Sunday, May 16, 2010

Washington College Answers the $64,000 Question: Who Wins the Nation's Largest Undergraduate Literary Prize?

22-Year-Old English major from Delaware takes home coveted award

CHESTERTOWN, MD—At a time when many college graduates must worry about limited job prospects in a recession-stalled economy, one talented senior at Washington College walked off the commencement stage with her diploma and a check worth $64,243. Hailey Reissman, a 22-year-old English major from Wilmington, DE, was named the winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize at the College's 227th commencement ceremony Sunday morning, May 16.

The largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation, the Sophie Kerr is awarded annually to the Washington College senior who demonstrates the greatest "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor."

Reissman had impressed faculty from the day she arrived on campus from Thomas McKean High School in Wilmington. She produced everything from critical essays and scholarly work to poetry and non-fiction with an ease and elegance unusual for her age. "She doesn't have a weak area," sums up English Department Chair Kate Moncrief, who heads the 12-member committee that selects the prizewinner. "She writes with a sophisticated voice but also with great humor."

For four decades, the announcement of the prizewinner—whose name is a closely guarded secret until that moment—has been a highlight of commencement at Washington College. This year it followed an address by broadcast and print journalist John Harwood and the awarding of honorary degrees to Harwood and Richard Meserve, chair of the Carnegie Institution and former chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Reissman's was one of 24 portfolios submitted to the prize committee. Moncrief, whose committee consists of the English faculty and the college president, says this year saw an "incredibly strong top tier, with a handful of students who definitely could have won it in any other year."

Reissman, a member of Phi Beta Kappa who minored in Creative Writing, submitted a diverse portfolio that included academic writing, poems, fiction and creative non-fiction. The subjects of her creative work include family scenes, the literary life, and the frustrations of dealing with physical disability. In her introductory remarks to the Committee, she summed up her growth as a writer during her years at Washington College this way: "I have had the chance to explore and tackle and then tackle again the subjects that accost me over and again: writing, language, transformation, youth, the disabled body, the 'other,' nature, the mind vs. the body, sense, and perception."

Poet Jehanne Dubrow, the professor who advised Reissman on her "Senior Capstone" examination and paper, describes the Sophie Kerr winner as "a voracious reader, the kind of aspiring writer who understands that finding her own voice begins with reading, reading, and reading. In the classroom, she is the student whose quirky, imaginative observations always lead to ah-ha moments." She is extremely modest and "her own harshest critic," Dubrow adds. "She is constantly questioning her own writing, asking her poems and essays, 'Are you good enough?' "

Mark Nowak, the director of the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College, was struck by the "fully developed voice" in such a young writer. "She is wildly creative," he says, "and an exceptional talent whose writing electrifies everyone who reads it. She's destined for great things."

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. Her generosity has provided the nucleus for a thriving community of writers on the Washington College campus. In accordance with the terms of Kerr's will, one-half of the annual income from her bequest is awarded each year to the graduating senior demonstrating the best potential for literary achievement.

The other half funds scholarships, buys books, supports student publications and brings an array of visiting writers and editors to campus to read, visit classes, and discuss student work. Past Sophie Kerr guests have included Katherine Anne Porter, James Dickey, Edward Albee, William Styron, Mary Karr, Ted Kooser, Jane Smiley, and, most recently, Daniel Handler, a.k.a Lemony Snicket.

Washington College is a private, independent college of liberal arts and sciences located in the heart of historic Chestertown, near the Chester River on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Founded in 1782, it was the first college chartered in the new nation. For more information, visit

Photos by Matthew Spangler, top to bottom:

Hailey Reissman, winner of the 2010 Sophie Kerr Prize; all smiles after learning the news; posing with adviser Jehanne Dubrow; receiving the Prize from President Tipson; showing her surprise at winning the largest literary prize in the nation.

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