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SLC Undergraduate Writing Contest spotlights undergraduate writing excellence

Austyn won first place in the 2019 writing contest, Lower Division. See what they have to say about the experience!
Published by Julia Lane

Now in its fourth year, the Student Learning Commons (SLC)’s Undergraduate Writing Contest celebrates the writing achievements of SFU undergraduate students.

This year’s contest opens for submissions on November 30, 2020. Undergraduate students from all disciplines are warmly invited to submit a paper written for an SFU undergraduate course during the 2020 calendar year. Papers can be revised from the original class submissions, especially to incorporate feedback from Professors and/or TAs and to ensure that they meet the contest’s word count criteria (1,250-2,500 words).

Three cash prizes are available in each contest category (Lower and Upper Division): $200 for first prize, $150 for second prize, and $100 for third prize.

We asked last year’s Lower Division contest winner, Austyn Johnson, major in communication and sociology, what motivated them to enter the contest: “I stumbled across a post advertising the contest on an SFU social media account I follow, and it sounded interesting. I write tons of papers every semester, so the opportunity to use one of them outside my course was exciting! Also-- the prize was a big factor: $200 for work I've already done with no real downside? It's a no-brainer. I'm also really passionate about making writing accessible, and I was hoping to prove that a paper can be both high quality and easy to comprehend.”

Austyn’s paper “Medicinal, Cultural, and Spiritual Relationships between British Columbia First Nations and Oplopanax horridus,” originally written for the course Ethnobotany of British Columbia First Nations, won first prize in the 2019 Lower Division category. Austyn shared that this course was outside of their comfort zone. “Among my friends, I'm famously bad at identifying and naming plants or flowers,” they said. “Before I wrote the paper, I knew basically nothing about ethnobotany or the plant the paper is about (Devil's club) itself. Actually, I didn't even know it existed since I'm from the prairies. That's where the interest comes from; I love delving deep into a topic I know little about. When it came time to research and write this project, I fully immersed myself in every bit of media I could find on the plant. I spent hours in the library reading about different First Nations traditional medicines, Indigenous project ethics, and Western health science publications. Honestly, I just tried to get as much enjoyment out of the research as I could.” 

Austyn’s comments about the value of the contest for increasing the impact of course writing assessments are echoed by Dr. Clare McGovern, a professor of political science and former contest judge. Dr. McGovern regularly encourages students in her classes to participate in the contest. She shared how it has benefitted both her students and her teaching: “The Writing Contest energizes my students to start planning their research projects. They know that someone besides their own professor will read their work, so they start thinking how to explain their work outside the discipline. We use this in class to talk about their contribution to knowledge: how will Canadians benefit from their research?”

SLC Writing Services Coordinator Julia Lane is a member of the writing contest planning team. “Students can sometimes feel shy or unsure about entering the contest,” she said, “because we all feel vulnerable about our writing and worry that it isn’t ‘good enough.’ This is where faculty members and teaching assistants can make all the difference. Sometimes a simple email of encouragement can help provide the needed confidence boost for a student to submit their essay to the contest.”

All contest winners and papers that receive an honourable mention from the judges are published in an open journal, showcasing the excellence of undergraduate academic writing at SFU. These examples of strong undergraduate writing can also be used as classroom resources.

The SLC warmly encourages submissions from students for whom English is an additional language; submissions that make use of Indigenous style (as described in Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style); and submissions that take a creative approach to academic writing. 

Austyn offered encouragement to students who are excited by the contest but unsure about submitting: “Just give it a go! You don't have anything to lose, and I think it’s really motivating to be proud of your coursework. This contest definitely boosted my confidence!”

Students can always book a consultation with the SLC’s Writing and Learning Peers to help revise a paper. Austyn Johnson is even one of those Writing and Learning Peers! Schedule a consultation with them today, and submit before January 3rd 2021