Essay Contest 

Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest

The Collegiate Laws of Life Essay Contest asks Penn State students to explore ethical values and intercultural issues, and their talent for expressing their views in writing. For our eleventh annual competition, students should respond to this prompt: 

A number of recent events have thrown into crisis the notion that the rule of law is equally applicable to all U.S. citizens. These events have exposed laws that appear to operate so differently across demographic groups as to suggest that different people live under different legal systems. In your essay, reflect on at least one of the following:

  1. the merits of the ideal of equality under the law
  2. how the ideal of equality under the law is endangered
  3. whether there are successor concepts that might supplant the ideal of equality under the law

Essays should be no longer than 800 words and will be judged on originality, relevance, and creativity. The contest is open to all full-time undergraduate students enrolled at any Penn State campus during the fall 2023 or spring 2024 semesters.

First Place: $500 | Second Place: $400 | Third Place: $300
Submission Deadline: Friday, January 26 at 11:59 p.m. EST
Questions? Email

2024 Winning Essays

First Place—“A Tale of Lions and Oxen”

Veronika Miskowiec | ’26 International Politics | Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar

It is hard to talk about equality in the eyes of the United States when the country itself never agreed on what it was. At one point, it gave one group of people complete ownership over another—that was called equality. When we were past that, it still meant the complete superiority and dominance of one race over another—that was called equality. Even beyond that, it meant the prioritization of men over women, rich over poor, educated over the uneducated—somehow, that is still equality? But how can we say that one group is greater than another when this “lesser” group is not given a fair chance?

Yes, people argue that equality is present. Black people can vote. Women can join the workforce. A lower-class individual can take out a loan and go to college. Of course, that ignores the many facets of a problem that is as prevalent as ever; voter restriction laws are still being passed, women still make 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, and the private loan providers that keep people who strive for higher education in debt for years are making millions.

I can keep going in circles and arguing that equality still exists. I can think about how it endangered, but was it truly ever safe? It is hard to admit that in a century that is defined by its progress, the people who were always on the perimeter remain in it. That being said, the institutions that were in place aiming to equal the playing field, like Affirmative Action, are being targeted (and, in the case of Affirmative Action, actually being called unconstitutional). If that is the precedent being set, what is stopping us from sliding down the daunting mountain of fairness for all that we have been trying to climb up?

Aristotle once said that “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” To me, this quote encompasses the problem the United States faces today: We are too caught up in trying to make everyone seem the same to realize that we are all different. The reality is we each grew up facing different circumstances, pressures, and obstacles.

As romantic poet William Blake wrote, “One law for the lion and for the ox is indeed oppression.” It is easy to paint a picture using a quote that critiques this universal law system that the United States has in place.  Say we are a country populated by lions and oxen. If the governing body of this country says, “Yes, we recognize that you two have different diets and have different needs, so you are free to eat what you must in order to survive.” Great. The oxen can eat the grass they need, and the lions can butcher the oxen that they need to eat in order to survive. Obviously, the oxen are being slaughtered. The government recognizes this, so they say, “Okay, from now on everyone can only eat grass.” Great. The oxen are safe to eat their grass and thrive, but now the lions eventually starve.

The truth is we do live in a society of lions and oxen.

We live in a society that says if you get arrested you can post bail to get out. For a middle- or upper-class individual with money to spare, that is not an issue. For a lower-class individual without that money, they get to stay in jail.

We live in a society that says you can take the SAT as many times as you would like. Of course, that does not account for the access to test preparation materials, tutors, and school-funded study programs that tend to be present in wealthier areas in contrast to impoverished areas that often do not even provide their students with an SAT preparation course. That is not even taking into account the fact that it costs money—that many do not have—to take the exam itself.

We live in a society that tells us that we are free to apply to any university in order to set ourselves up for the future we would like to have. Of course, how does that bear in mind the fact that wealthier areas tend to have better school districts with, again, more resources, and wealthier people have more money to spend on college applications themselves?

The truth is inequality is still prevalent, and maybe we have not climbed as far up the mountain of fairness as we thought. Maybe the laws we have in place simply conceal the inequality better than they ever have. The tale of lions and oxen should be one of caution when enacting laws that seemingly position the members of society in an unjust situation disguising it as one of equality.


Veronika Miskowiec

Second Place—“Paradox of Then, Vigor of Now”

Creighton Mitchell | ’24 Economics

The year is 1968, two years after the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. America finds itself grappling with the tumultuous currents of civil rights movements, challenges to suffrage, and anti-Vietnam War protests. The nation is on the brink, facing unprecedented levels of public discourse and diminishing morale within its borders. Scenes of African American café sit-ins and bus boycotts have become a pillar in American politics, while women are fervently seeking admission to Yale, Princeton, and Harvard. Amidst this backdrop, crosses burn in front yards, fire hoses, and K9 units are unleashed on the innocent and the esoteric ball of equality is being hit across the country. Echoing the pursuit of this enigmatic goal.

