Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Washington College Awards Nation's Largest Undergraduate Literary Prize at 226th Commencement

Graduating Senior Wins $68,814

Chestertown, MD — Most college seniors will look back on their graduation ceremony as a day of pomp and circumstance culminating in a handshake and a diploma. For William Bruce, 21, a Washington College English major from Rydal, PA, the ceremony brought another reward: a check for $68,814.

Bruce's prizewinning portfolio—a collection of poems, critical essays and creative nonfiction—earned him the largest literary award in the country exclusively for undergraduates, the Sophie Kerr Prize, presented Sunday, May 17, 2009, during the College's 226th Commencement ceremonies.

The awarding of the Sophie Kerr Prize, given annually to the graduating senior who demonstrates the greatest "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor," has in recent decades been a highlight of the commencement ceremony at the liberal arts college on Maryland's Eastern Shore. This year's Prize—at its highest-ever dollar amount, despite a declining economy—ranks among the largest literary awards in the world.

Bruce was one of 31 students to submit a portfolio for consideration this year, competing in what English Professor Kathryn Moncrief described as a "talented and deep pool of contenders" representing diverse genres. "We saw incredible promise in this year's group," Moncrief said. "We expect many will be successful as writers, scholars, and editors." Moncrief chairs both the English Department at Washington College and the Sophie Kerr Committee, which awards the Prize.

What made Bruce a stand-out, Moncrief said, was his range. Bruce's portfolio included six poems, a critical essay on three contemporary poets, a meditative essay on the Inauguration of Barack Obama, an excerpt from a larger work of creative nonfiction incorporating oral testimony from a survivor of the Rwandan genocide, and a personal essay entitled "Super Team for Jesus."

"He tackled three different genres with equal facility," Moncrief said.

"Will is an extraordinarily promising writer," said Joshua Wolf Shenk, the director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House, and Bruce's instructor in creative non-fiction. "He's able to develop gripping stories, with compelling images, even as he maintains a self-conscious relationship to the construction of narrative. He's an exciting, energetic voice."

Professor Jehanne Dubrow, who taught Bruce in her poetry class, commented on Bruce's "confident and adventurous voice" as well as his "understanding of the ethical responsibilities of the poet." "His poems show the influences of his study," Dubrow said.

Professor Robert Mooney, who advised Bruce on some of his prose projects, called Bruce "a writer who looks at others with empathy and curiosity. He gives a voice to those who are voiceless."

Bruce is a 2005 graduate of Abington Senior High School in Abington, PA.

The Sophie Kerr Prize is the namesake of an Eastern Shore woman who made her fortune in New York writing women's fiction during the 1930s and 1940s. In accordance with the terms of her will, one-half of the annual income from her bequest to the College is awarded each year to the graduating senior demonstrating the best potential for literary achievement. The other half funds scholarships, student publications and the purchase of books, and brings an array of visiting writers, editors and publishers to campus to read, visit classes, and discuss student work. Her gift has provided the nucleus for a thriving community of writers on the bucolic Eastern Shore campus.

Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in historic Chestertown on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782 under the patronage of George Washington, it is the first college chartered in the new nation.

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