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Six Are Finalists for 2015 Sophie Kerr Prize for Literary Promise

May 11, 2015
Kudos to Julie Armstrong, Val Dunn, Ariel Jicha, Paige Kube, Sydney Sznajder, and Alex Vidiani. The winner of this year’s prize, worth $62,900, will be announced Friday, May 15, at a special event in Decker Theatre.

2015 finalists, front row: Ariel Jicha, Val Dunn, Sydney Sznajder. Back row: Julia Armstrong, Paige Kube, Alex Vidiani.2015 finalists, front row: Ariel Jicha, Val Dunn, Sydney Sznajder. Back row: Julia Armstrong, Paige Kube, Alex Vidiani.

CHESTERTOWN, MD—Washington College has announced six finalists for its famous Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest student literary prize in the nation, this year valued at $62,900. The winner will be announced Friday evening, May 15, on campus during a special event where each finalist will read from his or her work and author Peter Turchi, a professor of writing at the University of Houston and the 1982 winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize, will deliver remarks. 

As specified by the will of benefactor Sophie Kerr, each year the English Department faculty of the liberal arts school awards the Prize to the graduating senior who, in their judgment, shows the most literary talent and promise. This year the professors reviewed 25 writing portfolios submitted by Prize hopefuls before selecting the six finalists. This is the first time the College has named six finalists rather than five. “That is just one indication of how strong this year’s applicants were,” says English Department chair Kathryn Moncrief. “It was incredibly difficult to narrow it down to these six. We could have named a dozen.”

The 2015 finalists: 

Julia Armstrong.Julia Armstrong.Julia D. “Julie” Armstrong, an English major and Creative Writing minor from the Baltimore suburb of Lutherville, came to Washington College with a Sophie Kerr scholarship, awarded to high school seniors who show talent in English or American literature. She served as Editor-in-Chief of The Collegian, a student-run arts and literary magazine, and was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Tau Delta, the English honor society. Her writing portfolio includes a collection of poems that focus on God and Christianity, family, dreams, traveling, and the experience of reading other poets. The prize jury noted the “lyricism of her introduction, the intelligence of her work and her love of language.”

Valerie A. “Val” Dunn is a double major inEnglish and drama with a minor in creative writing who came to Washington College from Westminster, Maryland. A member of Phi Beta Kappa, Valerie "Val" Dunn.Valerie "Val" Dunn.Sigma Tau Delta, and the Cater Society of Junior Fellows (an academic enrichment society), she was awarded the Mary Martin Award for Drama, a Jacoby Endowment Grant, the Jude and Miriam Pfister Poetry Prize, the William W. Warner Prize for creative writing on nature and the environment, and a Literary House Genre Fiction Prize. She has worked as a peer consultant in the Writing Center and as the Prose Editor for The Collegian. Her portfolio includes samples of poetry, playwriting, and essays that reinterpret female icons such as Ophelia and the witches of Salem. Her drama capstone thesis, for example, was her original play The Beauteous Majesty of Denmark, which adapted Shakespeare’s Hamlet with a feminist bent. The jury described her writing as “ambitious and rigorous intellectual work that engages with queer and feminist theory. She starts with an intellectual question, a what-if, and then explores the answer.”

Ariel Jicha.Ariel Jicha.Ariel J. Jicha is an English and Art double major from North East, Maryland, who served as a screener for the national literary journal Cherry Tree (published by the College’s Rose O’Neill Literary House), and as a Media Intern for the College yearbook. Her writing portfolio includes a collection of poems, many of which deal with feminism and fairy tales, and an excerpt from her thesis, “Virgins, Mirrors and Killer Queens: A Feminist Revision of the Brothers Grimm.” She paired each poem with one of the digital photographs created as part of her senior capstone experience for art, creating a dialogue between the two. The jury was impressed with how deeply her work connected the verbal with the visual. This fall, Jicha will begin her MFA in poetry at the University of Maryland, where she has been awarded a Teaching Assistantship.

