College Names Sophie Kerr Finalists


Five Washington College seniors were named on May 15 as finalists for the 2017 Sophie Kerr Prize, the nation’s largest undergraduate literary award. The prize, now in its 50th anniversary year, is worth $65,768.

Sophie Kerr Prize finalists, from left, James Mitchell, Lillian Starr, Catalina Righter, Allison Bellmire and Ryan Manning.

All five will read from their work at an event this Friday, where poet Elizabeth Spires will announce the winner.

Reflecting the multidisciplinary nature of a Washington College education, the finalists are majors in English, chemistry, American studies, and political science, and several minored in creative writing. They represent honors societies and organizations including Phi Beta Kappa and the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, and several work in a variety of college publications including the student newspaper, The Elm, and the student review, The Collegian.

“It is always such a joy reading these portfolios. They reflect the literary ethos and emphasis we place on writing that is the heart and soul of this college,” Professor Kathryn Moncrief, Chair of the English department and Sophie Kerr Curator, said. “These students and their outstanding work show their diverse interests and approaches, as well as their shared passion for the written word.”

Moncrief added, “We are fortunate at Washington College to have so many good writers. The college privileges writing – we’re known as a writing college. It’s not just the English Department, it’s writing across the disciplines, and I think the field this year really reflects that. We named five finalists, but I would commend all the portfolios. It was a very difficult decision to narrow it down to five, we have so many good writers.”

The work submitted for the prize ranges across genre and topic, encompassing essays, poetry, non-fiction, journalism, and print projects. “The finalists address politics, loss, travel, history, and social issues including affirmative action and racism. And they do so with burnished lyricism, surprising use of form, and a mature sense of urgency,” said James Hall, Director of the Rose O’Neill Literary House. “We’re excited and it becomes very difficult to make final decisions because there’s such good work. It’s exciting to see they’re doing such good work across a range of disciplines and genres.”

The finalists are:

Allison Billmire, an English major with a creative writing minor from Cecilton, Md.,  served as an officer for Sigma Tau Delta and editor for The CollegianThe Elm, the Washington College Writing Center, and others. Her portfolio includes work that focuses on running, travel, and other forms of movements in her poetry, prose, and printed projects. She said she was particularly inspired by a semester abroad in Cork, Ireland, where she studied Irish folklore and mythology, and by a visit to the Dodge poetry festival, “where I was exposed to so many poets. They’ve been the inspiration and the goal to get to.” After graduation, she hopes to find an editorial position and adopt an old, fat cat named Falstaff.

Ryan Manning, an English and chemistry double major and creative writing minor, served variously as president of the Writer’s Union and WIGS (the campus gaming club), is a longtime intern to the Rose O’Neill Literary House, and sometime project manager for the Pegasus (the campus’ online yearbook). He is a member of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows and Phi Beta Kappa. His portfolio includes poetry, an essay on two books by Maggie Nelson, one of his favorite authors, and fiction fragments that interrogate and unfold private, emotional moments, examining the intersection of feeling and rhetoric. Other favorite writers include Patrick Rothfuss and Mark Helprin. He lives in the Chestertown area with his mother and younger brother and is pursuing a career in editing and publications design.

James P. Mitchell, a 21-year-old American Studies major and political science minor from Lititz, Pa., led the chapters of the college Republicans and Alexander Hamilton Society, served on the college Honor Board, and worked in the Writing Center and Office of Academic Skills. He is a member of the Cater Society of Junior Fellows, Omicron Delta Kappa, Pi Sigma Alpha, Phi Alpha Theta, and Pi Lambda Theta. He has worked with the Institute for Religion, Politics, and Culture as a student fellow. During his junior year, Mitchell was named the Frederick Douglass Student Fellow by the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience. During the summer of 2016, he was recognized by the American Enterprise Institute as a student in the summer honors program. His portfolio includes pieces that draw from political science and history and reflect the demands of a plural society and how to encourage diversity. A student dedicated to liberal education, he was elected to Phi Beta Kappa in 2017, and this fall he will continue his education as a graduate student at the University of Chicago. He said he was especially influenced by writers at the New York Times and Washington Post, notably David Brooks and Charles Krauthammer, and by Jeffrey Toobin at the New Yorker.

Catalina Righter, an English major and creative writing minor from Manchester, Md., submitted a portfolio composed of her journalistic work, a travel essay on a visit to New Orleans, and poetry. She served as editor-in-chief of The Elm and a poetry screener for Cherry Tree. She said she valued her membership in Phi Beta Kappa, Sigma Tau Delta, and the Cater Society of Junior Fellows. Righter said she was encouraged to attend Washington College by a high school writing teacher, who knew of the college’s emphasis on writing. Among her favorite writers are poets Anne Carson and Louise Glick and novelists Karen Russell and Tana French.

Lillian Starr is an English major from Cecil County, Maryland. During her time at Washington College, she served as editor-in-chief of the school’s student-run literary magazine The Collegian. Her portfolio “is entirely poems, condensed lyrics,” written over the past two years, centering around intimacy, she said. Among her influences she named Gregory Orr and Kaveh Akbar, “who inspired me to take more formal risks.” She said her leisure reading is primarily poetry and lyrical essays. After graduation, Starr will pursue an MFA in poetry at Florida International University in Miami.

The finalists’ reading and the announcement of the winner begins at 7 p.m. in Hotchkiss Recital Hall in the Gibson Center for the Arts and is free and open to the public. It will also be live-streamed at

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