Students Capture King’s Legacy in Realizing the Dream Essay and Art Contest

by Dr. Elisabetta Zengaro
Communications Specialist, Division of Community Affairs

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Winners of the 2024 Realizing the Dream Essay and Art Contest were recognized for using their creativity to expand on the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on March 28 at Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa.

The annual contest is open to middle and high school students across Alabama. To participate, students submitted a 500-word essay or artwork representing this year’s theme of “Realizing the Dream Through Vision and Leadership,” from which judges representing the Realizing the Dream Committee institutions selected the winners.

The winning submissions were on display at Shelton State’s Cadence Bank Gallery for students to showcase to the community.

“I liked the challenge,” said Olivia Harman, a 10th-grader at Thompson High School. “It actually took me three or four times to write this essay because I didn’t really know how I wanted to word everything, but I love reading [and] I love writing.”

Other student winners acknowledged how King’s legacy inspired them to enter the contest for the first time.

“I really liked this one because of the prompt itself and because of the whole Realizing the Dream narrative,” added Janiah White, an 11th-grader at Thompson High School and a winner in the artwork category. 

Teachers from participating schools echoed the importance of the contest in encouraging their students’ creativity. 

“The Realizing the Dream Essay and Art contest is an invaluable learning experience my students and I look forward to every year,” said Jessica Buckley an art and design teacher at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Middle.  “Students are encouraged to connect with the theme on a personal level and create an authentic piece of artwork that is meaningful to them.  This opportunity not only fosters creative thinking but inspires my students to use their artistic skills to spread awareness on issues they are passionate about.”

Following the reception, the program began at 6:00 p.m. in the Alabama Power Recital Hall where Carson Grubaugh, instructor of visual arts at Shelton State, delivered the opening remarks, welcoming parents, teachers and community members. Audience members learned more about each winning artist and writer, along with the creativity behind their work in a short video presentation. Contest judges Krislyn Koehn, art instructor at Shelton State, and Dr. Serena Blount, associate director of undergraduate studies and senior instructor in the department of English at UA, presented the winners in each respective category.

From among 39 art submissions, the following 6 winners were selected:

Alyssa Arrington, 6th-grader at The Alberta School of Performing Arts

Addison Large, 7th-grader at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Middle

Aeesha Mulani, 8th-grader at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Middle 

Janiah Martin, 11th-grader at Thompson High School 

Onda McKnight, 9th-grader at The Capitol School

Rayne Moore, 12th-grader at Hillcrest High School


Out of 32 essay submissions, six winners were chosen:

Neh Awondo, 7th-grader at Duncanville Middle School

Ella Bryan, 8th-grader at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Middle

Maddie Lee, 8th-grader at Tuscaloosa Magnet Schools – Middle 

Olivia Harman, 10th-grader at Thompson High School

Samiyya Campbell, 12th-grader at Fairfield High Preparatory 

Erial Malone, 12th-grader at Ramsay High School


Each winner received a Chromebook, and their respective schools will receive up to $500 for reimbursement of educational resources and/or programming to support this work.

“We want to say thank you to each and every one of the students,” said Andrea Ziegler, director for Community Education for the Center for Community-Based Partnerships at UA. “Your outstanding creative work shines a bright light on the future.”