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Finding their muse

Eric Weintraub, a senior majoring in narrative studies at USC Dornsife, accepts his first-place prize from Michael Quick, executive vice provost and professor of biological sciences. (Photo/Heather Cartagena)

Senior Eric Weintraub was floored when he was announced as the first-place winner for his short story “La Laguna” at USC’s 2013 Undergraduate Writers’ Conference.

Every year since he was a freshman, Weintraub, who is majoring in narrative studies at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, has submitted his writing in the contest. This year, not only did he place, but he also came in first in the creative writing category.

“It was surreal,” he said, “and very exciting.”

Weintraub was among approximately 300 USC students from 15 schools and 76 majors who participated in the writing conference, held at the Ronald Tutor Campus Center on April 2. In all, 25 students were honored at the event. A first- and second-place winner and two honorable mentions were selected from four categories: analytical, research, professional writing/moral reasoning, and creative writing. First-place winners in each category won $1,000, and second-place winners received $500.

The annual conference, co-sponsored by the USC Office of Undergraduate Programs and USC Dornsife’s Writing Program, is a celebration of student writers and their writing at USC. All undergraduates are invited to participate; their admission ticket to the event is a submission of their original written work.

Also at the conference, awards were presented for essays in contests sponsored by the Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics, housed in USC Dornsife, and the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, housed in the USC Price School of Public Policy.

The Levan Institute’s essay contest recognized the best papers that explored a current ethical issue or analyses of recent ethics violations in a professional field. For the Schwarzenegger Institute contest, each entry proposed a real-world solution to a serious policy challenge that would improve the lives of people and communities.

Weintraub’s “La Laguna” tells the tale of Hector, a former champion swimmer who escapes from Mexico to the United States to avoid the dangerous drug cartels in his hometown of San Juan Atenco, Puebla. Hector’s aspirations of achieving the American dream, however, are quickly tempered by the reality of living in the country as an undocumented immigrant with little pay and opportunity for upward mobility.

The idea for the story bloomed when Weintraub took Jody Agius Vallejo’s sociology class “Immigrant America,” which examines the immigrant experience from migration to social integration. Learning about the hardships immigrants encounter as they make their new lives in the United States resonated with him.

The theme of ethnic struggle cropped up again when Weintraub traveled to the Czech Republic and Germany through an overseas studies program. He visited the Auschwitz death camp in Poland and a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany. The experience was profound.

It occurred to him that the stories of what was happening to Jews during the time emerged after the horrors were over — after World War II.

“I remember thinking, this is so horrible, no one really knew exactly what happened during the Holocaust until it was already over,” he said.

Weintraub was inspired to take action; he decided that he needed to shed light on the experiences of undocumented immigrants in the United States now, while it was still ongoing. And he would do this through a series of short stories for his senior thesis.

“While it’s not on the scale of genocide or the Holocaust, immigration and customs officers in the U.S. are breaking into people’s homes and tearing families apart, sending people back across the border,” he said. “Rather than become an activist, I could express this injustice in another way. I could do what I really love — I could write about it.”

With funding from the Summer Undergraduate Research Fund, Weintraub traveled to Arizona to learn more about how immigrants were being treated there. He interviewed people from a number of immigrants’ rights groups as well as opposing sides, such as Joe Arpaio, a five-time elected sheriff of Maricopa County and well-known advocate for strict immigration law enforcement. From those interviews, he produced a series of short stories, which included “La Laguna.”

“Winning this competition taught me that hard work and persistence pay off,” Weintraub said, adding that he hopes to publish his senior thesis stories as a collection of short fictional works.

This year’s writing conference began with an hour-long discussion in which participants broke into small groups to talk about their writing submissions. Producer and television screenwriter Tim Hobert, whose credits include Scrubs and Spin City, delivered the keynote address, which was followed by a banquet dinner and awards ceremony.

“This conference is a way to reward students for the great writing they do on a daily basis,” said Norah Ashe-McNalley, associate professor for the Writing Program and a conference leader. “We want students to know that their work matters, and that there is an intrinsic reward for intellectual engagement.”

Vellore Adithi called the conference “an amazing experience,” particularly the exchange of ideas that took place during the discussion groups.

Adithi, a senior with a double major in anthropology and linguistics, and a minor in gender studies at USC Dornsife, won first place in the professional writing/moral reasoning category. She wrote her essay — which explored problems that arise in humanitarian work — during a study abroad course on global development in Edinburgh, Scotland.

“It was great to have access to my peers in all sorts of disciplines, doing all different types of writing, in one place,” Adithi said, highlighting how she enjoyed hearing about the different writing processes. “The strategies we use to get to the endpoint were so completely different for each writer.”

Below is a full list of this year’s award winners:

Analytical Essay

First place: Adam Phillips, “Neon Cowboy: A Brief History and Analysis of the Man With No Name as Seen in Hammett, Kurosawa, Leone, and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Film, Drive

Second place: Amanda Griffiths, “Ends and Meanings: ‘Si Guarda al Fine’ and Machiavellian Virtue”

Honorable mention: Nichole Delaura, “Countercultural Noir”

Researched Essay

First place: Roza Petrosyan, “Voiceless Heroes: Female Resistance During the Armenian Genocide”

Second place: Jordan Nowaskie, “Post-Porn Culture: The Effects of Sexual Media on Social Relationships, Identities and Desire”

Honorable mention: Kelsey Bradshaw, Jason Finkelstein and Nicholas Kosturos, “The 16 Years Crisis: Security, Geopolitics and Conflict in the Arctic”

Honorable mention: Evan Cohen and Nithya Kubendran, “Hemodynamic Pressure Sensors as a Diagnostic Tool in Physiological Monitoring”

Professional Writing/Moral Reasoning

First place: Vellore Adithi, “Beyond Victimhood, Relief and Bare Life: Assessing the Pitfalls and Perils of Humanitarianism in Global Development”

Second place: Maheen Sahoo, “Kant and Hume: A Tale of Two Philosophers”

Honorable mention: Emily Holmes, “Commodifying Humanity: The Ethics of an Open Market for Human Organs”

Creative Work

First place: Eric Weintraub, “La Laguna”

Second place: Sean Fitz-Gerald, “The Boogeymen”

Honorable mention: Hayden Bennett, “Furniture Music”

Honorable mention: James (August) Luhrs, “Margaret”

USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy

First place: Ambrose Soehn, “Why Providing Every Student a Quality Musical Education Makes So Much Sense”

Second place: Kim Vu, “Learning to Choose — Who Decides and How to Decide About Advance Directives”

Honorable mention: Nahel Kapadia, “Palliative Care: An Alternative to Physician-Assisted Suicide”

USC Levan Institute for Humanities and Ethics Essay Contest

Global Ethics

Francesca Bessey, “Free To Die: The Sexist Paradox of Women’s Suicide Terror”

Social Justice

Candice Tardif, “Allergic Inmates: Unheard and Unsafe”

Personal Ethics

Paige Sorrentino, “Dante’s Inferno — Canto 12.5”

Professional Ethics

Uriel Kim, “No More Pointing Fingers: Science and Regulation Needed for Fingerprinting’s Future”

Overall Winner

Marissa Roy, “The UN’s 8 Millenium Development Goals and the Legal Status of Distributive Justice”

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Finding their muse

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