The Leslie Sander Writing Contest: The Story Behind the Contest

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by Matthew Meyer, ’12

EBH_Sandler_Strassler.jpg Leslie Sander '83 and Matt Strassler '81 with Elizabeth Blodgett Hall. Credit: Walter Scott

Most writers at Bard College at Simon’s Rock—a.k.a. most of campus—know about the annual Leslie Sander Writing Contest. Not everyone knows the history.

Leslie Sander arrived at Simon’s Rock as a first year in the fall of ’83, graduating with an AA in '85 and a BA '87. Her senior thesis “Women, Work, and Protest in the Northeastern Cotton Mills,” combined her love of the social sciences and literature. After leaving Simon's Rock, Leslie spent a year in Botswana before attending Columbia University School of Journalism. Not long after, she discovered she had cancer, forcing her to put her plans on hold. Leslie passed away on her birthday in Burlington, Vermont in June 1989, surrounded by loved ones. In her memory, she left a trust to the school that meant so much to her.

With Leslie’s bequest, Simon’s Rock established the Leslie R. Sander Scholarship “awarded annually to a candidate for the BA degree who has demonstrated academic excellence and has served the Simon's Rock community in a meaningful way.”

Just this past year, a committee of six alumni steered an effort to fully endow the scholarship. Led by former classmate Matt Strassler ’81 and Professor Emeritus Jim Monsonis, the Leslie Sander scholarship committee raised the funds to make sure her memory lives on at Simon’s Rock.

Rich Montone, annual fund and alumni affairs manager, helped facilitate the project. “I’ve never seen people light up the way they did when I asked them to describe Leslie,” says Rich. “I didn’t know her, but it’s clear to me that she was the kind of person that was able to bring out the best in everyone around her – the kind of person you will only meet a few times in the course of your life.”

Sayre&Sander1987.jpg Laura Sayre '86 and Leslie Sander standing in front of Blodgett. Credit: AP/Wide World Photos

Ten years after the Leslie Sander Scholarship was established, several faculty members collaborated to create the Leslie Sander Writing Contest. “The contest started as a memorial of sorts,” says Nancy Bonvillain, faculty in social studies, who began organizing the contest shortly after it originated. “When trying to find a real purpose for what Leslie left, the faculty tried to think about who Leslie was in this school.” Leslie took in the world around her and wrote about it. So the writing contest was established as a way to honor who she was.

Each year after students return from winter break, Nancy announces the Leslie Sander Writing Contest. Students have six weeks to submit a piece in one or more of five categories: Poetry, Personal Essay, Expository Essay, Seminar I & II, and Fiction. A panel of three faculty and staff for each category judges the entries. Sitting among a stack of papers in her office, Nancy says, “The campus shows its approval through sheer number of entries and the listening crowds of the reception.”

In late April, winners are announced and the whole campus is invited to an awards reception where six first-place winners receive a prize of $100 and read before an audience.

Today, Leslie’s contest serves as a motivator and an outlet for Simon’s Rock writers. Writing with a deadline looming provides an extra incentive to finish that work-in-progress or polish up a dusty manuscript.

Multi-time winner Caitlin Murphy entered the contest for first time at the prodding of her friends and wound up winning. Ever since, she has used the contest as an occasion to pick her “best” piece from the year past and give it a chance for stardom. Having the opportunity to focus on writing and have it recognized in a community contest is something most writers dream about. The Leslie Sander Writing Contest makes it a reality for 15 or more students each year. View this year’s winners.

Every year, hordes of writers like Caitlin fill up Nancy’s folders with entries with different words and styles. A generation later, Leslie’s legacy is an annual celebration of what the students at Simon’s Rock have to offer.