Zion Christian Debate Workshop essay winners
Four Grand Rapids Zion Christian Debate Workshop essay winners were acknowledged at the Oct. 6, 2010, Workshop at Grand Valley State University.

Grand Rapids has long been known as the "furniture capital" of the nation, but it's also the capital of Michigan when it comes to students winning the Mackinac Center's High School Debate Workshop essay contest.

In the past five years, nine students in the Grand Rapids area have won $1,000 college scholarships from the Mackinac Center, including the only double-winner. Each fall, the Center conducts high school debate workshops around the state to help debaters prepare for their upcoming season. Students who write an opinion-style essay about the topic — picked annually by the National Forensics League and argued nationwide — can win one of four scholarships worth $1,000 toward college.

Following the 2005 workshops, Catherine Leiber and Ryan Orzechowski of Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Daniel Overbeek of Grand Rapids Northview won, writing on the topic of privacy and security. Jessica Wilson of Grand Rapids Forest Hills Central won two years in a row, 2007 and 2008, writing about national service and public health assistance for sub-Saharan Africa. Ian Blodger of Lowell also won in 2008.

In 2009, sophomores Samuel Ryskamp and Paul Freswick of Grand Rapids Zion Christian both won on the topic of alternative energy, and earlier this year Erik Kraayeveld and Scott Holsema, then juniors at Zion Christian, won after writing about social services and poverty.

Holsema said this year's topic — America's military presence around the globe — "renewed my vigor and challenged me to consider U.S. foreign policy."

Lisa Russcher, debate coach at Zion Christian, said her students look forward to the workshop each year and find it a valuable experience.

Scholarship winners have gone on to attend King's College (New York), University of Michigan, Hillsdale College, Denison University (Ohio), Johns Hopkins University (Maryland), Baldwin-Wallace College (Ohio), Grand Valley State University, John Carroll University (Ohio) and Central Michigan University.

Wilson, now studying medicine at Denison University, said she recommends debate for all high school students, regardless of what career path they want to follow.

"It teaches you to think things out and organize your thoughts," she told Michigan Education Report in 2008.