April 4th, 1968: CBS Anchor Walter Cronkite delivers a somber announcement on the evening news: “Dr. Martin Luther King, the apostle of non-violence in the civil rights movement, has been shot to death in Memphis, Tennessee.” Meanwhile, Ira Mitchell Sr. just wrapped up instrument tests at the TWA airplane hangar in Tuskegee, Oklahoma. The fading sunlight filters through the expansive garage doors. Ira, two janitors, and an assistant flight controls mechanic are gathered, drawn by the noise emanating from the offices in the back of the hangar. This diverse group shared one common feature—their melanin-rich, mahogany-colored skin. As Walter Cronkite’s resonant words echoed through the air, the mechanic uttered, “Dr. King is dead.” Ira gazed down at the ground in disbelief, his leathery, worn hands fumbling a greased cloth. A long-exhausted sigh escapes his mouth. He exits the hangar, bound for the forty-minute bus ride home to his wife and seven children. At the bus stop sits a boy, pocket watch in hand, waiting for his father to arrive. The workday is over.

April 4th, 1968: Larry Braby arrives home after teaching Biology at Pocahontas High School in rural Iowa, surrounded by the vast prairies and cornfields of what some call “God’s Country.” He parks his 1960 Ford pickup in the garage, taking a moment of ominous silence between the final high school bell and the ensuing chaos of suburban Midwest life. It is in these fleeting moments, that the weight of the 1960s subtly lingers on his mind, vivid reels surge of friends and classmates entangled in the contentious Vietnam War.

As Larry sits in his pickup, plunging further into a disquieting euphoria, the distant bark of a dog fractures the state of detachment. Three toddlers excitedly rush out, and Larry is welcomed by his wife and daughters. Yet, the ethereal weight of the era persists. Entering the house, he hears the transistor radio near the pantry cabinet, broadcasting Walter Cronkite’s words that perforate throughout. Conversation softens to a whisper, as if the world had paused, leaving only the echo of silence. There are no words. Amidst this tranquil lull, one of the young girls diverts her gaze, meeting Larry’s eyes. “Who is Martin Luther King?” she asks. Breaching the stillness, he invites her, “Come sit with me, I’ll tell you all about him.”

August 22nd, 2023: I find myself in a stale, yet sweltering classroom populated by an ocean of peers. It is the first day of Labor Economics. The professor forges ahead, initiating the routine first-day introductions with the familiar prompt, “Introduce yourself, where you are from, and share your favorite food.”  The class begins to list locations spanning the entire globe: “Seoul, South Korea; New Delhi, India; Toronto, Canada.” The spotlight brings me into focus, it is my turn. Hands damp with perspiration, I declare, “Des Moines, Iowa.” The professor dispels the anxious tension of the first day, shattering the atmosphere with a statement that captures the class and kicks open the door to the first day. “I counted 12 different nationalities amongst this class, the highest I have had in a semester.” I glance at the color of my hands, flipping them over and back, discovering subtleties I had never noticed before. A seemingly flawless blend, uniting the deepest onyx hues found in Oklahoma with the radiant glow from the expanse of stars adorning rural Iowa. I peer at the seats in front and behind me, they seem to be in similar astonishment. This is the world Larry Braby and Ira Mitchell envisioned. Class begins.

Creighton Mitchell

Third Place—“The Garden”

Katherine Joyce | ’25 English | Schreyer Scholar

Picture a garden.

Not the prim, proper, prissy type: a spilling-over, four-leaf clover, blossom takeover, idle-Sunday rover kind of place where no two flowers are the same. Roses painted the palest pinks and the cleanest whites and the brightest yellows climb up trellises hand-in-hand, leaf-in-leaf, thorn-in-thorn—their own personal Everest to conquer by summer’s end. Herbs blush under too much attention and wilt if left alone. Ivy vines silhouette the white picket fence like a scalloped edge on a lacy wedding veil. The daisies and violets and primroses, darling little innocents, rustle cheerfully with the warm breeze, glad to beautify their home in their own tiny way. Bluebirds sing jazz and opera as the sunset casts its golden spotlight through the trees. Near the pond, the proud sprigs of lavender dance to the music of croaking frogs and barking dogs. The magnolias sway and the violets play and the chrysanthemums pray and the little dandelion puffs stray, and all is lovely and well as the sun sinks and the garden falls asleep.

