Winners named in City of Literature student essay contest

The Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization has completed judging for this year’s Paul Engle Day: Glory of the Senses Essay Contest, and will award scholarships to seven high school students from across Iowa.

The winning essay was “The Wonders of the Willow,” by Natalie DeGabriele, a student at Cedar Falls High School in Cedar Falls. In recognition of her essay, Natalie will receive one year of free tuition to the University of Iowa, offered in partnership with the UI.

In the essay, she writes about a day canoeing on a lake, finding beauty in the toil as the challenge of keeping up with more experienced paddlers gives way to an acceptance of her limitations. The contest asks students to pay special attention to include details that evoke the sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch, capturing the day with all five senses. In her essay, Natalie does this, remarking how he rusted metal sides of the boat dig into her fingers as she clenches the sides, and how the dingy yellow life jacket, two sizes too big, inhibits the movements of her partner.

The essays were judged by a team from ACT in Iowa City. Commenting on Natalie’s essay, the team praised the use of detail and description.

“From the very first line of ‘The Wonders of the Willow,’ readers find themselves sitting with the author in her lurching, tilting canoe. Natalie’s skillful use of the present tense combines with an abundance of keenly observed details to immerse readers in the physical challenge of canoeing, the complexities of friendships, and the tranquility she eventually finds beneath the branches of a weeping willow tree.”

The contest and an accompanying weeklong curriculum distributed to all high schools in Iowa are based on the writings of Paul Engle – the long-time director of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and co-founder of the UI’s International Writing Program – particularly his memoir, A Lucky American Childhood.

Six runners up from around the state will receive $500 cash scholarships from the City of Literature. The runners up are:

  • Adam Holmes, Iowa City High School
  • Anna Jacobson, Spencer High School
  • Kaia Neal, Decorah High School
  • Audrey Seibel, Durant High School
  • Clare Williams, Cedar Falls High School
  • Claire Winjum, Dallas Center-Grimes High School

The contest is designed to recognize sophomores from each of Iowa’s nine Area Education Agencies, which cover the state. This year, due to a lack of suitable submissions from three AEAs, students in only six of these areas were recognized. 

For more information about Paul Engle and the ways in which the City of Literature celebrates his life and work through this contest, please visit

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