While adjusting to life on her own as a college student in New York City, Anita Raj received news last month from a former teacher: an essay she wrote last school year was selected as the national winner in the John Estey Student Writing Competition.
The contest includes a prize of $10,000 in scholarships. Teachers are invited to submit entries of any genre from students in third through 12th grade with the prompt, “Give me a song of hope and a world where I can sing it.”
Eastern Regional High School English teacher Susan Pomerantz nominated Raj, who was a senior at the school at the time of her entry.
Honored but shocked, Raj admits she entered the contest with no expectations of winning.
“Eastern has a great English program …” she noted. “The rigorous course work that was set forth for us was a (great) experience. My senior year, my teacher, Mrs. Pomerantz, introduced me to the competition … and helped me pick the piece of writing that I wanted to submit.”
Oddly enough, Raj didn’t initially find out she had won the competition because her parents missed a call from Pomerantz with the news. The teacher eventually emailed Raj, and the situation humored her family.
“Funny enough, my parents didn’t recognize the number and it went to voicemail,” Raj said with a laugh. “I completely forgot I applied and didn’t find out (I won) until late summer.”
Raj is an engineering student at Columbia University who uses her creative writing skills for expression. The piece she submitted was not written specifically with the contest prompt in mind, but was finished a few months before she learned about it. The essay was originally written for the youth magazine Youth for Arts. Raj and Pomerantz reshaped it to fit contest guidelines.
“The essay (I wrote) was about a personal, cultural experience,” Raj explained. “I wrote it in the third person, so it was more relatable for readers who were looking at it. (My) piece was essentially about a grandmother and granddaughter who emigrated … It’s about their experience celebrating an American holiday.
“The social norms (they have to get used to) while wanting to enjoy their new country,” she added of her essay’s broad overview. “But holding onto their roots if very important to them … Their goal is to make a better life here despite how difficult it might be at times.”
Raj is a first-generation immigrant who was born in Voorhees, but both of her parents were in India, as well as both of her grandparents, who were frequent visitors. The college student says that although there was a language barrier between her and her grandmother, the latter is responsible for so much of Raj’s character development into adulthood.
“I wanted to convey (our) story through my writing.”
Raj says she looks forward to sharing the piece with her grandmother, with her father translating when they visit India over the holidays. Raj’s native tongue is Tamil; her family originated from Tamil Nadu.
“I really didn’t think I would win, but when I found I did, I was so extremely grateful,” she enthused. “I was especially grateful to my grandmother for her inspiration.”