USIP partners with the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA) on the annual National High School Essay Contest. The contest each year engages high school students in learning and writing about issues of peace and conflict, encouraging appreciation for diplomacy’s role in building partnerships that can advance peacebuilding and protect national security. 

Wilson King Photo
Pictured left to right, Dr. Gary Ransdell, 2019 National High School Essay Contest winner Wilson King, Deputy Sec. John Sullivan, Amb. Eric Rubin, Amb. George Moose (US Department of State)

The winner of the contest receives a $2,500 cash prize, an all-expense paid trip to Washington, D.C. to meet U.S. Department of State and USIP leadership, and a full-tuition paid voyage with Semester at Sea upon the student’s enrollment at an accredited university. The runner-up receives a $1,250 cash prize and a full scholarship to participate in the International Diplomacy Program of the National Student Leadership Conference. 

Information Session on the 2021 National High School Essay Contest

2021 National High School Essay Contest

Mariam Parray, a sophomore from Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, is the 2021 National High School Essay Contest winner. In her essay, “Diplomats and Peacebuilders in Tunisia: Paving the Path to Democracy,” Ms. Parray focuses on how the Foreign Service partnered with other U.S. government agencies and NGOs to effect a peaceful democratic transition in Tunisia. She emphasizes the importance of multifaceted approaches as well as the importance of bringing marginalized groups into the fold. Mariam will travel to Washington to meet with a member of the Department of State’s leadership and will also gain a full tuition to an educational voyage with Semester at Sea.

Harrison McCarty was this year’s runner-up. Coincidentally, he is also a sophomore from Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas. Harrison will be attending the international diplomacy program of the National Student Leadership Conference this summer.

The 2021 honorable mentions were: Louisa Eaton (Wellesley, MA); Samuel Goldston (Brooklyn, NY); Lucy King (Bainbridge Island, WA); Haan Jun Lee (Jakarta, Indonesia); Khaled Maalouf (Beirut, Lebanon); Madeleine Shaw (Bloomington, IN); Allison Srp (Austin, MN); and Daniel Zhang (Cortland, NY).

USIP congratulates all the winners of the 2021 National High School Essay Contest. 

Diplomats and Peacebuilders: Powerful Partners

What characteristics lead to a successful effort by diplomats and peacebuilders to mediate or prevent violent conflict? The United States Foreign Service—often referred to as America’s first line of defense—works to prevent conflict from breaking out abroad and threats from coming to our shores. Peacebuilders work on the ground to create the conditions for peace and resolve conflicts where they are most needed. 

Successful essays will identify, in no more than 1,250 words, a situation where diplomats worked on a peacebuilding initiative with partners from the country/region in question, nongovernmental organizations, and other parts of the U.S. government, and then go on to analyze what characteristics and approaches made the enterprise a success.  

Contest deadline: April 5, 2021

Download the study guide for the 2021 National High School Essay Contest. This study guide provides students with a basic introduction to the topic and some additional context that can assist them in answering the question. It includes key terms in conflict management and peacebuilding and examples of peacebuilding initiatives, with reflection questions for independent learners to dig more deeply or for teachers to encourage class reflection and discussion. We hope this study guide will be a useful resource for educators and students participating in this contest, and for educators who want their students to learn more about this year’s contest topic.

Learn more about the contest rules and how to submit your essay on the American Foreign Service Association’s contest webpage.


2020 National High School Essay Contest

Jonas Lorincz, a junior from Marriotts Ridge High School in Marriottsville, MD, is the 2020 National High School Essay Contest winner. In his essay, “Verification, Mediation, and Peacebuilding: The Many Roles of the U.S. Foreign Service in Kosovo,” Mr. Lorincz focused on the importance of interagency cooperation in mediating the crisis in Kosovo – primarily looking into how diplomats and other civilian agencies engaged in peacebuilding throughout the conflict.

Claire Burke was this year’s runner-up. She is a junior at Mill Valley High School in Shawnee, KS. 

The 2020 honorable mentions were: Grace Cifuentes (Concord, CA), Grace Lannigan (Easton, CT), Seryung Park (Tenafly, NJ), Vynateya Purimetla (Troy, MI), David Richman (Norfolk, VA), Madeleine Shaw (Bloomington, IN), Sara Smith (Fargo, ND), and Jack Viscuso (Northport, NY). 
USIP congratulates all the winners of the 2020 National High School Essay Contest. 

