Seventh-graders Ashley Cortez, left, and Helen Nitzsche will compete at the National History Day competition in June.

Ashley Cortez and Helen Nitzsche have been friends through their time in National History Day (NHD), a program that encourages the development of critical thinking and presentation skills through a research project. But, the friends will turn into competition as they move on to compete at the national competition of NHD next month.

The William Monroe Middle School seventh-graders were the only two students to qualify for the national level in Maryland after placing at the state level. Both Cortez and Nitzsche will compete in the individual junior performance category.

“Even though she is my competition, we support each other,” said Cortez, who placed first at districts and states. “If she needs help, I help her. If I need help, she helps me. We can have this moment to share together even though we’re competition.”

Nitzsche, who placed second at both the district and state competitions, agreed.

“I think it’s really cool how we were best friends and then we went to states and we both won,” she said.

Stephanie Hammer, one of the NHD faculty sponsors, said the friendly competition is an interesting dynamic this year.

“It’s an interesting combination because they’re both in the same category and they’re competing against each other,” Hammer said. “They’re great kids. They’re competitive. They have a lot of potential with their projects and they have worked hard. We’re excited.”

Although they compete in the same category, their projects tackle two different topics. Nitzsche’s performance, titled “The Woman Who Changed the Rules in Science: Marie Curie,” covers a female scientist during a time when society told women they shouldn’t have jobs. Nitzsche, who wants to be a scientist in the future, said she chose Curie because she inspired her. Cortez’s performance “Separate, But Unequal: Barbara Johns Fight for Equality” focuses on Barbara Johns strike in Farmville over inequality and the later desegregation of schools.

Competing at the national level is familiar to Cortez who placed last year in the group performance category.

“To switch into individual performance this year still felt a little bit crazy to me, but I felt comfortable with that category. I knew I had skills and knowledge in what I was doing already,” Cortez said.

For Nitzsche, this is her first year in NHD and first time competing.

“I love acting and being creative. I decided a performance would be the most interesting to watch and would get the point across easily,” Nitzsche said.

In addition to the performance, both are required to complete supporting research documents and answer judge’s questions during competition. Cortez and Nitzsche both said they spend at least an hour daily working on their projects, as well as working after school and weekends.

“The night before states I practiced for six or seven hours,” Nitzsche said. “I got it word for word, and I was like ‘I’m set. I got this.’ I told myself out loud that I can do this.”

The pair agreed that practice, confidence and support from teachers has helped them.

“We’ve had those ‘I want to quit’ moments, but when you think you want to quit you preserve and have confidence,” Nitzsche said.

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Logan Bogert is a reporter for the Greene County Record in Stanardsville, Virginia. She can be reached at lbogert@greene-news.com or (434) 985-2315. Follow Logan on Twitter at @Logan_Bogert.

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