Ward Prize Honors First-Year Writing


Caroline Snell ’19 won the Ward Prize for her essay on power and petroleum in Asia.

By YVETTE YINUO SHI, Arts & Sciences Editor

On Friday, Oct. 7, the 39th presentation of the Paul Ward ’25 Memorial Prize acknowledged student members of the Class of 2019 who have produced outstanding essays for their first-year writing classes. Over half of the 50 nominated students and their families gathered in the Twilight Auditorium in the afternoon for the hour-long celebration hosted by Mary Ellen Bertolini, Director of the Writing Center.

The Paul W. Ward ’25 Memorial Prize in Writing was established by Paul Ward’s widow, Dorothy Cate Ward ’28 in 1978. For 38 years, the competition has honored excellent writings by students in their first year at Middlebury College across all academic divisions. As a journalist and diplomatic reporter, Paul Ward valued “precise and exact usage of words, exact meanings, phrases expressed lucidly and gracefully,” as put by Mrs. Ward.

Students’ essays are nominated by faculty annually and evaluated by an interdisciplinary panel of judges.

“We are impressed this year, that among the nominees and winners are students for whom English is just one of the many languages they speak,” Bertolini said in her welcome speech. “And we are impressed at the range of interest that your writing represents.”

Among the nominees’ work were personal narratives, critical arguments, creative works and research papers from various departments.

The honorable mention awards went to Gemma Laurence ’19.5 for “The Morality of Happiness: A Comparison of Aristotelian and Kantian Ethics,” Sarah Rittgers ’19 for “Nationalism and the Collapse of the Soviet Union,” Leo Stevenson ’19.5 for “Natural Environments and Human Cognition” and Kevin Zhang ’19.5 for “Natural Selection for E. coli Resistant to Triclosan and its Effect on Developing Cross Resistance to Therapeutic Antibiotics.”

A mere glimpse of the titles of their work gives a sense of how diverse the topics are. Nominating faculty members presented the certificates, and spoke of the students’ work, highlighting how across different areas of academic study, the awarded essays showed the students’ excellent writing skills of formulating effective and lucid communication.

During the presentations of the two runner-up awards and the first-place award, the audience had the chance to listen to the student recipients read excerpts from their winning essays. Each recipients of the runner-up prize received $250 .

Abbie Hinchman ’19 was awarded the runner-up prize for her paper “The Geography of Occupation: Examining the Use of Location in Out of It,” an essay for her first-year seminar on post-colonial literature.

Sarah Yang ’19.5 won the other runner-up prize for her essay “Space Control in the Soviet Union.” The paper fulfilled the task of applying a Marxist concept to a concrete historical example, assigned by Assistant Professor of Spanish Irina Feldman in her seminar Introduction to Marxism. “I barely corrected it,” said Feldman afterwards, commenting on the Yang’s use of precise and elegant language.

The first-place prize, along with a $500 award, was presented to Caroline Snell ’19, for her essay “Mastery at Any Cost: The Dominance and Damning of Standard Oil”, which she wrote for her first-year seminar Power and Petroleum in Asia taught by Assistant Professor of History Maggie Clinton. Notably, the winning essay was Snell’s very first paper for that class, which showed her talents in writing and her ability to follow guidelines even before coming to college.

According to Professor Clinton, the paper topic was not easy, as it asked students to analyze how the rise of kerosene changed the 19th century, drawing from three challenging books.

“Caroline more than rose to the occasion,” Clinton said, adding that the paper “meticulously captures the nuances of historical change.” 

Professor Clinton was optimistic that Snell’s talents will bring her more success.

“If she could write beautifully about kerosene, she could write beautifully about anything,” she said.

Each year, the nominees for the Ward Prize are invited by the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Research to train as peer writing tutors.

“We hope you talented writers of the Class of 2019 will share your gifts with incoming classes,” Bertolini said.

Indeed, the students nominated did gain valuable insights through producing these outstanding essays. For Zhang, recipient of honorable mention prize, taking the time to revise was essential.

“Even though it takes time, it is not until I start editing my work when my ideas and arguments truly become a lot more clear and concise,” Zhang said.

As a couple nominating professors mentioned how the prize recipients were active and considerate contributors to class discussion, talking about ideas seems to be equally important. Shan Zeng ’19, one of the nominees, said that speaking to professors and students about her essay was especially helpful.

“When you are forced to present an idea to someone else, you have to clarify it so that other people understand,” Zeng said. “It’s a very effective way to organize the complicated information.”

On the Friday just before this year’s Fall Family Weekend, many of the award nominees’ families were there to celebrate “some of the best 18- and 19-year-old writers in the country,” as Bertolini put it.

She especially expressed gratitude to the family members, stating, “They were there on the spot to recognize and encourage your very first words from the time you were toddlers, posting your accomplishments on Facebook and refrigerator doors.”

On behalf of the faculty, Bertolini also emphasized the College’s vision of writing in a liberal arts education.

“It is our commitment to encourage you to use writing as part of your own life-long learning process, and thus to make a difference in the world,” she said.