Can you see it now?

This is the beauty of our nation. I am a tulip, and you a cherry blossom, and your friend a zinnia, and your mother a lily. The law stretches over us like the endless summer sky, bathing us all in sunlight. Under the big blue, we flourish as we please. Despite our differences, we are one garden.

But sometimes, the sky cannot protect everyone—not even in the garden.

The flowers know when the storms are gathering, but what can they do? Shake and shiver and shimmy and shuffle as they wait for the inevitable? Not everyone is hardy. The tulips just stare at the gathering clouds, tracing their beloved petals one last time. They are delicate, never meant to last … there is no hope for them in thunder. The roses cling tightly to the trellis, and to each other, as the winds begin to howl.

And then there are the bare feet that trample the innocents—the daisies, the violets, the sweet baby primroses. Perhaps the blunder becomes a regret, or perhaps that foot finds something powerful in crushing someone so small. The forget-me-nots lower their little blue heads in mourning. They will remember, and they will cry.

And when the gardener falls in love, what then? He walks down the mossy cobblestones, humming the tune that once caused his parents to sway among the daffodils at twilight, eyes peeled for the most perfect of blooms. He cuts a few fresh roses—pale as a young woman’s blush—and vows to get rid of those pesky dandelions someday. Those aren’t real flowers, he mumbles to himself, just weeds. And he goes away humming, and the dandelions cower and hate themselves.

The environment is not one-size-fits-all, and neither is the law. Nor, I would argue, should it be. The Fourteenth Amendment of the United States of America declares that “nor shall any state … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” The law is there, but we as Americans have failed in carrying it out. In short, our humanity is lacking. The fault is ours.

What if the ivy wrapped itself around the tulips when the fierce winds blew? What if the bluebirds chirped until the gardener looked away from the roses and towards those that are often forgotten? What if the snapdragons hissed when predators neared the lilies? What if the gardener taught his guests to look before they step?

What if, instead of depending on the government to build walls and write legislation, we simply looked out for each other? If I am a tulip and you are a cherry blossom, you must accept that I come from the ground, and I must accept that you come from a tree. Look at the roses! The pink blossoms do not attempt to strangle the yellow ones if they reach the top of the trellis first. Their vines twist, and they become one. And someone needs to protect the innocents, for the humblest flowers are just as beautiful as the showy ones. Protect them, please.

America is a garden. Tend it.

Katherine Joyce

Winning Essay Archives


“A Client and His Discontents”

Michael Mitole ’23 Finance (Schreyer Scholar)

I glance at the card in my palm—Dr. Carl Rogers, Ph.D., 1150 Silverado Street, La Jolla, California. Drawing in a breath from the cool air around me, I return even less warmth: “This better not be a waste of my time.” I arrive to his study and sit on a coarse Persian tapestry that conceals a chair well-worn and pleading to be retired. Let me put my watch on, I think to myself, because the first rule of therapy is that the first session always goes over time. Looking around, I wonder how a Milton novel, a textbook on scientific agriculture, a King James Bible, and a bust of Kierkegaard happened onto the same shelf together, but, being raised with manners, I know not to say anything.

As I begin to talk, I convince myself that Rogers will be genuinely interested in what I am going to tell him – as we often do with people in our lives, if we’re honest enough to admit it – and that my stories of figuring out who I was, loving someone for the first time, and a failed attempt at the Rhodes Scholarship will yield enough material to make the session worth our while. Michael, you’re rambling on again – maybe you should pause so he can interpret your problems back to you. And, what time is it, anyway? Have I talked for the entire session? Pausing in the middle of my soliloquy, I peer at Rogers and wait for a response. Oh no, he hasn’t even written anything down yet.

“Michael, it seems to me that you are living, subjectively, a phase of your problems, knowingly and acceptingly,” he replies. I give an empty expression. I’m sorry, but what am I supposed to do with that? Rogers lets his words hang in the air, knowing they have stirred an internal response.

Well — maybe we need to be told truths that are jarring enough to make us let go of our own conclusions. He continues: “Many people I see in my practice aren’t used to being told that. It was an idea I published in my book On Becoming a Person, after many years observing how people responded to problems.”

When we are presented with problems – personal and otherwise – do we reach too quickly for panaceas, convenient cliches, and old schematic frames? Is this what Rogers means? I decide to vocalize my thoughts: “I see, Dr. Rogers. I tend to believe that all of my problems can be solved in some systematic way. And, to be frank, I look at a lot of the world’s grander problems this way, too — the global pandemic, the devastation of war, our beleaguered planet, and economic turmoil.”

