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Durango High School senior’s essay garners scholarship money

Grace Holst headed to George Washington University in the fall
Grace Holst

As a teenager and as a senior at Durango High School, Grace Holst is concerned about the negative effects of social media. She turned her concern into a prize-winning essay.

Holst’s essay, “The Weaponization of Social Media,” won second place and a $500 scholarship in a competition sponsored by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation of the Society of Professional Journalists and Journalism Education Association.

The organization has sponsored an annual high school essay contest since 1998. Each year, the prompt for the essay is based around the goal of increasing high school students' understanding of the importance of independent media to our lives, according to the organization’s website.

This year's prompt was: “How can student journalists use social media for free speech and amplifying voices, but still ensure ethical and responsible use of the platforms?”

“My essay was about how social media algorithms basically show you what you want to see,” Holst said. “They prioritize content for a user based on the likelihood that they’ll actually want to see it. This tends to create ‘echo chambers,’ so to speak, where someone is constantly hearing their ideas repeated back to them. I discussed how these ‘echo chambers’ on social media enable logistical coordination by connecting people with similar beliefs. I studied the negative effects of these echo chambers – the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capital; and the positive ones – the public opposition to the military coup in Myanmar.”

Holst researched news articles and academic journals to cite in her 500-word essay, but this was already a topic she had been thinking about for quite some time.

“I had a background in programming and an understanding of how social media algorithms worked,” she said. “Throughout middle school and my freshman year at DHS, I interned at the Durango MakerSpace and the Powerhouse Science Center. I got a lot of hands-on experience in programming – built a few websites, my own facial recognition software, a basic web crawler and more of that sort of thing.”

Holst will attend George Washington University in Washington, D.C., next fall. She plans on studying business and economics and then hopes to apply that to a career in public policy.

Outside of school, Holst works with Big Brothers Big Sisters, a program that monitors matches between adult volunteers (“Bigs”) and children (“Littles”) in communities across the country.

“I’m an ambassador for BBBS and I helped design a new program they offer called ‘Sports Buddies,’ which is where prospective volunteers and youth on the waitlist get together to do outdoor activities and group sports,” Holst said.

Holst also works with the Southwest Colorado Education Collaborative, a nonprofit that expands educational opportunities for students in rural Colorado.

“Working with these nonprofits has instilled a very community-based focus in me, and it’s made me determined to continue promoting programs that strengthen communities throughout my career regardless of what field I end up in.”

Abby Bowman is an intern for The Durango Herald. She attends Durango High School.