2020 National High School Essay Contest Topic

Why Diplomacy and Peacebuilding Matter

How do members of the Foreign Service work with other civilian parts of the U.S. Government to promote peace, national security and economic prosperity?

Qualified essays focused on a specific challenge to U.S. peace and prosperity and included one example of the work of the Foreign Service and one or more examples of collaboration between America’s diplomats and other civilian (i.e. non-military) U.S. Government agencies or organizations.

2019 National High School Essay Contest

In its 21st year, the American Foreign Service Association (AFSA)’s National High School Essay Contest encouraged students to think about how and why the United States engages globally to build peace, and about the role that the Foreign Service plays in advancing U.S. national security and economic prosperity.

For the second year in a row, the National High School Essay Contest focused on an important aspect of operating in countries affected by or vulnerable to violent conflict: effective coordination of the many different foreign policy tools the United States has at its disposal. Whether you were addressing the prompt for a second year or new to the contest, the contest will have challenged you to expand your understanding of the role of the Foreign Service and other actors in foreign policy, identify case studies, and provide a sophisticated analysis in a concise manner.

The essay prompt and a helpful study guide are included below; you can find out more information about the rules and how to submit by checking out AFSA’s essay contest page.

2019 Essay Question

Why Diplomacy and Peacebuilding Matter

The United States has many tools to advance and defend its foreign policy and national security interests around the world—from diplomatic approaches pursued by members of the Foreign Service, to the range of options available to the U.S. military. In countries affected by or vulnerable to violent conflict, peacebuilding tools are important additions to the national security toolkit.

In such complex environments, cooperation across agencies and approaches is challenging, but it can also blend knowledge and skills in ways that strengthen the overall effort to establish a lasting peace. On the other hand, lack of coordination can lead to duplication of effort, inefficient use of limited resources and unintended consequences.

In a 1,000-1,250-word essay, identify two cases—one you deem successful and one you deem unsuccessful—where the U.S. pursued an integrated approach to build peace in a conflict-affected country. Analyze and compare these two cases, addressing the following questions:

  • What relative strengths did members of the Foreign Service and military actors bring to the table? What peacebuilding tools were employed? Ultimately, what worked or did not work in each case?
  • How was each situation relevant to U.S. national security interests?
  • What lessons may be drawn from these experiences for the pursuit of U.S. foreign policy more broadly?

Download the study guide for the 2019 AFSA National High School Essay Contest

2018 National High School Essay Contest

Jennifer John from Redwood City, CA is the 2018 National High School Essay Contest winner, surpassing close to 1,000 other submissions. Her essay examined to what extent U.S. interagency efforts in Iraq and Bosnia were successful in building peace. Aislinn Niimi from Matthews, NC was the runner up.

The 2018 honorable mentions were: Alex, DiCenso (North Kingstown, RI),Alexandra Soo (Franklin, MI), Caroline Bellamy (Little Rock AR), Colin LeFerve (Indianapolis, IN), Elizabeth Kam (Burlingham, CA), Emma Singh (Tenafly NJ), Emma Chambers (Little Rock AR),  Francesca Ciampa (Brooksville, ME), Greta Bunce (Franktown, VA), Isaac Che (Mount Vernon OH), Isabel Davis (Elk River MN), Katrina Espinoza (Watsonvile, CA), Molly Ehrig (Bethlehem, PA), Payton McGoldrick (Bristow, VA), Rachel Russell (Cabin John, MD), Sarah Chapman (Tucson, AZ), Shalia Lothe (Glen Allen VA), Sohun Modha (San Jose CA), Suhan Kacholia (Chandler, AZ), Supriya Sharma (Brewster, NY), Sydney Adams (Fort Wayne, IN), Tatum Smith (Little Rock AR), and William Milne (Fort Wayne, IN).  

2017 National High School Essay Contest

Nicholas Deparle, winner of the 2017 AFSA National High School Essay Contest, comes from Sidwell Friends School in Washington DC. A rising senior at the time, Mr. Deparle covers the Internally Displaced Persons crisis in Iraq and potential ideas to help resolve the issue.  Read his winning essay here. Mr. Manuel Feigl, a graduate of Brashier Middle College Charter High School in Simpsonville, SC took second place.