Paige Kube is a biology major from Scottsdale, Arizona, whoPaige Kube.Paige Kube. served as Editor-in-Chief of the student newspaper, The Elm, and worked as a peer writing consultant. She also was selected as a Peer Mentor to help first-year students adjust to college life and was elected into Phi Beta Kappa. Kube is bound for medical school at University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine, and her writing portfolio includes creative nonfiction that used the medical perspective as a way to understand the relationship between the body and personal identify. The jurors praised her “beautiful, lyrical writing about the science of medicine,” and cited a “gorgeous essay” titled “Still Life with Teal Nails,” which was inspired by a friend’s experience dissecting a cadaver for medical school.  

Sydney I. Sznajder, a native of Annapolis, graduated from Washington College in December 2014 with a degree in American Studies and now works as a corporate editor in the Washington, D.C. area. As an undergraduate, she was a member of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows and the history honor society Phi Alpha Sydney Sznajder.Sydney Sznajder.Theta. She interned at the Library of Congress through the Comegys Bight Fellowship Program and stage-managed the Drama Department’s 2014 production of Arcadia, directed by Professor Brendon Fox. Sydney’s portfolio contains poetry, fiction, and nonfiction that is strongly informed by historical and archival research. The committee noted her “wonderful gift for incorporating research into her nonfiction pieces in a creative manner.” 

Alexander Vidiani.Alexander Vidiani.Alexander R. “Alex” Vidiani, is an English major with a minor in creative writing who hails from Baltimore. He served as poetry editor of The Collegian literary magazine, and was recently promoted to senior poetry reader for the national literary journal Cherry Tree, published by the Rose O’Neill Literary House at Washington College. His Sophie Kerr portfolio was filled with elegiac poems centering on themes of fatherhood and the feeling of absence created by various forms of loss. The jury described his work as “beautifully crafted and polished, and tightly edited. His poems were obsessed with not only fatherhood and loss, but also with the way we use language to connect with one another.” This fall, Vidiani will begin his MFA in poetry at University of Maryland, where he has been awarded a Teaching Assistantship. 

Committee chair Moncrief noted that the applicants for this year’s prize represented a number of academic disciplines, including biology, art, drama and American studies. She said the portfolios were remarkably well curated, showing great attention to the selection of materials and the crafting of the introductions. “On the whole, the students proved they had a clear sense of who they are as writers, which is remarkable for young writers at the beginning of their careers. These finalists represent not only Sophie Kerr’s legacy but also the best of what the liberal arts has to offer,” she continued. “They are deeply invested in critical thinking, close reading and effective writing.” 

Read more about the finalists and see excerpts of their work here, on the Rose O’Neill Literary House website.  

The Sophie Kerr Prize event begins at 7:00 p.m. Friday, May 15, in Decker Theatre, Gibson Center for the Arts, on the College campus. Each finalist will read selections from his or her writing, and then Turchi, author of six books and co-editor of three anthologies that explore the writing craft, will open an envelope and announce the winner. For those unable to attend, the entire event will be streamed through the Washington College website. (Find the link for the streaming on the homepage at www.washcoll.edu or go directly to http://bit.ly/sophiekerrlive).   

As stipulated by Kerr’s will, the Prize check itself will be awarded the next day, Saturday, May 16, as part of Washington College’s 232nd Commencement. 

About Sophie Kerr

A native of Denton, Maryland, Sophie Kerr was a successful fiction writer and magazine editor who spent most of her adult life in New York. At her death in 1965, she bequeathed much of her estate to Washington College with the stipulation that half its income would be awarded annually to the senior showing “the most ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor.” The other half of the endowment brings a steady stream of notable writers, authors, and editors to campus for readings and workshops, provides scholarships for students who show literary promise, pays for library books, and supports various other literary activities. Visiting luminaries have included Edward Albee, Jonathan Franzen, Allen Ginsberg, Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Daniel Handler (a.k.a. Lemony Snicket), Colum McCann, Junot Díaz, and Natasha Trethewey.

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