‘We see Jimmy in each of you’
In a heartfelt celebration of writers and their mentors, six undergraduate students from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences’ Department of English were lauded for their accomplishments in the arts at the third annual Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award ceremony this month.
Recognizing outstanding seniors in the English department who have demonstrated a commitment to the arts, the Jimmy Award is named for Jimmy Gauntt, a USC Dornsife alumnus who graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s in English. Gauntt was just 24 when he was struck by a car and killed in the summer of 2008. The award, which includes a $500 prize, was created in his honor by David Román, Gauntt’s mentor and friend.
“It is an incredibly brave and bold move to announce oneself a poet or a writer,” said Román, professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at USC Dornsife. “As professors, it’s our job to let students know we value what they do.”
Román chose to honor the legacy of his former student, who was a poet, playwright and screenwriter, by acknowledging the work of up-and-coming writers and scholars.
“This award honors those students who, like Jimmy, invest in the world of ideas,” he said. “These are creative and intelligent young people whose commitment to the literary, visual and performing arts inspires those around them.”
The 2012 Jimmy Award recipients and their professor nominators include Sydni Chiles and Román; Julia Cooperman and professor Kate Flint; Aishlin Cortell and professor Tania Modleski; Andrew Ramirez and professor Dana Johnson; Diana Vaden and professor Michelle Gordon; and Billy Youngblood and professor Mark Irwin.
Over dinner at Reservoir restaurant in Silver Lake, where Román first announced to a group of friends in 2009 that he would launch the annual award, the awardees and their professors shared their academic and personal journeys as writers at USC.
“You don’t know this,” Gordon confided to Vaden and the audience, “but I have waited four years for you to graduate so that I could nominate you for this award.”
Gordon, an assistant professor of English and gender studies, met Vaden four years ago, when the then-freshman enrolled in the first class Gordon taught at USC Dornsife.
As a writer, dancer and actor, Vaden embodies a commitment to the arts and the arts communities, Gordon said. “I just knew that she was exactly the kind of student that this award was about.”
Ramirez, also met his mentor, Johnson, an associate English professor at USC Dornsife, during his freshman year. Meeting Johnson was “refreshing,” Ramirez recalled.
“Like someone had opened the refrigerator door. Like an instant cooling sensation,” he said. “I had never felt more comfortable doing something as sticky and [as] confusing as creative writing. After four years of being at USC, I feel like I have my people now … I have a community.”
In introducing Cooperman, Flint, provost professor of English and art history, acknowledged that she intellectually benefitted from the relationship with her mentee.
“Julia writes fabulously,” Flint said. “She is somebody who can turn a sentence to make you really rethink and re-examine a text that you thought you knew pretty well. I certainly learned from her about novels that I considered myself to be very familiar with.”
Gauntt’s parents, Hilary and Casey, also attended the award ceremony. Casey Gauntt told the students how proud he was of them.
“We see Jimmy in each of you,” he said in his closing comments to the small group. “You’ve found your passion, you’ve found your purpose and hopefully this will just be more fuel to do unbelievably greater things than you’ve already done.”
He added: “As I listen here tonight, I’m just thinking: Jimmy is loving this!”
For Román, the annual ceremony was an opportunity to shine a light on the importance of the student-professor relationship. On top of issuing grades to students, there’s a more subtle mentorship that takes place during office hours, over emails or in the hallways that makes a deeper impression, Román said.
“With this event, students can get a full sense of their impact on professors and get a full sense of their talents,” Román said. “What we want to do here is put a spotlight on the exchange between a faculty member and a student that’s about providing the student an opportunity to become whoever he or she sets out to be in the world.”