s life and legacy within their classrooms, schools, or communities. 

This award allows us to do something entirely new. It positions us to hear from students about why they think Washington’s biography is important and relevant to their lives today.

High School Winner: Mariya Koval

Mariya is an exchange student from Chernihiv, Ukraine. She wrote a paper on how Washington’s words and his actions toward the fight for democracy inspired her to use her own words and actions to help Ukraine’s fight from afar. She has given presentations, speeches, and fundraisers all centered around helping people understand the importance of democracy in Ukraine and their history of fighting for personal rule, building those connections to the history and ideals of America’s founding. She used George Washington’s legacy as her own call to action and the paper showed how history can have personal influence and impact on our lives today. She made the historical relevancy personal where others tend to make it generic.

Q&A with Mariya Koval

Q: To start, can you summarize some of the work you have done over the past few months in your community in Wisconsin to bring awareness to supporting the people of Ukraine?

A: I still remember how terrified and lost I was when the war started, but at the same time, I was inspired by the courage and decisiveness that Ukrainians showed by defending their land. I asked my school teachers, friends, and host family for help. I made presentations about Ukraine for the League of Women Voters, Kiwanis Clubs, Rotary Clubs, Daughters of the American Revolution, and others; shared posters; gave radio and TV interviews to educate more people; helped distribute t-shirts, and wrote letters to government officials. While at the Youth in Government conference in Madison, WI, students helped me sell almost 100 sunflower pins to donate money to UNICEF.

Q: How does what you share about George Washington connect to your advocating for the Ukrainian people today?

A: When I started learning American history, I was inspired by the work that leaders have done to ensure the prosperity of the whole nation. I found many similarities between the ways George Washington and the Ukrainian people fought for independence, such as not giving up their goals, listening to others, and fighting against dictatorships. Similar to the American leader who wanted to dismantle an oppressive system where the word “democracy” was something that made people roll their eyes, Ukrainians wanted to stop other countries from controlling their culture, economy, and government. And even after the proclamation of independence in both countries, activists work hard to continue George Washington’s values and inspire more generations of young people to defend their ideals.

Q: How valuable do you think civic participation is for students, even if they are not old enough to vote yet?

A: Youth leaders are leaders of today as they have the ability to sculpt the world into what they really want it to be in the future. Younger people can bring new perspectives to the table to make society more functional and inclusive as they don’t stick with traditional views that may not be suitable for present situations anymore. Students can share ideas, influence communities, and employ civilized discourse even if they can’t vote, as there are other ways to collaborate, including volunteering, advocating, and campaigning. After studying in the American school I noticed the big number of representatives from different backgrounds, cultures, and socioeconomic statuses, which facilitates an effective decision-making process thanks to various viewpoints students can have.

Q: Why do you think it is important to study history? What skills can it help students learn?

A: I think that it is important to study history because we live in a time period when everybody is affected by global challenges, such as climate change, military conflicts, poverty, inequality, and others and it is essential to know the background of particular events toresolve them and become citizens of the world. We don't have to live in the past, but we can do better by learning from it and using the lessons to create a more meaningful life. In my Ukrainian school, we are required to take two different classes: World History and Ukrainian History which helps me expand my worldview and see connections between events and people even when it seems that many of them are completely different. After studying with multiple groups of students, I was fascinated to see how our teachers helped us grow and develop technical skills like analysis, debate, and writing and personal qualifications, such as empathy, critical thinking, and communication.

Middle School Winner: Anthony Labib

Middle School Winner: Anthony Labib

Anthony used the current environment of the Covid pandemic as inspiration to study how people in the past handled similar situations. His paper lays out the challenge Washington faced through the threat of Smallpox while serving as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. His paper is extremely well researched and provides great background information on the devastation of the disease and how/why if affected the British and American sides different. He does a great job presenting the challenge Washington faced, the large decisions he made to confront those challenges, and the impact those decisions had on both the health of soldiers and the outcomes of the war.

Q&A with Anthony Labib

Q: To start, can you summarize why Washington’s fight against smallpox helped the American Army win the Revolutionary War?

A: In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, smallpox was by far the most fatal disease. The smallpox virus notably affected the Revolutionary War due to its widespread destruction of military personnel. The Continental Army's victory in the Revolutionary War was primarily due to George Washington's initiative to immunize his troops.

Q: What do you think are some values of using primary sources in your research?

A: Primary sources are more reliable sources of information. Because they are first-hand accounts of the events of the past, primary sources are really the best way to truly understand what happened with a direct first-hand perspective.

Q: What was your favorite fact that you learned throughout your research?

A: More Continental soldiers were lost to smallpox than in battle. Only about 1 in every 10 Continental soldiers were killed in combat, with the rest dying from infection.

Q: Why is George Washington still relevant to our lives, over two hundred years after his death?

A: Not only for his role in creating and leading the fledgling nation, but also for his leadership style, political beliefs, and revolutionary vision for the United States of America, George Washington is one of the most important characters in American history. President Washington established standards for everything from political influence to military strategy to economic policy.