Peace essayist writes her way into history

by Nathan Warner
Contributing writer

Just a few months after winning the Minnesota Peace Essay contest, 17-year-old Renee Holzknecht of Elk River was named second-place winner nationally in Washington, D.C. for her 1,500-word essay, “Egypt, Iran, and Beyond: How New Media Is Their Voice and How That Voice Can Be Protected.”


Her second-place essay is the only time since the contest was first assigned 18 years ago that an Elk River student has placed in the top three winning essays on the national level. Only nine Elk River High School graduates have made it to the national competition, held every year in Washington, D.C.

The Peace Essay Contest is a yearly competition sponsored by the United States Institute of Peace that draws more than 1,000 students to compete from around the country, while thousands more participate in related activities. The theme this year was “The impact of new media on peace building and conflict management.”

In her winning essay, Renee asserts that free countries dedicated to democracy must protect new media access to dissidents interested in exposing regimes and bringing freedom to their countries. She used examples of how Egyptians became citizen journalists utilizing blogs and Flickr to expose police brutality by posting pictures and video on the Internet for the world to see.

During Iran’s 2009 Green Revolution, Iranians used Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites to coordinate and plan protests. They also captured the death of activist Neda Agha-Soltan with camera phones and posted the news internationally on the Internet.

Holzknecht acknowledges that challenges remain, such as limited access to new media technologies in countries governed by regimes and the governments’ effective response by shutting down Internet access in times of upheaval. She asserts that with the help of free countries, access to new media technologies can be protected.

Renee Holzknecht read the preamble to Declaration of Independence at this year’s Elk River Independence Day celebration and program.

Her quest to Washington, D.C. began when she and fellow students at Elk River High School signed up for the Advanced Placement language and composition class last year. They were tasked with summer research in preparation for the Advanced Placement language and composition class assignment to write an essay to enter in the Peace Essay Contest. This past summer they were supposed to begin research, they were also assigned to read Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.” Holzknecht was not enthusiastic about the topic of the peace essay or the assigned reading and considered dropping the class.

“I had just started getting into social media with a Facebook account,” she said, “and I wasn’t thinking about the implications of new media in its wider context.” Adding on top of that her disinterest in reading “Walden,” she decided she was going to drop the class.

But quitting isn’t in her nature. Holzknecht is an honor roll and National Honor Society student. She has also earned three Distinguished Academic Achievement Awards at Elk River High School. With the National Junior Honor Society and the National Honor Society, she has participated in community service including helping with fundraisers and public sporting events, while also working at Feed My Starving Children with the National Honor Society, the Girl Scouts of America and Central Lutheran Church.

She is also a dedicated learner, enjoying her free time with a good book, but does little light reading. “Right now I’m reading a chemistry textbook,” she said, “and I spend a lot of time doing biblical studies, reading about theology, textual criticism, and analysis of texts.” At the same time, she gives back to the world of the written word by writing fiction. “I guess my stories would be mostly classified as adventures,” she says, “but I also write classic horror.”

Her mother, Cheryl, and her older sister, Rachel, convinced her to stick with the AP class. “Rachel won state in a Best Prep Essay competition a few years ago,” Cheryl said, “and she walked away with a MacBook Pro as she was getting ready for college, so we felt at the very least, Renee could win something useful for her education.”

Renee’s AP teacher, Denise Eidem, assigned the essay, sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Peace, and coached her students in the process. Elk River High School has a solid record in the competition, producing eight state winners since the program began in 1995.

This year, all essays were required to describe two foreign cases from the past 10 years of countries in transition from violent conflict to peace, where new media played a role. They were to analyze the ways that new media, including relevant technologies, were used and determine if use of new media changed the conflict environment, explaining what changed and how. They also were to include any risks, trade-offs, and/or limitations involved in using new media as a peace building tool while giving their own recommendations to policy makers for how new media could best be leveraged in building peace.

After winning second place at Elk River High School and earning a $300 scholarship, Renee submitted her essay on the United States Institute of Peace website for the Minnesota competition. She waited to hear back from them and received an email in April saying she’d won at the state level. “I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting to win at all.”

After winning state, Renee was honored at Elk River City Hall where she spoke and answered questions about her essay. As part of winning state, she received a $1,000 scholarship and an all-expense-paid trip to Washington, D.C. to attend the national contest results along with 46 other state winners from around the country.

While in Washington, D.C., Renee enjoyed visiting the majestic monuments of the nation’s Capitol and soaking in the rich history of the country in-between visits to the State Department, the Egyptian Embassy and the Smithsonian. She and her fellow students attended lectures at the U.S. Institute of Peace and met various foreign policy and national security professionals. Students also used new media in a three-day dissident simulation for the fictional People’s Republic of Egistan. Renee says the experience further confirmed her view that new media is a good tool for dissidents to coordinate themselves and expose the brutality of the regimes they live under.

“What are just social websites to most Americans where we post silly pictures, meet people, keep up with friends, and record the things we’ve done all day, are crucial tools for oppressed people in other countries to help bring about peace and liberty,” she said.

When the results of the contest were announced by U.S. Institute of Peace President Richard Solomon, Renee couldn’t believe it. “I couldn’t believe I won at the local level, I was sure I wasn’t going to win at the state level, and I was positive I wouldn’t win at the national level,” she said, “so I was in a constant state of shock.”

For coming in second place nationally, Renee was awarded a $5,000 scholarship, which includes the $1,000 scholarship for winning state. Scholarships naturally make one think of college, and Renee is deep in the process of finding one to suit her while contemplating majoring in biology, chemistry or physics.

“I’m not sure yet, but I love the sciences,” she adds, “and I’m looking forward to learning more about the world we live in.” Considering her talents and experience, Renee has a running start.