Ten years ago I won a trip to New York. If this happened today I’d delete the email | Maddie Thomas

Everyone needs a good dinner-party story up their sleeve. Mine? I once won a trip to New York.

I was 16 and, at the start of school term in 2013, I set out to make a short film for English class. I’d always been a film buff so it was, in part, a test to see if film-making could be a future career.

For inspiration I turned to the short film festival Tropfest. While trawling through the winning films, a pop-up window appeared: “Win a trip to Tropfest NYC.”

For once you didn’t have to write 25 words on why you wanted to go or who you’d take – no witty one-liner required. And so I absentmindedly typed in my email address and hit enter.

Within a month, I received a response:.

You’ve won return air fare + 4 nights accommodation for you and a friend to go to New York to do Tropfest in style.

I was jumping around the living room, but my parents were dubious. Something so incredible had to be a scam. No one at school could believe it either, so I was forced to quell my excitement.

It had been so simple that a part of me didn’t trust it either. I barely remembered entering and had just ticked the box saying I was over 16 and had my parent’s consent – never imagining I’d have to prove it.

It didn’t help that we’d never heard of the now-dormant company sponsoring the prize. But after a few emails back and forth, the notion it was a hoax faded. When my name was published in the paper, sandwiched between the winners of an SBS lunar new year adventure and an Uncle Toby’s competition, it finally felt real.

Newspaper clipping of Maddie Thomas winning a trip to NYC.
Newspaper clipping of Maddie Thomas winning a trip to NYC. Photograph: Maddie Thomas

If I won this trip today, in a world where scams are rampant, I think I’d delete the email, too scared I was being duped. I can’t imagine sending copies of my passport to someone who never even provided their last name.

But 10 years ago we didn’t treat every text with suspicion and fishy calls were less likely to catch you off guard. I remember phoney calls would always go to the landline about 7pm, just as you were sitting down to dinner, and there would be a few seconds of crackly noise after you answered.

In my correspondence with the organiser there is one email in the chain, where, after a week or two of silence, 16-year-old me asks for an update on our flight bookings. I can sense some fear my dream was about to be destroyed.

But everything arrived, from festival passes to plane tickets, and we were sent on our way, into a yellow taxi and to Manhattan, where we were greeted by a concierge who said bonjour and bonsoir as we walked through the hotel lobby.

I was enchanted. New York was full of landmarks I knew from the movies, from the Empire State Building to Katz’s Deli. Mum and I developed a penchant for breakfast bagels and tried to cover as many boroughs as we could in two weeks (we extended our stay). High on luck, we made the most of everything.

I made my short film to show off some of those moments. More of a compilation than a narrative, and cut to the beat of Jay-Z’s Empire State of Mind. Watching it now, it’s clear I wasn’t destined to be a film-maker. But it reminds me of the sights and sounds of an incredible city.

Ever since that day I’ve been convinced that you’ve got to be in it to win it. No doubt such belief has sold many a lottery ticket and birthed a fair few unexpected millionaires, so why shouldn’t it be you? After my stroke of luck, it’s an idea my family lives by.

So write the 25 words about why you need the luxury holiday. Guess the number of jelly beans in the jar. Enter the lottery on a whim when you’re walking past the newsagent. You just never know. Just be sure to do your due diligence – so you might be a victor rather than a scam victim.

One day I’ll go back to New York on my own dime. For now, it will always be the city I lucked out on.

Maddie Thomas is an editorial assistant at Guardian Australia

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