Teen wins $10,000 for essay

Pikesville High student, 17, wrote about U.S. peacekeeping efforts

July 22, 2002|By Jonathan D. Rockoff | Jonathan D. Rockoff,SUN STAFF

The first thing you should know about David Epstein's prize-winning essay is that he didn't get any help from his parents. If the 17-year-old's piece about the merits of U.S. peacekeeping sounds like something out of Foreign Affairs magazine, that's because Epstein subscribes to the journal, not his folks.

While other teen-agers are learning pop music lyrics, Epstein, an A-student at Pikesville High School, is digesting the United Nations charter. So it would be little surprise that Epstein won a $10,000 scholarship for his first-place essay, except that he didn't tell anyone he had entered the competition.

"It's just not my personality," said Epstein, who learned at an awards banquet in Washington last month that his piece had beaten 1,200 other entries from high schoolers throughout the world by arguing the United States should commit troops to peacekeeping missions abroad.

"Fighting in far-off areas can quickly destabilize regions important to our country for various strategic and economic reasons," he wrote. "And from an ethical standpoint, remaining idle while grave human rights abuses are being committed is selfish and contemptible."

The U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington think tank, sponsored the contest. What impressed the judges about the four-page entry was the breadth of examples that Epstein used to support his argument and rebut those who oppose it.

"He writes well, as well as has the knowledge, and makes a good case," said Barbara W. Snelling, a member of the Institute of Peace's board who helped judge the dozen finalists.

The son of two doctors, Epstein heads Pikesville High's Model United Nations and Science clubs. He reads books on international law. This summer, he is interning for a federal magistrate. This school year, he hopes to establish a chapter of Amnesty International at Pikesville High.

Family trips to Australia, Israel and Switzerland sparked the youth's interest in international issues, he said, and his "fairly liberal political views" prompted him to support measures that prevent human rights abuses and to write to congressmen, Department of Defense officials and foreign diplomats.

"My congressman [Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin] always writes me back," Epstein said of his letters opposing arms sales to Colombia, the Philippines and other countries he says have human rights problems. "Defense Department officials probably don't care. Embassy officials - I haven't gotten anything back from them."

Although he can't remember how he learned about the essay contest, Epstein believes his nightly surfing of international-themed Web sites led him to the U.S. Institute of Peace's home page and an advertisement for the competition. He did the research, wrote it in his free time and mailed it without telling anyone.

Although he does not know where he wants to go to college and what exactly he would like to do, "Working for a think tank would be pretty fun, I think, or a university professor," he said.

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