“Right, and I am sure that your experience and what you have witnessed around you reveal that problems are hardly formulaic – some are longstanding and most are too complex to fit within the lenses we impose on the world around us,” says Rogers. “So, what does it mean to you, to live?”

Searching for a response, my eyes return to Rogers’ bookshelf, where I notice Thoreau’s Walden and an anthology of poems by Keats. How apropos of the conversation… and that Keats fellow, what was that he wrote about ‘negative capability’?

How do we live meaningfully in the face of hardships and difficulties? First, we grasp that the world is a forum of problems, where things are not as they ‘ought’ to be. But, importantly, we continue doing all the things that meaningful living requires – we continue to feel, to learn, to grow, to struggle, to change, to persevere, to act, and to be courageous.

If Camus was right that “to live is not to resign ourselves,” then our living must also be done with an unwavering purpose. There are those who feel called to dream big dreams and those who feel called to be faithful with the life already set before them. No matter what destiny holds, each of us in life will face a problem of significance that makes all the ones before it into necessary preparation. When that time comes, it will be our chance to help set the world ‘righter’ than it was before. This, we might say, is the universal purpose for which we exist, our hard-wearing meaning in life—to live in service of the ‘good,’ however that duty appears.

I reply to Rogers, “I see now that to truly live, in the face of problems, is to embody a solution that is salutary in all circumstances. But to spend my life ‘fixing’ is to live enslaved by those problems, an all too narrow and futile existence.” Rogers nods his head in tacit agreement, looking away from me.

I follow his eyes: Where is he looking? Oh goodness, the time.

“An Ode to Time, a Friend”

Arushi Grover ’23 English (Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar)

A player enters onstage. They stand, center-stage, in a spotlight. They wait.

In this moment in time, the forces of the haunting past, the tense present, and imminent future converge to the pleading question: how does one go on? We live in a time of intense political polarization, both in America and increasingly throughout the world; reaching across the aisle seems more and more like an idyllic fantasy of the past, and instead of achieving progress, it seems like our society and democracy is regressing. We live in a time of great reckoning, coming to terms with how past oppression has caused current inequalities, along lines of gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, class, nationality, and more; haunted by the past, we try to learn to play the hand we’re dealt and create equality for the future…on top of what feels like a house of cards. And the future seems imminent, as climate scientists warn that we are on a trajectory that will cause global temperatures to increase, seas to rise, a surefire climate catastrophe that will harm those most vulnerable populations who have caused the least carbon emissions. Suffering defines our past, present, and future, the current moment an endless and evolving challenge.

Dare I suggest that time may be, not our foe, but our friend, in such circumstances? Regard Time, a wingèd, angelic figure that presides and brandishes a scythe. For our experience on this Earth is defined by Time: a beginning, a birth; the middle, a duration of experience; and the end, a death. She hovers, ever-present, a metronomic gaze as we haunt this world. We, as humans, may mourn the eternality that could never be due to our mortal frames, but think, perhaps, that the ephemerality of life is what makes the lows ever-so-devastating, but also the highs ever-so-pleasant. Knowing that this will end, we can experience joy and pleasure for the euphoria that they are. Ephemerality is what gives us meaning; that end is a gift that allows us to cherish the moment. For our finite experience, should the universe envy us for our feeling the operatic breadth of human emotion—the pains and devastation, the joys and pleasure?

For the challenges and hardships we face, we can find meaning in the nature of our existence; the universe may have Time, but we have experience, too. As individuals in this world, let us consider our strength to be our individuality, our unique and discrete experiences—something to take pleasure in and something to expand our understanding. Appreciating individuality means listening to individuals, not just ourselves but our communities, and especially to previously unheard and unsung voices. We must appreciate the diversity of individual experience.

The inequalities of the past mean that we have the chance to make the future better than the past, better than the present moment—a challenge, but a gratifying problem to solve for individuals and humankind. Preparing to counter the effects of climate change can seem like a daunting and unwinnable task, but we can comfort ourselves knowing that every inch of progress right now will be a mile of progress for future generations. And in a moment when political progress seems like it’s headed backwards, let us ricochet in appreciating how far we’ve come, to where we are or were, and beyond. For all the challenges that come with Time passing and repeating, we can find a silver lining and some meaning in befriending the figure of Time—both internal, personal meaning, and external, real-world reflections of validation.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Can you hear it? Flowers bloom and trees sport verdant leaves that metamorphosize to a blaze and fall in decay. Can you see it? In water, a current pulls and pulls and pulls. Can you feel it? If Time is a friend, can we not collaborate and make a meaningful relationship for us both? Maybe life is a book, and we get to control the pace, how quickly the pages turn, how soon the conflict resolves. Maybe life is a film, and we can pause the piece, rewind, and replay when things get hard. Or maybe life is a play, and we arrive with strangers to share time and space for a moment, before dissipating.