This year there were twenty honorable mentions: Mohammed Abuelem ( Little Rock, Ark.), Lucas Aguayo-Garber (Worcester, Mass.), Rahul Ajmera (East Williston, N.Y.), Taylor Gregory (Lolo, Mont.), Rachel Hildebrand (Sunnyvale, Calif.), Ryan Hulbert (Midland Park, N.J.), India Kirssin (Mason, Ohio), Vaibhav Mangipudy (Plainsboro, N.J.), William Marsh (Pittsburgh, Penn.), Zahra Nasser (Chicago, Ill.), Elizabeth Nemec (Milford, N.J.), David Oks (Ardsley, N.Y.), Max Pumilia (Greenwood Village, Colo.), Nikhil Ramaswamy (Plano, Texas), Aditya Sivakumar (Beaverton, Ore.), Donovan Stuard (Bethlehem, Penn.), Rachel Tanczos (Danielsville, Penn.), Isabel Ting (San Ramon, Calif.), Kimberley Tran (Clayton, Mo.), and Chenwei Wang (Walnut, Calif.).

2017 Essay Contest Topic

According to the United Nations, 65 million people worldwide have left their homes to seek safety elsewhere due to violence, conflict, persecution, or human rights violations. The majority of these people are refugees or internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Imagine you are a member of the U.S. Foreign Service —– a diplomat working to promote peace, support prosperity, and protect American citizens while advancing the interests of the United States abroad – and are now assigned to the U.S. embassy in one of these four countries.

  • Turkey
    (Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs)
  • Kenya
    (Bureau of African Affairs)
  • Afghanistan
    (Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs)
  • Iraq
    (Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs)

Your task is to provide recommendations to address the refugee/IDP crisis facing the country in which you are now posted. Using the resources available to you as a member of the Foreign Service, write a memo to your Ambassador outlining how the United States might help address the current unprecedented levels of displacement. You may choose to address issues related to the causes of refugee crisis, or to focus on the humanitarian crisis in your host country.

A qualifying memo will be 1,000-1,250 words and will answer the following questions:

  1. How does the crisis challenge U.S. interests in the country you are posted and more broadly?
  2. Specifically outline the steps you propose the U.S. should take to tackle the roots or the consequences of the crisis, and explain how it would help solve the issue or issues you are examining. How will your efforts help build peace or enhance stability?
  3. How do you propose, from your embassy/post of assignment, to foster U.S. government interagency cooperation and cooperation with the host-country government to address these issues?  Among U.S. government agencies, consider U.S. Agency for International Development, the Foreign Commercial Service and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Memo Template


TO: Ambassador ______________________

FROM: Only use your first name here


RE: Think of this as your title, make sure to include the country you are writing about


Here you want to lay out the problem, define criteria by which you will be deciding the best steps the U.S. could take, and include a short sentence or two on your final recommendation. Embassy leadership is very busy and reads many memos a day —– they should be able to get the general ““gist”” of your ideas by reading this section.


This section should provide any background information about the crisis or conflict relevant to your proposed policy. Here, you should mention why the issue is important to U.S. interests, especially peace and security.

Proposed Steps:

This is where you outline your proposed policy. Be specific in describing how the U.S. might address this issue and how these steps can contribute to peace and security. Include which organizations you propose partnering with and why.


This is where you write your final recommendations for embassy leadership. Think of this as a closing paragraph.

Companion Guide for the 2017 National High School Essay Contest

It is no easy task to jump into the role of a diplomat, especially when confronted by such an urgent crisis. USIP, in consultation with AFSA, developed a guide to provide a basic introduction to the topic and some additional context that can assist you in answering the question, while still challenging you to develop your own unique response. As such, this guide should be used as a starting point to your own research and as you ultimately prepare a compelling memo outlining recommendations the U.S. government should follow to respond to the refugee and IDP crisis.

In the guide you will find: insights into the role of the Foreign Service; country, organization, and key-term briefs to provide a foundational understanding; and a list of other useful resources. Download the Companion Guide for the 2017 National High School Essay Contest (.pdf).

2016 National High School Essay Contest

USIP first partnered with AFSA for the 2016 contest and was pleased to welcome winner Dylan Borne to Washington in August. His paper describes his role as an economic officer in the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance. He writes about promoting education for girls in Afghanistan through on-line courses and dispersal of laptops. Read his winning essay (.pdf).