Celebrating 10 years of Thomas Wolfe Scholarship at UNC

Andrew Chan

Studying Mandarin in Taipei to broaden research on Chinese-language cinema. Writing a full-length book of poetry. Pursuing a Ph.D. in English literature at Harvard University. These are just a few of the pursuits Carolina’s Thomas Wolfe Scholars have been up to since they graduated.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Creative Writing-based scholarship program, which was established in 2001 in the College of Arts and Sciences with a $2 million gift from Frank Borden Hanes Sr. ’42 of Winston-Salem, a novelist, poet, retired journalist, and founder of the Arts and Sciences Foundation. The scholarship honors Carolina alumnus Thomas Wolfe ’20, best known for his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel. The award winners, who receive a full, four-year scholarship to UNC, are chosen based on artistic merit, and exceptional literary ability and promise.

“The Creative Writing Program has remained exclusively and robustly for undergraduates, and placing this grand scholarship for undergraduate support in our unit was the desire and decision of Frank Hanes,” said Bland Simpson, Kenan Distinguished Professor of English and Creative Writing and co-director of the scholarship program. “The Thomas Wolfe Scholarship has helped bring increasing national attention to the program ever since.”

UNC will welcome its newest and 11th Thomas Wolfe Scholar, Anna K. Faison, this fall. (See related story here.)

Life has certainly not been dull for Thomas Wolfe Scholarship winner Andrew Chan since he graduated in 2008. He pursued a master’s degree in cinema studies at New York University, spending two years in the city doing film criticism. He then earned a Blakemore Freeman Fellowship for intensive Mandarin-language study in Taipei, which will broaden his ability to conduct research on Chinese-language cinema.

Chan said one of the challenges he faced as an undergraduate studying creative writing at UNC was deciding what form his passion for the written word would take in the future. He said a heightened awareness of diction, syntax and tone that he learned about in his poetry classes helped him develop in all forms of writing, including arts criticism.

“I learned a great deal about the history of literature as an English major at UNC, but it was in my creative writing classes that I became an avid listener of and apprentice to the unique music of the English language,” Chan said. “It’s hard to assess one’s growth as a writer, but I know I underwent profound changes as a reader: my intimate contact with poetry over four years, and the sense of community I experienced around my education in this art form, have enriched my life in ways I cannot describe.”

Poet Caitlin Doyle ’06 was the first Thomas Wolfe Scholarship winner, and she went on to receive her MFA in poetry from Boston University. Doyle’s poem “Thirteen” appeared in Best New Poets 2009, and book reviewer Erik Richardson called the poem “a remarkable combination of ideas and wordplay around the transformations to a girl in her thirteenth year that it is like a socks-on-carpet spark to the brain.”

She served as the 2008-2009 writer-in-residence at St. Albans School in Washington, D.C., and has traveled widely as the recipient of poetry fellowships at artists’ residencies around the country. Her awards include multiple Pushcart Prize nominations, the Amy Award through Poets & Writers magazine and the Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Poetry. She lives in Long Island, N.Y., and is developing her first book-length poetry manuscript.

Doyle said she will never forget when she received the phone call from the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship committee offering her the award.

“I could hardly believe that a program of this kind existed, offering an emerging writer a full-tuition scholarship package similar to that of a star athlete,” she said. “Immersing myself in Southern culture and literature at UNC-Chapel Hill, during a formative period in my literary growth, spurred me to forge my own voice in a truer and more nuanced way.”

Doyle’s favorite class was her senior honors poetry course with Alan Shapiro.

“Professor Shapiro’s class helped me to both fully name the tools with which I’d been working for so long and refine my use of them,” she said. “Through studying with him, I became more deliberate, precise, and self-aware with the sonic and structural aspects of my poetry. The discoveries I made in his class continue to define and drive me as a writer.”

Maria Devlin ’11 will begin a Ph.D. program in early modern literature this fall at Harvard University. She said the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship provided her with the financial freedom to attend UNC, but the award meant so much more than that.

“The very existence of the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship also tells young writers — not only the Thomas Wolfe Scholars but all writers on campus — that good writing still matters; that young writers  have voices; and that those willing to dedicate their time and labor to the craft of writing will find support and will find an audience,” Devlin said.

Devlin said she cherishes the writing classes she took every semester and the friends she met at UNC.

“My favorite memories are of getting together with other writers,” she said. “Meeting with a friend outside the Union to discuss his story until it got too dark to read the draft; working through the night with a fellow Thomas Wolfe Scholar to meet our next deadline, sharing chocolate and asking each other for synonyms; hopping from coffee shop to coffee shop on weekly ‘writing dates;’ gathering our whole senior honors class to turn in our theses and celebrate together.”

Creative Writing professor Marianne Gingher, who has co-directed the scholarship program with Simpson since 2001, said they have sought to award the scholarship each year not only to the most promising writer, but to a person who would likely thrive in a literary community where so many opportunities “await to inspire the young student’s imagination.”

“An undergraduate writer’s education shouldn’t be about sequestering him or herself in the garret, but about taking advantage of the great treasure trove of intellectual, cultural, social, and artistic resources and adventures that UNC offers,” she said.

For a related story on the gift by Frank Borden Hanes Sr. to create the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship, click here.