New Jersey First-Year Student Wins the 2022 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest

May 16, 2022
Media Contact:
Matt Porter 

New Jersey First-Year Student Wins the 2022 John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest
-- Winning Essay Profiles Texas State Representative José Tomás Canales and his 1919 demand to address racial violence by the Texas Rangers --

BOSTON – The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation today announced that Theodora McGee, a first-year student at Moorestown High School in Moorestown, New Jersey, has won the national John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Essay Contest for High School Students. The winning essay describes the political courage of former State Representative José Tomás Canales who in 1919 introduced legislation to reform the Texas Rangers, a law enforcement agency whose members had committed widespread racial violence against Mexican-American residents of southern Texas. McGee describes how Canales’ actions successfully brought attention to abuses by the Rangers – but at a cost to his future in politics. She writes, “While Canales' fight to reform the Texas Rangers helped reduce violence against Mexicans and Tejanos, it spelled the end to his political career.”

The essay contest is sponsored by the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation and supported by John Hancock. McGee will receive a $10,000 scholarship award for her accomplishment from the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation.

[Click here to read the winning essay.]

The annual Profile in Courage Essay Contest invites high school students from across the nation to write an essay on an act of political courage by a US elected official. The contest is a companion program of the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award™, named for Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage, which recounts the stories of eight US senators who risked their careers by embracing unpopular decisions for the greater good. This year, 2,474 essays were submitted from students in fifty states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico, and from US citizens in Canada, India, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

“It’s more important than ever for students to be able to learn about the courage of leaders like José Tomás Canales who sacrificed his political career to stand up against racism in his community. We are so grateful to have thousands of young people participate each year in the Profile in Courage Essay Contest to learn about the challenges facing elected leaders who choose to take difficult stands for the greater good,” said Rachel Flor, Executive Director of the Kennedy Library Foundation. “We congratulate Theodora for her excellent essay highlighting Canales’ political courage and her extraordinary achievement as a first-year student.”

“It has been an honor for John Hancock to join the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation in inspiring today’s youth to learn about the importance of public service and courageous leadership,” said Thomas Samoluk, Head of External Affairs & Investigative Services at John Hancock, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation Board Member and Development Committee Chair. “We congratulate Theodora McGee for this well-deserved recognition and celebrate the thousands of students who submitted essays about public officials who have made a difference at all levels of government.”

She found out about the contest from her nominator and World History teacher Fred Bjornstad who had a contest poster hanging outside his classroom. Promoting the contest was important to Bjornstad after hearing that first-year students had had fewer writing opportunities during the pandemic. He also assigns weekly essays to help students develop their writing skills.

McGee was inspired to write about Canales after discovering his courage while researching lesser-known incidents in U.S. history. She was moved by his notable actions and explained, “He was a really courageous person who stuck to his principles. He was one of the only minorities in the Texas State House. He could have just ignored the situation, but he didn’t. He decided to stand up and make a difference even if it meant risking his career.”

The eldest daughter of Cecile Murphy and Fawn McGee, and older sister of twelve-year-old Wilhelmina, McGee participates in the Girls Leadership Council at the Alice Paul Foundation where she learns about women’s history and women’s rights. She has played piano since the age of four and is in the honors art program at her school. Her favorite academic subjects are history and Latin, and she is an avid reader. McGee loves to sail and looks forward to serving as a Counselor in Training at the Riverton Yacht Club Sail Camp this summer.

For serving as her nominating teacher, Mr. Bjornstad will receive a John F. Kennedy Public Service Grant in the amount of $500 to be used for school projects that encourage student leadership and civic engagement.

Allison Eto, a junior at ‘Iolani School in Honolulu, Hawaii, was selected as the second-place winner for her essay on Ralph Dills, a former State Assemblyman of California. She will receive a $3,000 prize for this recognition.

Five students were recognized as finalists in the competition: Nicholas Chang, a junior at Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington, profiled John Spellman, former Governor of Washington; Will Gasaway, a senior at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, New Jersey, profiled Glen Taylor, former US Senator of Idaho; Aiden Fel, a sophomore at Ossining High School in Ossining, New York, profiled Pete McCloskey, a former US House Representative of California; Jaya Gupta, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, profiled Rose Bird, former Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court; and Thi Ha Phyo, a sophomore at Storm Lake High School in Storm Lake Iowa, profiled John T. Bernard, former US House Representative of Minnesota. Each finalist will receive a $1,000 prize.

