Friday, May 13, 2011

Washington College Names Five Finalists for its Famous Literary Award, the Sophie Kerr Prize

CHESTERTOWN, MD—Washington College has named five finalists for the famous Sophie Kerr Prize, the largest undergraduate literary prize in the nation. The generous cash prize, this year valued at more than $61,000, is believed to be the largest cash prize of any kind being awarded to a college senior this graduation season. The winner will be announced May 17.

The 2011 finalists represent a mix of disciplines—not only English majors and Creative Writing minors, but also majors in Biology, Anthropology and Art. The portfolios they submitted to the Sophie Kerr Committee in late April contained a diverse sampling of writing, too, from poetry and fiction to non-fiction and travel writing. The finalists are:

Maggie Farrell, a 22-year-old Drama major from Hatfield, Pennsylvania. Farrell served as the president of Fakespeare, a comedic Shakespearean troupe, and the student-run Riverside Players. She received the Mary Martin Scholarship, which is awarded to a student majoring in Drama who demonstrates great dedication to any area of the theater arts. Her portfolio includes a collection of short stories about her first job and examples of her work as a playwright. After graduation, she will be apprenticing at the Hedgerow Theatre in Media, Pennsylvania.

Lisa Jones, a 22-year-old from Fork, Maryland, who majored in Anthropology and minored in Creative Writing. Jones achieved distinction as a member of Phi Beta Kappa and was on the Dean’s List every semester of her college career. She also served as a writing center consultant and worked in the Geographic Information Systems Lab. The highlight of her academic career was spending time abroad in Tanzania last spring learning about Maasai culture and volunteering in primary schools. Her portfolio comprises creative non-fiction—including personal essays about her experiences in Tanzania and life growing up in a small town—and a portion of her thesis that focuses on African immigrants in the United States. After finishing her Washington College classes early in December, she put her passion for international development and writing to work as the Grants & Contracts Coordinator at the International Youth Foundation in Baltimore.

Dan McCloskey, a 21-year-old from Ellicott City, Maryland, who majored in English and minored in Spanish and Creative Writing. McCloskey worked for the past year as the editor-in-chief of the College’s magazine of features and creative arts, The Collegian, and also as a technical support assistant at the campus Information Technology Help Desk. His portfolio includes a large section of his creative non-fiction manuscript “LIGHTS,” which focuses on his experiences with a vision deficiency and anxiety disorder. His portfolio also contains poems, other small non-fiction pieces, and two critical essays that examine specific uses of narrative and style in Shakespeare’s work and in modern poetry. He hopes to pursue his MFA with a focus in non-fiction.

Insley Smullen, a 22-year-old student from Frederick, Maryland. Smullen majored in English with a minor in Creative Writing. She was a member of the Writers’ Union, a club for student writers on campus, and worked at the College’s Rose O' Neill Literary House. Her portfolio spans a wide range of genres, from short stories to poetry to creative nonfiction. After graduation, she plans to continue her exploration of the art of writing and photography and find a job that supports what she describes as her “obsession with the written word.”

Joseph L. L. Yates, a 22-year-old double major in Biology and Studio Art who hails from Tampa, Florida. Yates founded and served as President of both the Artists’ Union, a club for students in the visual arts, and the Guerrilla Musical Theatre Troupe, which creates improv song-and-dance performances. He worked as a consultant for the Multimedia Production Center on campus and as a staff writer for the features periodical, The Collegian. His portfolio of writing includes creative nonfiction that addresses both his personal life and contemporary scientific theory, several works of fiction, a smattering of poems, and one “not-quite-children-oriented storybook.” After graduation, Yates hopes to find a job as a writer.

This is the first time in the 44-year history of the prize that the Sophie Kerr Committee, which includes the 13 members of the English Department faculty and the college president, has named finalists. In the past, the name of the single recipient was announced but the names of those who came close remained a secret the committee members vowed not to disclose. As one committee member has commented about the winner-takes-all approach of the past, “One senior walks away from graduation with a check for $64,000, and the student who comes in second never even knows it.”

The naming of finalists is just one of the changes the College is making in announcing and awarding this year’s Prize. For the first time ever, there will be a special reception for the finalists in New York City, where for 40 years Sophie Kerr lived and built her successful career as a national magazine editor and writer. The reception is being held Tuesday, May 17, at 6:30 p.m. at Poets House, a literary center and poetry library on the Hudson River in Lower Manhattan. Internationally prominent author Colum McCann, whose novel Let the Great World Spin won the 2009 National Book Award, will offer keynote remarks and announce the big winner.

At a simultaneous party on the Washington College campus in Chestertown, the local and campus community can watch the announcement live on several big screens. The party will be held in the Casey Academic Forum on campus, 300 Washington Avenue, beginning at 6:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. (For more information, call the alumni office at 410-778-7812.) Those unable to be in New York or Chestertown can watch the ceremony live by streaming the simulcast from a link provided on the College homepage: (

Come May 22, the Sunday of Washington College’s 228th Commencement, the Sophie Kerr Prize, in the form of a check for $61,062.11, will be officially awarded to the winner.


  1. I think this new procedure is a great thing. I am rooting for a certain candidate of course but this is based on the fact I know this stduent, not on the writing.

    What would be especially cool, and I am not sure why we are not doing this, is why don't we post the finalists actual writing samples so everyone can read them?????

  2. WE are so proud of Lisa Jones! She is an example to all students about the importance of writing and to her family, too! I am going to share this with my elementary students tomorrow!
    Writing is about where you've been, what you've done and what you may do! Dreams and vision with a pencil in hand!