Smith’s ‘American Idea’ earns national accolades

Ridgeview freshman’s essay finishes third among hundreds of entries


ORANGE PARK – A Ridgeview High freshman recently won third place in a national essay contest about the American Idea.

Cathleen Rivett Smith, 15, was just a few months into her first year of high school when one of her favorite teachers, eighth grade teacher Cynthia Cheatwood, told her about an essay contest. Cheatwood knew Smith loved to write, and she knew she was good at it.

“She told me about in November and I got to work quickly,” Smith said.

This national essay contest called “Speaking Out For Freedom” was held by Ashland University’s Ashbrook Center and it had to be a five-page essay with a five-minute video component answering three questions: What is the American Idea, how the American Idea helped American overcome past struggles in the nation’s history, and how it should unite America during the current political divisive times?

Smith’s essay was about what she thought the American Idea was in which she explained that it’s about the refinement of equality through generations. Her five-page essay dived deep into what this means to her and it relied on three primary source documents that the contest required. Those sources were the Declaration of Independence, the Gettysburg Address and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech.

“Advocates such as Martin Luther King Jr. fought for the equal rights and freedoms of African-Americans,” Smith wrote in her essay. “Such protest and fight for equality and for just treatment is inherent in the continued polishing of the American Idea, generation-by-generation and year-by-year.

“The American Idea, in essence, is one of democracy, freedom, and, what’s more, equality. Truly, it is one that started with the drafting of the Declaration, yes, but certainly not one that ended there. It’s an amalgamation of every century, every event, every law, every tenet of freedom we subscribe to.”

Smith has always loved writing, so knocking out a five-page essay came with ease, as did the video component. Creating the video was just as fun as the essay because the video, just like writing, is something she loves. She’s a big fan of documentaries.

Smith won $150 for placing third place in the contest and she said she plans to put it into savings. For her though, it wasn’t about the money. She felt strongly about the prompt and she was excited about the opportunity to mix something she loves – writing – with something she felt strongly about – the American Idea.

She said she feels her generation is working hard to increase equality in America. What’s most important to her is that every generation try.

“Every generation has a chance to make a change,” Smith said. “It’s up to that generation to determine what to do with that chance.”

Smith turned in the essay and video in November and she found out this month that she placed third. Her mother was the first to tell her. Cheatwood was the second person she told.

“She’s part of the reason I love writing today so it was awesome being able to share that news with her,” Smith said.

Smith isn’t quite sure yet what her future holds, but she believes writing and video might have something to do with it. If the national essay contest, which featured hundreds of participants, is any indication, her future in those fields could be bright.


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