Announcing the winners of the Dean James E. McLeod First-Year Writing Prize

The prize committee received a record number of submissions for this year's award, which recognizes outstanding research that explores an aspect of race, gender, and/or identity.

The 2019–20 school year may not have ended how anyone expected, but one constant remained: like every year since 2013, the Dean James E. McLeod First-Year Writing Prize was awarded to recognize excellence in first-year writing. The prize, which welcomes submissions from first-year students across Washington University, is awarded for outstanding research that explores an aspect of race, gender, and/or identity. This year’s award recipients consisted of two overall winners, two honorable mentions, and nine semifinalists. The committee received over 140 entries this year, an unprecedented number and enormous jump from recent years, when the average number of entries hovered around 50.


“Most impressive this year was not only the number of entries, but the quality of them,” said the McLeod Prize committee co-chairs, Deanna Benjamin, assistant dean in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Aileen Waters, lecturer in the College Writing Program. “Many of the submissions this year were of such a high caliber that the committee was faced with difficult decisions and had to pass on substantively and formally strong work.”

Overall winners were Jewel Evans, a student in the College of Arts & Sciences, and Zoe Levin, a student in the McKelvey School of Engineering. The winning essays can be read in the inaugural issue of Remake, a new literary and art magazine of first-year student work.

Evans, who is majoring Anthropology: Global Health and Environment, chose to explore the topic of the commodification of diversity in higher education institutions, a practice she describes as when institutions “use students of color or their experiences as a way of promoting themselves financially or within a social hierarchy, but ignore the actual needs and personalities of those students since they are being reduced to simply economic value.” Evans felt that the topic “was important to explore especially because [she] can personally connect to it.”

For Benjamin and Waters, Evans’ essay exemplified what made this year’s winners so notable. “The essays that really stood out to us weren't just about issues related to race, gender, and/or identity — they critically engaged with those categories, asking us to see them in new and timely ways,” they said.

As part of her research process, Evans conducted a survey of her fellow WashU students. Using the survey responses, she incorporated first-hand accounts of students’ experiences on campus into her essay, including her own. Most importantly, “I was able to have my voice heard throughout the piece,” she said.

“Winning the McLeod First-Year Writing Prize is such an honor for me,” said Evans. “I am also grateful for the opportunity for research on topics considering race and identity to be recognized on a greater scale.”



Jewel Evans: “Commodifying Diversity: The Danger of Racial Capitalism on Student Growth in Higher Education”

Zoe Levin: “Cool Kids, Camp, and Keeping Calm: Taylor Swift’s Attempt to Address Homophobia”


Honorable Mentions

Ronelle Williams: “Lives on the Line: The Historical, Present, and Future Implications of Racial Disparities in Health Care”

Richard Xie: “Campus Diversity: Chinese International Students and American Exceptionalism”



Lexy Courneya, Ben Hirsch, Gabriela Martinez, Haley Rhodes, Sarah Rider, Alex Rubin, Tara Samson-Williams, Laura Wang, and Jamie Xu