Ashley Cortez

Ashley Cortez, a rising eighth-grader at William Monroe Middle School, took home third place in the nation at the National History Day Competition earlier this month.

Fast forward one year and one William Monroe Middle School student has a different story to tell after competing in the national level of a history-based competition.

Ashley Cortez, a rising eighth-grader at William Monroe Middle School, took home a bronze medal at the national level for her performance in National History Day (NHD) – a program that encourages the development of critical thinking and presentation skills through a research project. Her third-place finish is the highest honor any Monroe student has received since entering the competition 10 years ago and a stark comparison to her appearance at the state competition last year when she did not place.

“I did know what I was expecting from going last year, but it was still hard because you know there’s so much competition and everyone is the best in their state,” Cortez said. “I was waiting for my turn and there were a couple people saying that they did really well, so I was getting a little nervous as I saw the competition. I went up there and I said, “OK, I did the best I could and whatever happens, happens.”

Cortez qualified for the national level this year after placing first at both the district and state levels. Her performance, titled “Separate, But Unequal: Barbara Johns Fight for Equality,” focuses on Barbara Johns strike in Farmville over inequality and the later desegregation of schools. She competed in the individual performance junior division at the national competition, held June 9-13 at the University of Maryland.

Cortez was the only person from Virginia to become a finalist in her category.

“To win third place shows that all the late nights and hard work that I put into this performance paid off. The stress that I had, the moments when I wanted to give up, those paid off because I reached my goal,” she said.

Stephanie Hammer, a middle school history teacher and NHD faculty sponsor, said Cortez’s drive led her to success in the competition.

“She continually worked to do more research, to find one more piece of evidence, to review and revamp her project. During the last week of school and the beginning of her summer break, while other students were winding down, Ashley was gearing up,” Hammer said. “Her drive led her to create a project that not only met the requirements, but exceeded expectations to tell a compelling story about Barbara Johns.”

After performing once and being selected as a finalist, Cortez performed a second time before finding out the final results.

“They said the third finalist from Ruckersville, Virginia, and I just suddenly knew it was me because I was the only Virginia finalist in that group. I didn’t even hear them say my name or title. Everyone was so excited,” Cortez said.

Cortez said that NHD has taught her to have more confidence and advanced her presentation and speaking skills. She hopes to continue with NHD next year in the performance category again.

“It’s two years of doing performances now, and I feel like it’s my comfort. I would have never thought that I’d be in front of that many people in a room speaking to them,” she said. “I really enjoy doing NHD. It’s now a part of me, and now that I’ve reached third place I want to see how far I can get next year.”

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

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