Colchester High School senior Ryan Arel poses for a photo in Washington, D.C. Arel’s speech in the Voice of Democracy audio-essay contest won him the trip to the nation’s capitol. (Courtesy photo)

Ryan Arel, a senior at Colchester High School, was named the first-place winner in the Vermont Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) 2016-17 Voice of Democracy audio-essay contest.

The annual event encourages high school students to write speeches and essays based on democratic and patriotic themes.

Nearly 40,000 9-12 grade students from across the country enter to win their share of $2.1 million in educational scholarships. The first-place winner from each state wins a minimum scholarship of $1,000 and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C.

This unique opportunity is designed to foster patriotism by allowing students the opportunity to voice their opinion.

After winning the local district with his submission titled “My Responsibility to America,” Arel was invited to a banquet at Post 782 in Burlington recognizing the top three finalists in Vermont.

“My responsibility to America will help me make sensible decisions about the words I choose, the actions I take and help me cleanse myself of my prejudices as best I can, as we all shoud,” Arel said in his speech.

Arel left that ceremony having received the top honor for Vermont and a trip to Washington, D.C. Arel says writing this essay helped him to focus on his own values.

“It’s important for all of us to really reflect on our true value; reflect on bigger picture ideas; reflect on what we define as right and wrong,” Arel said.

Upon his return, Arel said the trip to D.C. went very well.

“After writing this piece and spending time with people from all across the country, I can safely say that regardless of all our differences, I’ve learned how to get along with people from all different backgrounds a little better than before,” Arel said.