This census season, more than 400 middle- and high-school students from all over Minnesota wrote essays to explore how their families, friend groups, schools and souls combine to weave threads into the fabric of America.

The essay contest grew out of ThreeSixty, a collaboration of the Star Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the University of St. Thomas, which trains high school students in journalism. The program sponsors online essay contests throughout the year, but for this topic, organizers sought a broader platform.

Essays ranged broadly in depth and scope. Some added up to a tally of likes and dislikes, of physical attributes that link or set writers apart from others. Others mapped birth order or explored ancestral attributes.

New Americans tested the label gingerly, often choosing to embrace multiple cultures. Some expressed thanks for a life free of terror and want, while others noted the barriers that America still erects -- skin color, accent, poverty -- against efforts to blend in.

Some native-born Americans also embraced their ancestors' origins elsewhere around the globe. Others noted that their ancestral roots were too numerous and too long ago to matter much.

Their essays, judged by writers Maria Elena Baca (Star Tribune) and Ruben Rosario (Pioneer Press) and ThreeSixty staffers Lynda McDonnell and Anne Nelson, are published today in the two newspapers and their websites.

Wlegie Swen, 16

Armstrong High School, Plymouth

Dark skin, nappy hair, African immigrant. Born and raised in the middle of the most deadly civil war in Africa, violence, pain and hatred was all I knew. As a child, I watched people die everyday in the war in my country. Death became a way of life to me. Losing my dad to the civil war when I was a few months old, my life and my family's life were in danger. At age 2, I was put into a river to be drowned by a rebel. At age 10, I was beaten almost at the point of death, and I'm left with scars all over my body. As a result I cannot wear sleeveless tops without people asking me, "What's that on your arm?" All of these questions have made it hard to forget my past. Being in America, I'm counted as a girl who can grow up in a society where she can be safe from violence and harm. As a girl who can grow up into a strong woman regardless of her past experiences. As a girl who, for once, can have a normal childhood.

Alexia Martinez Avila, 11

Plymouth Middle School, Plymouth

I am a girl. I am Mexican. My parents were born in Mexico, and I was born in Minnesota. I have a mom and dad and brother. I am in sixth grade. An American is a person that lives in the United States or was born in the United States. I consider myself to be half Mexican and half American, because I was born in the United States. I speak two languages, Spanish and English. I sometimes help my parents with the English when they don't understand. They like me most because I teach them English. As an American I feel safe, because some police are people that take people away back to their country. And I feel not so safe because there is violence and I don't like that, because I worry about my parents, if something is going to happen to them. When I grow up I might live with my mom and dad to help them, and I want to take care of them, too.

Abdi Jined, 17

Lincoln International High School, Minneapolis

I was born in Kenya, Nairobi. I have been living in the United States since 2000. My mom is Somali and my dad is Arab. I'm Muslim. I seriously don't know if I am an American or not. I'm not from here. This not my homeland, and someday I want to go back there and visit my relatives and my family. About eight years ago, I had an accent but not no more. Every time I opened my mouth and say something, people used to look at me different. Now it has been a while since people have said something about my accent. If you're lucky, maybe you'll catch me pronouncing some big words wrong. In the past, I never felt like an American. I do now, because people understand what I say, and it makes sense.

Reva Hill-Crawford, 15

Edison High School, Minneapolis

I am an African-American female who lives in Minneapolis. I am very active in school. I am captain of my high school varsity cheerleading team, choreographer and dancer of the dance team, and a catcher for the softball team. I love America and I like to think of myself as an all-American girl. I love sports, but family is more important. Being an American we celebrate a lot of things, specially things with our family. My family is big and we're very close. We're always playing and laughing together. Every holiday there is a new story to tell. Everyone in my family is a hard worker; we try to do our best at everything we do and never give up. We care for others and laugh with each other no matter what. So being an American is important, but family is what matters to me.

Jangchee Vang, 18

Armstrong High School, Plymouth

It has been a long time since I heard my dad's laughter. He was always serious and tried to use every second as if he could. "Time is money" is what my dad always said. My family ran away from war and we became refugees for 30 years. Dad must work 10 times harder than others to support our family. He was always covered with dirt and sweat. Every time I tried to help, he said, "Son, Dad is not tired and will not tire too; someday, son will be better." This seemed far from the truth, until Dad secretly smiled. It was the first time again to see his smile when we first stepped on the land called the United States of America. We were going to be American, and live the life of having a house, an education, jobs, hopes, opportunities and everything that we have a chance to reach. Others couldn't say we were nothing anymore. I represent the Hmong and will prove that we are part of something. Just a step through the dark night, just a short distance to go, we would step it, and reach to the moon.

Jordan Palusky, 18

Cathedral High School, St. Cloud

My name is Jordan. A common name in America. However, I am unlike any other American. I am a white high school senior boy who has endured many things in life that other people fear (i.e. moving schools, the death of a best friend, etc.). I think that I fit into the picture of an American, but not the everyday American on TV. I am an American in the sense that I am proud to live in the U.S.A. I take advantage of the freedoms and advantages that only America can provide. I may not follow the politics and news and other media, partly because I belong to the youth of America that feels misunderstood and at times cheated. I don't think America would be devastated without me, and I highly doubt that I make an impact on our nation as a whole. But I do believe that I have an impact on many of my friends and classmates, and I do what I can to improve the world around me.

Amy Vang, 15

Johnson Senior High, St. Paul

I consider myself a Hmong-American. In our culture we practice Shamanism. My mother and grandmother were both born in Laos and moved to the United States in the 1980s. My mom has told me several tales of what her life was like in Laos; it was rough on them and they had very few opportunities and freedoms. Because of this, my mom constantly inspires me to be the best person I can. Being an American means I can have my own culture and follow my family's traditions. I can be an American and also belong and participate in the Hmong community. Most important, being an American means that I don't have to sacrifice one for the other. I think that to be an American, you've got to be proud of your own cultural traditions as well as being comfortable with who you are.

Samuel Ruelas Jr., 15

Eastview High School, Apple Valley

I was born a Mexican citizen. At the age of eight going on nine, my family decided to cross over the big gate, meaning the Mexican border. I was terrified when I was sent out to the desert at such a young age and only having one parent with me, because my mother was already in the U.S at the time. That's right, I was raised by my father for a year and now I carry his name and birth date. Samuel Ruelas Castellon Laureano de la Cruz "junior" the 3rd is what I have on my birth certificate. Now that I'm an American citizen, life is free. My heritage is Mexican Aztec American, with the heart of a someday pro soccer player. Now I'm a proud American and I don't regret leaving my past country because now I have more freedom.

Tasha Johnson, 17

Armstrong High School, Plymouth

Being an American means being allowed to think and say what you feel. I feel that because I live in the U.S. I'm labeled an American. However, I don't even feel like I am an American because there is the typical idea of what an American should be. Take a girl, for an example. To be the "All-American girl" you need to be white, skinny, long silky hair, smart but not too smart, able to dance to show grace and elegance, and the most important thing of all -- you have to know how to be girly! On the outside I appear white, but in my blood I'm a mutt. I am middle-class. I believe in God but I don't have one specific religion that I believe in. I am not the All-American girl, I am the individual American girl who loves her country and the freedom but does not like the typical idea of what an American should be. Americans are people and they come in all different races, personalities, shapes, ages, culture, and religion. I fit into America by being able to have the right to stand out.