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For Gerald R. Ford student essay winners, courage begins at home

Contest theme brings out personal stories

Ford Student Essay Challenge 2018
First place: Aneeqa Hasan, Forest Hills Central High School
Second place: Melanie Roelofs, Plymouth Christian High School
Third place: Aunner Calderon, Union High SchoolHonorable mention:

  • Megan Grant, Newaygo Public High School
  • Emily LaRue, Grand Rapids Christian High School
  • Tina Nguyen, Forest Hills Eastern High School
  • Ryann Reese, Ferndale High School


  • Reian Zhang, City High Middle School
  • Suki Rajan, Forest Hills Eastern High School
  • Landyn Teachout, Grandville High School
  • Carrie Hathaway, Geneseo Middle/High School, honored as contest’s first out-of-state finalist

Teachers of winning students were awarded prizes of up to $500 for classroom supplies

This year, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation annual essay challenge invited high school students to submit an essay focused on courage — a quality many say Ford exhibited when he succeeded the disgraced Richard Nixon as president and granted him a pardon.

For her first prize-winning essay, worth a $1,000 award, Aneeqa Hasan from Forest Hills Central needed look no further than her own family from Bangladesh.

“I found that courage can be easily identified in those around me, such as my family and friends,” Aneeqa said.

The main focus of her essay was on the language struggle in Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan. Bengalis, including Aneeqa’s family, were not allowed by the Pakistani government to speak their native language, sparking the Bengali Language Movement. Eventually, the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 won the country’s independence.

“Bengalis are courageous because we fought for what we truly believed in and what we thought was right,” Aneeqa said. “I’m hoping to spread this message so that more people will be aware of the pride we hold in our language.”

Her essay was one of more than 900 submitted by students, the event’s most submissions ever. Clare Shubert, director of Engagement and Programming for the foundation, recognized the courage students showed by submitting their stories, during the awards ceremony at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum Saturday, May 12.

Aunner Calderon had a tear-jerking hug for his mother, who was the person he featured in his speech about courage

Melanie Roelofs of Plymouth Christian High School was awarded second place and Aunner Calderon, of Union High School, third.

“You shared with us amazing stories of courage that you had learned about in history, that you had witnessed in your family members and friends, and that you had discovered yourself,” Shubert told students. “We were honored that you shared stories with us and are so excited to have the chance to honor you, your stories and your accomplishments.”

All about Mom

Third-place winner Aunner Calderon, from Union High in Grand Rapids Public Schools, also stuck close to home for his essay. He gave his speech once in English, and a second time in Spanish for his mother, who was moved to tears.

Aunner Calderon of Union High School won third place in the President Gerald R. Ford Student Essay Challenge

“My mother is my inspiration for everything that I do,” Aunner said. “She not only inspired my essay; she also inspires me every day to wake up in the morning, get ready, go to school, do my best, and pursue my dreams and goals.”

In his essay, Aunner revealed many struggles that his mother went through and personal anecdotes that only his family knew.

“The first person that came to my mind (regarding courage) was my mother, not only because she had the courage to escape from an abusive relationship, but also because she managed to raise five children by her own, and gave them an extraordinary education,” he said.

Suki Rajan of Forest Hills Eastern High School won a Top Ten Finalist award

For Aunner, being in the top three wasn’t something he even considered possible.

“When they announced me as the third-place winner, I knew that God had done that,” he said. “But of course I was very surprised because who would have imagined that out of more than 900 students, a student that did not speak English at all three years ago was winning the third place. But I also knew that all the hard work was finally paying off.”

Currently working at McDonald’s while also attending school and studying for exams, Aunner attributes much of his success to his teachers at Union High. He is thankful for a lot of people in his life, but first and foremost his mom, “for always being there, giving my sibling and me her support and unconditional love, and for teaching us how to never give up and always work very hard for the things that we want in life.”

Reian Zhang of City High/Middle School was a Top 10 Finalist

Aunner’s scholarship prize of $500 will be going directly into his college savings account. That will help him pursue his dream of becoming a physician’s assistant, he said, “and that way give my mom the life she deserves.”

Down to the Wire

As for Aneeqa, she almost didn’t enter the competition.

“I wrote my essay on the day of the deadline and I almost didn’t do it because it was late and I was tired,” Aneeqa said. “Finally, about an hour before the deadline, I decided to submit it.”

Tina Nguyen of Forest Hills Eastern High School was an honorable mention winner

Though she was short on time, Aneeqa’s essay obviously had the intended effect.

“At the ceremony, everyone else’s names kept getting called and mine wasn’t announced until the very end,” she said.  “I’ve always enjoyed writing but I did not think it would have this kind of effect on people.”

Aneeqa will be applying her grand prize of $1,000 to her education at Michigan State University. She plans to study neuroscience but also to maintain her love for writing. At the end of the day, Aneeqa credits her inspiration to her friends and family.

Landyn Teachout was a Top 10 Finalist winner from Grandville High School

“I’d like to thank all those who sacrificed their lives in the Bangladesh Liberation War and who struggled to have their voices heard during the Bengali Language Movement,” she said.

“I’m hoping my essay can be the voice they needed to hear. Hopefully, more people will hear about my message of inclusivity.”


President Gerald R. Ford Student Essay Challenge

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Hannah Lentz
Hannah Lentz
A 2017 graduate of Grand Valley State University and a lifelong teacher’s kid, Hannah Lentz has worked as a journalist in and outside the Grand Rapids area for more than five years. After serving as editor-in-chief at the GVSU student newspaper, Hannah interned at the Leelanau Enterprise where she learned a lot about community journalism. In addition to her work for School News Network, Hannah has worked as a freelance blogger in the furniture industry, focusing on design trends, and as a social media manager for World Medical Relief in Detroit.


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