Sophie Heads to the Big Apple

By Emily Blackner

Elm Staff Writer

The bright lights and bustling streets of the Big Apple offer many exciting opportunities for visitors. This year, the city will offer one more, as the distribution of Washington College Sophie Kerr Prize is moved to New York City.

“The Sophie Kerr Committee is made up of the English Department and the president of the college, so by Sophie’s will, President Reiss is on the committee,” said Dr. Kathryn Moncrief, Chair of the English Department and of the Sophie Kerr Committee. “He proposed to the Committee the idea of awarding the Sophie Kerr Prize in New York instead of at commencement, that we award it in Manhattan.”

New York City is “the literary center of the country,” said Moncrief. “The college, the students, and the prize will get more attention in New York. We’re taking this to where the writers, editors, publishers, and agents are, to really spotlight the college, the writing culture, and the students in a way that is harder to do in Chestertown.”

In the past, the prize was awarded at commencement. “A big change will be that we will announce three to five finalists who will then go to New York,” Moncrief said. “While the finalists are there they will have the opportunity to meet with publishers and agents.” Student finalists are going to be treated to “an all-expense-paid trip.”

“We’re going to take care of all it- transportation, hotel rooms, everything, Moncrief said.

This new aspect to the prize offers benefits to more students.

“The terms of the will are immutable, so we can only give one prize. It is always so hard to choose one when there are so many talented writers,” Moncrief said. “Now, finalists will also have a little of the spotlight and their work will be honored in this context.”

“Also, being a ‘Sophie Kerr Prize Finalist’ is a great thing to have on your resume. And it is a fantastic opportunity for networking within the literary world, which is so prize-oriented,” she said.

The Sophie Kerr Prize is the largest undergraduate literary prize in the world. In 2009, the winner received a check for $68,814.

“It usually falls somewhere between 60 and 70 thousand dollars,” Moncrief said. For comparison, winners of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award only receive $10,000.

This money comes from a gift left to the college by Sophie Kerr, a prolific twentieth century writer.

“[Kerr] left a gift to the college designating two things, so half [of the available funds] goes to the prize, and the other half to things like scholarships, visiting writers, and new books for the library,” said Moncrief.

The prize is awarded to “the graduating senior who has the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor,” as specified in Sophie Kerr’s will.

So far, the plan has been greeted with enthusiasm.

“I like the idea of moving it. Graduation is about all seniors and their accomplishments, and this is such a large prize that it gets a lot of focus. You have one student who’s obviously thrilled, but then you have forty who are devastated and another 350 who had their ceremony focus so much on this one thing because the prize is so outsized,” said Moncrief.

However, Moncrief does acknowledge that it may take something away from graduation.

“I think it added an element of excitement,” she said. “But this is just one award out of many.”

Precise details about the new plan are not available yet because they are still in the works.

“It’s only been under consideration this semester,” said Moncrief. “Details will be forthcoming. As soon as we have details about how this is going to work I will hold an information session.”

It is also uncertain if this will become a tradition.

“Right now, we’re looking at this on a one year, trial basis,” Moncrief said.

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