In a heartfelt celebration of writers and their mentors, six undergraduates in the USC Dornsife Department of English were lauded this May for their accomplishments and love of the arts at the third annual Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award ceremony.
The Jimmy Award recognizes outstanding seniors in the English department who have demonstrated a commitment to the arts. Jimmy Gauntt, a USC Dornsife alumnus who graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s in English, was struck by a car and killed in the summer of 2008. He was 24. 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 in USC Dornsife. “As professors, it’s our job to let students know we value what they do.”
For this reason, 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,” Román 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 are Sydni Chiles (David Román), Julia Cooperman (Kate Flint), Aishlin Cortell (Tania Modleski), Andrew Ramirez (Dana Johnson), Diana Vaden (Michelle Gordon) and Billy Youngblood (Mark Irwin).
Over dinner at Reservoir restaurant in Silver Lake, Calif., where Román in 2009 first announced to a group of friends he would launch the annual award, the awardees and their professors shared their academic and personal journeys as writers at USC.
The professors introduced the students they nominated then the students spoke about their experiences in USC Dornsife. The mutual respect between student and mentor was unmistakable.
“You don’t know this,” Gordon, assistant professor of English and gender studies, confided to Diana Vaden and the audience, “but I have waited four years for you to graduate so that I could nominate you for this award.”
Gordon met Vaden when Vaden was a freshman. She was enrolled in the first class Gordon taught in USC Dornsife. As a writer, dancer and actor, Vaden embodies a commitment to the arts and arts communities, Gordon said. “I just knew that she was exactly the kind of student that this award was about.”
Award recipient Andrew Ramirez, also met his mentor Associate Professor of English Dana Johnson during his freshman year. Meeting Johnson was refreshing, Ramirez said.
“Like someone had opened the refrigerator door,” he said. “Like an instant cooling sensation. I had never felt more comfortable doing something as sticky and confusing as creative writing.”
Ramirez said that he loves being an English major. “After four years of being at USC I feel like I have my people now . . . I have a community.”
In introducing awardee Julia Cooperman, Kate Flint, Provost Professor of English and Art History, acknowledged that she has benefitted intellectually 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.”
Each of the awardees said they were truly honored to be recognized.
“I am really inspired by everyone in this room,” awardee Sydni Chiles said.
Jimmy’s parents, Hilary and Casey Gauntt, 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 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 is an opportunity to shine a light on the importance of the student-professor relationship. While professors issue students’ grades, there’s a more subtle mentorship that takes place during office hours, e-mails or in the halls 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.”