Literary Prize Adds a Pleasing Epilogue to College Career

Emma Sovich, 22, won the Sophie Kerr Prize, worth $67,481.
Emma Sovich, 22, won the Sophie Kerr Prize, worth $67,481. (Charlie Campbell - AP)
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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 19, 2008

The elation of winning one of the nation's largest literary prizes for undergraduate students perhaps can be summed up best by the winner, Emma Sovich, 22, who described the moment in a breathless post-award interview.

"It was amazing. I was sitting in the front row on the aisle, and my friends were all around me," she said. "It was raining on and off, but there was sunshine when we received our diplomas. I knew it was coming, and I was thinking, 'I hope it's someone I know.'

"I was running through names -- it'll be Lindsay, it'll be Riley -- and then I heard my name, and I didn't believe it. I sat there for a few seconds, and someone was telling me to go up there. I tried to remember to smile for the camera."

Sovich did indeed remember to smile as she accepted the Sophie Kerr Prize, worth $67,481, at Washington College's 225th commencement yesterday in Chestertown, Md.

The Baltimore native, an English major who is the eldest of five children, won for her portfolio of poetry, blog entries and essays that examined family, travel and escape. Her blog is called "The Composing Stick" ( and explores "the nuances and gritty realities of old-fashioned printing in a modern world," according to a news release from the college.

"This was an exceptionally talented group of writers representing a healthy diversity of genres and considerable experimentation with those genres," said Prof. Kathryn Moncrief, who chairs the college's English department and the Sophie Kerr Committee.

Speakers at the college's graduation included Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Patty Griffin and David Simon, a former reporter with the Baltimore Sun and creator of the HBO series "The Wire." Each received honorary degrees.

But the celebrity factor could not distract from the anticipation over which senior would receive the Sophie Kerr Prize. The prize is often the talk of the campus in the weeks before commencement.

Sovich, one of 17 students to submit a portfolio, wrote in the introduction to her work, "Upon graduation, I face a new challenge: to balance my artistic nature with the demands of the professional world."

She said the prize will help her immensely in navigating that task.

"It means I can pay off my student loans," she said. "It's going to help me with my plans, but it's not going to change them."

She plans to take a year off to travel and write before going to graduate school. She hopes to earn a master's degree in fine arts.

The prize is named for an early 20th-century journalist and author from Maryland's Eastern Shore. When Kerr died in 1965, she left the bulk of her estate to Washington College, with the stipulation that half of the annual earnings be awarded to a graduating senior "having the best ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor." The amount varies depending on the stock market, and yesterday's prize was one of the biggest.

Kerr wrote 23 novels and more than 100 stories about life on the Eastern Shore.

"I just want to say . . . I did not do this alone," Sovich said. "I did this with the help of my friends and my community of writers and my family." She paused and then added, with a mischievous note in her voice: "I hope they forgive me for writing about them."

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