CHESTERTOWN, MD—Washington College has announced major changes in the way its famous Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate literary prize in the world, will be awarded this spring. Changes include the first-ever naming of finalists; a special reception for those finalists in New York City, where an internationally prominent novelist will announce the big winner; and a simultaneous party in Chestertown where the local community can watch the announcement live on a big screen.
The excitement begins Friday morning, May 13, when the Sophie Kerr Committee meets in secret to discuss student portfolios and select as many as five finalists for the Prize. The names of the finalists will be announced that day at a 2:30 p.m. press conference for local media.
On Tuesday, May 17, the finalists will meet in New York at an evening reception at Poets House, a literary center on the banks of the Hudson River. The celebration will feature a keynote talk from Colum McCann, winner of the 2009 National Book Award for his novel Let the Great World Spin. McCann, whose book award came with a check for $10,000, will then announce the winner of the Sophie Kerr Prize, this year valued at more than $61,000.
The reception at Poets House will begin at 6:30 p.m. At the same time, Washington College will host a wine and cheese reception in Chestertown, at which the campus and community will watch a simulcast of McCann’s talk and the announcement of the winner in real time on a big screen. The party will be held in the Casey Academic Forum on campus, 300 Washington Avenue, and will be free and open to the public.
Come May 22, the Sunday of Washington College’s 228th Commencement, the Sophie Kerr Prize and a check for $61,062.11 will be officially awarded to the winner.
The members of the Sophie Kerr Committee say the new plan will relieve the stress and emotional angst the prize has caused at past graduations for students and their families. “If you have 30 students who applied, one will be ecstatic when the winner is announced,” says English professor Rich Gillin, interim chair of the Sophie Kerr committee, “but the other 29 are going to leave the last day of college feeling pretty miserable.”
In addition, the selection of finalists and the announcement in New York spreads the glory and gives the finalists a memorable experience in the publishing capital of the world. According to Sophie Kerr’s will, the college cannot disaggregate the prize money, but it can disaggregate the prestige and give more students, as finalists, the chance to add an impressive achievement to their resumes.
“I just think that this can be an enhancement of a wonderful tradition at Washington College,” says President Mitchell Reiss. “It’s a way to benefit more students while showcasing our writing program and our rich literary heritage to a wider audience.”
Photo: Sophie Kerr, whose short stories were published in the major women's magazines of her day, specified that half the income from her generous bequest to Washington College be awarded each year to the graduating senior who showed the most literary ability and promise.