In some ways, there is cause to be optimistic for the future. And in some ways, there is no cause—not cause for pessimism, but simply an absence of cause. In these moments of reasoning, it is choice that defines our actions and mindset—both the choice to choose what we want for ourselves and the choices that affect others in a complex world and web of interdependence.

Onstage, the player bends their head, then straightens and steps off the stage. They sit in the first row of the audience. The lights dim to a blackout.

“We Exist in a Society”

Taran Samarth ’23 Philosophy, Political Science, Sociology and Mathematics (Paterno Fellow and Schreyer Scholar)

Contemporary politics dances upon one principal question: do we live in a society? Before there were absurdist Joker memes asserting “we live in a society,” there was Margaret Thatcher saying the opposite: “there is no such thing [as society].” Thatcher and Reagan’s worldview that there are only individuals and families living under markets—leaving little place for interconnection and community—once dominated Western politics. And then came the coronavirus crisis to remind us that if there was no value in redistributing wealth and power with our neighbors through the government that constitutes our collective will, at least we could redistribute some virions.

The pandemic was a reminder that, at the core of human existence, we are interlinked—that infections spread person-to-person, that our health depends on others, and that the survival of our medical facilities required all of us to do our part. Intensifying climate disasters and oppressive violence suggest the same: we live in a society where colossal, pressing crises structure our lives, and the solutions will require individuals to act in concert with others, not alone.

The urgency of these crises and the scale of their needed solutions demand that we collectively do two things: we embrace society, and we embrace taking sides. Too often, we fear staking bold claims. To demand police abolition in a world that enforces racist violence through the state is “too radical.” To seek an economic reconstruction that centers sustainability and collective, not individual, wealth is “too polarizing.” Our allergy to supporting transformative, large-scale solutions leave us emphasizing “nuance” without substance or trying to confine ourselves to “gray areas” where bold ideas are watered down into mere Band-Aids. Or, worse, we tell ourselves that crises—like some former Penn State officials said about sexual and gender-based violence—are just “vexing” and “intractable,” as if they are too complicated to merit our focused attention and effort.

The crises we face are complicated—they are massive, they are hard, and we are bound, at times, to fail. But we cannot refuse to back bold ideas while the window for action that can meaningfully prevent harm dwindles. As we stare down the barrel of existential crisis after crisis, the existentialists are a guide to making meaning in 21st-century life. Our lives are defined by our freedom to constantly choose—I choose to speak; you choose to listen (or not). How we choose to greet and meet every moment fills our world with value and our lives with meaning. Faced with myriad crises, will we let our lives be defined by paralysis? Or will we courageously choose sides and define ourselves as actors that dared to try—dared to affirm our freedom and choose?

But, as Simone de Beauvoir says in Pyrrhus and Cinéas, “[humankind] is not alone in the world.” As intensifying global polarization and authoritarianism indicate, we cannot choose sides haphazardly or without attention to the identical freedom of billions of others. These choices and our actions demand thought and care—particularly for the most marginalized and vulnerable. Whatever choice I alone make in confronting a crisis will be meaningless without others willing to orient their freedom and choices toward the same projects. Disagreement is inevitable—even healthy—but the toxic polarization we face today keeps us frozen in the face of crisis because we choose not to persuade or communicate. We take sides—and we refuse to seek others to join us. We leave our lives meaningless, and crisis creeps ever closer to Armageddon.

As historian Gabriel Winant wrote in the throes of the pandemic, meeting the urgency and challenges posed by crisis requires “the building of relationships and trust across the forms of social difference.” To reach across dinner tables, borders, and backgrounds and build these relationships is to forge the bonds that alone have the power to bring the choices we make, sides we take, and solutions that follow into the world. As Winant quotes Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder from his text on fighting the crisis of tyranny, you must dare to “put your body in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar people.”

The urgency posed by a planet unequipped to withstand climate shifts in the coming decade and respond to structural inequities that will sharply allocate harm to the already-wounded means that we cannot risk inaction. For one person to imbue their life with meaning amidst extraordinary social problems, the urgency of crisis demands that they opt to take sides and try to effect change in the world. But they can only do so effectively if they dare to make those bold choices in partnership with others willing the same. That is, we can only make meaning in our lives and our world if we choose to embrace and act upon that one fundamental truth: we live in a society.

“Finding Meaning in the Pursuit of Survival”

Charles Cote ’23 Supply Chain and Information System (Schreyer Scholar)

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