For Southwestern University students, good writing can now get them more than just good grades. It also can bring them a chance at a cash prize.  

The university started a new writing competition this year in which each of the school’s four divisions can select one student paper to receive a $1,000 award. Southwestern has received funds from a donor that will enable the contest to be funded for the next three years.  

In the Division of Social Sciences, senior sociology major Kristen McCollum received the 2012 Shearn Writing Award for her paper titled “The Art of Collective Identity: How an Art from the Streets Program Fosters a Sense of Community Among the Homeless.” This same paper won McCollum the 2012 Odum Award for Best Undergraduate Paper by the Southern Sociological Society. The paper was written for her fall 2011 sociology capstone project under the direction of Maria Lowe, professor of sociology.

“We thought (Kristen) chose an ambitious project, and as her clear and descriptive writing conveyed, she found an innovative way to combine existing research on homelessness with her own careful analysis of this program,” said Mellon Writing Fellows Molly Hardy and Tim Turner, who judged the social science papers.  

In the Division of Humanities, senior English and history major Susan Garrard received the award for per paper titled Publishing Dissent: Literary Activism in the Lowell Offering.” The paper was part of her history honors thesis supervised by Melissa Byrnes, assistant professor of history, and was selected from a field of 22 entries.

“I was overwhelmed with the quality of work in all the submissions,” said Elisabeth Piedmont-Marton, an associate professor of English who helped judge the competition for the Division of Humanities. Piedmont-Marton also serves as director of the Debby Ellis Writing Center.

In the Division of Natural Sciences, junior biology and classics major Jenna Gaska won for her paper titled “Mapping the X-linked yellow, white and miniature genes in Drosophila melanogaster.” Gaska wrote the paper for a Genetics class taught by Biology Professor Ben Pierce in fall 2011.

In the Division of Fine Arts, sophomore psychology major Matthew Piehler received the award for his paper titled “Don’t Lose Your Head: An Examination of Tikal and Decapitation.” Piehler wrote the paper for the Art of Mesoamerica class taught by Patrick Hajovsky, assistant professor of art history.

Piehler said he decided to take the class because he enjoyed the First-Year Seminar he had with Hajovsky, which was titled “Visions & Virgins.”  His winning paper was written for an assignment in which students were asked to compare two or more cultural artifacts from Mesoamerica.  

“I knew that Matthew’s paper stood out, and the committee apparently agreed,” Hajovsky said. “His paper, which is on the significance of decapitation to Maya kingship, shows how a good student can take a research project in a brand new field to them and produce a thoughtful and provocative essay.”  

Piehler said the prize money will come in handy since he is trying to pay for almost all of his education himself. “(It) was an incredibly useful − and unexpected − surprise,” he said.


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