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Reviewed by Joel Ohman
Founder, CFP®

UPDATED: Feb 9, 2021

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Students from the University of Virginia (U. Va.) were awarded the first prize in a competition to spread awareness about the growing federal debt.

The Up to Us competition, the first of its kind, offered students from 10 different universities to have open discussions with their peers about the federal debt problem. The separate campaigns led to multiple student events, social media efforts and several conversations with members of Congress.

Currently, the federal debt is at $16.8 trillion.

Mary Tam, senior manager at Up to Us Campaign, said the main campaign goal was to spread awareness about the rising debt figure and not about creating initial solutions.

“You can’t expect people to get involved until they understand it,” she told “With something as complicated as federal debt, this first step was just getting to the issue and about how it affects them.”

The winning U. Va. team members are Joshua Lansford, Alan Safferson, Lena Shi, Ryan Singel and Amara Warren.  Second place went to students from Brown University, and third place went to the University of Texas, Austin.

The U. Va. students won due to their various awareness tactics, including inviting Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) for a speech, hosting flash seminars with various experts and creating videos about the impact on federal debt.

Tam said the students were able to reach out to multiple schools within the university, rather than just targeting business or economic students.

“They really managed to unite their entire campus,” she said. “They brought a number of people together to look at the issue.”

A ‘Missing Voice’

The competition was sponsored by the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the Clinton Global Initiative University (CGI U), and Net Impact.

In a release, the founder and chairman of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, Pete Peterson, said this is the first time young citizens have joined forces to tell Washington that their attention is on these issues.

“Today’s young people have the most at stake in America’s fiscal future and the most to gain from solving the long-term challenges we face,” Peterson said. “Through this initiative, they are playing a role in shaping the nation they will inherit.”

Tam said the Up to Us campaign focused on students because they are a “missing voice” and are often left out of the conversation.

Even issues that impact students the most, such as rising student loan debt, are influenced by the rising federal debt.

“How does the federal debt issue affect the federal student loan issue?” Tam questioned. “As the U.S. federal debt grows, if our creditors start to question [the federal government’s] ability to pay back our debt, that could get [interest rates] skyrocketing.”

While the federal debt might not immediately concern students, it should be a main concern for the younger generation. As compounded interest on federal debt grows, the cost to repay this will increase. This increase will take away funds from other necessary government outlets such as education and security.

“It is all very interconnected,” Tam said.

Continuing the Mission

The winning students were recognized by Former President Bill Clinton and Pete Peterson at the CGI U meeting on April 5-7. The U. Va. team was awarded a $10,000 cash prize.

Clinton said the competition was proof that students play an important role in addressing the nation’s economic challenges.

“The young people who participated in this competition brought passion, energy and creativity to solving one of our most urgent issues, and raised awareness in their own schools and communities,” he said.

In a released video, Lena Shi, a member of the winning U. Va. team, said that people ask about what they can do to help.

“We want to maintain the interest, the energy and just keep this going throughout the next couple of years so that eventually people in our school, people in our generation, can take all the knowledge that they have accumulated and do something about it,” she said.