With a double major in English and communications, senior Lauryl Fischer finds every chance she can to write. But when she decided to enter the 17th annual Philip L. Carret Endowment Thomas Jefferson Essay Contest this spring, she had no idea that she could — and would — win.
“I’m a creative writer, so I took [Professor of English Cassie Kircher’s] non-fiction essay class and wrote essays all semester, and in my creative writing classes I also continued to write non-fiction,” Fischer said. “I also had a blog when I went abroad that I wrote on. I write very creative pieces still, because that’s what I like to do.”
With plenty of writing experience, Fischer was up for the essay contest, which was started by Philip L. Carret, an investor and founder of the Pioneer Fund, a global investment firm.
“He both loved Thomas Jefferson and he visited and fell in love with Elon [University], and then the next year he gave Elon money for an essay contest, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Kircher, coordinator of the essay contest.
Every year, a panel of faculty members craft an essay prompt revolving around one of the many facets of Jefferson’s life. This year the prompt asked students to compare a text from Jefferson with “Why We Can’t Wait” by Martin Luther King Jr., the Common Reading required for all freshman students this past fall.
Fischer’s essay was titled “The Changing Rhetoric of Revolution: Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King Jr., Michael Brown and Black Lives Matter.” Instead of solely focusing on “Why We Can’t Wait,” she decided to take a more narrow focus.
“I chose the ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and then I took Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, and I compared their rhetoric and talked about how they both approached the topic of revolution, and in light of their revolutions, what we can learn,” Fischer said. “Going into our current-day revolution, which I said was the Black Lives Matter movement, [we] used to talk about these things in a more relevant context.”
For Fischer, entering this contest seemed like a good opportunity for her to continue her writing. Even if she didn’t win, it would still be a creative outlet.
“This year when the contest came up, I knew about [Lauryl’s] interest in writing and publishing, and I just saw her as a great fit for the contest,” Kircher said. “I met her informally and I was just talking to her and it occurred to me that she might want to enter, and she just ran with it.”
Knowing only the basics from her school’s history lessons, Fischer knew she had a lot of research ahead of her before she could even begin the writing process. So at the beginning of Spring Break, she read “Why We Can’t Wait” and started compiling research about Jefferson.
The idea that Fisher had nothing to lose also helped push her to finish the essay.
“There’s a saying, ‘People regret the things they don’t do,’ so I had a Saturday that was basically free,” Fischer said. “I was interested in the topic. I had already done this reading for it. So why not enter at that point? I had no idea what was going to happen. I didn’t think I was going to win, but I did win.”
Every student who entered the essay contest was invited to a dinner on April 13, where the awards were presented. When Fischer realized her essay had won, she said it was a “crazy” moment.
“When [Kircher] announced the third and second place winners, and when I didn’t win those, I was like, ‘OK, I didn’t win, and it’s fine,’” Fischer said. “I was kind of preparing myself for that disappointment, and then she started reading my essay, and I was just honestly shocked.”
For winning, Fischer will receive $1,000 as well as an all-expenses-paid trip to Jefferson’s home of Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia, with a tour based on her interests.
“I think the biggest prize is that Lauryl gets to carry this award with her out into the world,” Kircher said. “It gives students confidence to have it — and a line on their resume is probably worth as much as $1,000 — but I think it’s the confidence that they can write something that people pay attention to, something that’s archived in the Belk Library.”
On top of winning a cash prize, she gained the assurance as a writer to try new things.
“Most of my creative work has always been for myself or for the classroom,” Fischer said. “I’ve never really pursued those opportunities, but now that I’m a senior, those opportunities are becoming more visible to me. I’m more confident because of my classes and because of teachers like Cassie, in my abilities that I can enter those contests — or that I should at least try.”