Ten students were recognized as semifinalists: Emily Adcock, a senior at Madison Central High School in Madison, Mississippi, profiled Liz Cheney, US House Representative of Wyoming; Caleb Bello, a junior at International School of Beaverton in Beaverton, Oregon, profiled Benjamin W. Olcott, former Governor of Oregon; Jacob Bruns, a sophomore at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, profiled Andy McKean, State Representative in Iowa; Felix Chen, a first-year student at the Harker School in San Jose, California, profiled William Byron Rumford, Sr., a former State Assemblyman of California; Ingrid Holmquist, a junior at Montgomery Blair High School in Tacoma Park, Maryland, profiled Kurt Schmoke, former Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland; Joseph Kauffman, a junior at the Haverford School in Haverford, Pennsylvania, profiled Kurt Schmoke, former Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland; Terrence McCafferty, a senior at Saint Ignatius High School in Cleveland, Ohio, profiled Anthony Gonzalez, US House Representative of Ohio; Mariam Parray, a junior at Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, Arkansas, profiled Liz Cheney, US House Representative of Wyoming; Simran Sahoo, a sophomore at Downington STEM Academy in Downington, Pennsylvania, profiled Chad Mayes, State Assemblyman of California; and Caroline Yu, a senior at Greenwich High School in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, profiled Tom Perriello, a former US House Representative of Virginia. Each semifinalist will receive a $100 prize.

Eight students received honorable mention and are listed, along with winners, finalists, and semifinalists at

The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation created the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in 1989 to honor President Kennedy’s commitment and contribution to public service and to celebrate his May 29th birthday. The award is presented annually to public servants who have made courageous decisions of conscience without regard for the personal or professional consequences. The award is named for President Kennedy’s 1957 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Profiles in Courage.

A distinguished bipartisan committee of national, political, and community leaders selected the winning essay. Martha Minow, 300th Anniversary University Professor, Harvard University, former dean, Harvard Law School chairs the 15-member committee. Committee members are Stacey Abrams, former Georgia House Democratic Leader [on leave of absence from the committee during her campaign for Governor of Georgia], David Axelrod, Political Strategist and Founder, the Institute of Politics at The University of Chicago; Joaquin Castro, Congressman, (D-TX 20th District); Carlos Curbelo, former US Congressman, (R-FL 26th District); Christopher Dodd, former Chairman and CEO, Motion Picture Association of America, former US Senator (D-CT); Adam Frankel, Senior Advisor to Emerson Collective and Fenway Strategies, former Speechwriter to President Barack Obama; Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel, NAACP Legal Defense Fund; Caroline Kennedy, Honorary President of the John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; Marne Levine, Vice President of Global Partnerships and Business Development, Facebook; Claire McCaskill, former US Senator (D-MO), NBC Political Analyst; William H. McRaven, Admiral, USN (Retired); Beth Myers, Principal, Buckminster Strategies; Ronald L. Sargent, Chairman, John F. Kennedy Library Foundation; and Jack Schlossberg, grandson of President Kennedy.

This contest, which runs from September to January annually, was supported through 2021 by John Hancock, one of the largest life insurers in the United States. John Hancock supports more than 10 million Americans with a broad range of financial products, including life insurance, annuities, investments, 401(k) plans, and education savings plans.

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The John F. Kennedy Library Foundation is the non-profit partner and creative collaborator of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, which is administered by the United States National Archives and Records Administration. Over the past forty years, this partnership has produced world class exhibits, the largest, most advanced digital archive created by a presidential library, award-winning educational and digital resources, and public programs that make the Library the largest convener of public dialogues in the Boston area. Grounded in the archival evidence, these activities promote a greater appreciation of America’s political and cultural heritage, help people understand the major challenges facing democracy today, and inspire new generations to engage with the issues at the heart of contemporary life that relate to the legacy of President John F. Kennedy.