CAMP ZAMA, Japan (Feb. 24, 2020) – Cadet Master Sgt. Michael Manangan is proud of how well he did in this year’s U.S. Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps essay contest, but the experience of writing it has an even greater meaning for him.Manangan, a senior at Zama Middle High School, said this year’s topic, “The Challenges of Online and In-Person Learning in a Pandemic Environment,” caused him to think hard about the subject and what he learned about himself as a student during the pandemic.“Writing this made me realize I’m actually pretty extroverted,” Manangan said. “I’m at my best when I have my peers and everyone around me, so writing this essay, the placement is cool and everything, but actually writing the essay [on this] topic has allowed me to learn more about myself.”Mananagan’s essay came in third out of 106 JROTC essay contest entries from the 8th Brigade, U.S. Army Cadet Command, headquartered at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, said retired Lt. Col. Doug Fields, senior Army instructor for the school’s JROTC program, who added that he is extremely proud of his cadet’s achievement.“It’s huge,” Fields said. “For this to come about is truly amazing.”Originally the essay was a JROTC class assignment, but Manangan’s final product was so phenomenal that Fields suggested he enter it into the contest.The Army JROTC program has an annual requirement that cadets improve their written communication skills, so assigning the essay was a natural choice, Fields said.Most years the command sends the top three essays to compete nationally against the other seven JROTC brigades, but this year because of COVID-19, officials are only sending the top two, Fields said. More than 1,700 Army JROTC programs worldwide participate in U.S. Army Cadet Command’s annual essay contest.The 8th Bde., also known as the “Viking Brigade,” has the responsibility for overseeing JROTC and ROTC programs in Hawaii, Guam, Japan, California, Washington, Oregon, Utah, Nevada, Arizona and America Samoa. The brigade includes more than 20,000 cadets.In his essay, Manangan recounted how school administrators sent students home for online learning in March 2020 on Friday the 13th, “a day associated with fear, bad omens, and a worldwide shutdown of classes over the threat of a global pandemic.”Students were happy at first, but that feeling faded as they realized they wouldn’t return to in-person school soon and that what they had thought was a “measly flu mutation” was a lot more serious, Manangan wrote.“After two months, the walls that once brought students comfort became the walls that kept them in solitary confinement,” Manangan wrote. “COVID was more than the measly flu; it had mutated into a severe educational barrier for students and teachers alike. It had become the wall I could not crack.”Although Manangan appreciated the flexibility of online school, it was not as engaging and challenging as in-person school, and he was glad when Zama Middle High School students returned to in-person learning in September. The experience, however, taught him a lot.“As I stand here after drudging through the troubles COVID has given to students worldwide, I look back in comfort upon the conflicts I’ve triumphed over, and how they have rekindled my excitement to learn and progress as an individual,” Manangan wrote.Manangan said he spent more than two weeks working on the essay, which is more than 1,000 words long, partially because he planned to use some of it for a college admissions essay.Next year Manangan plans to go to college and major in psychology and minor in sociology. In the meantime, however, he is thankful for the two years he has spent as a JROTC cadet.“I feel like it has, in general, made me a better person,” Manangan said. “It develops a community that everyone can look to. That’s what I like about the program.”