Vanderbilt senior claims top prize in second annual Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy poetry contest

Students from seven Tennessee colleges and universities submitted poems exploring “What unity through American democracy means to me” for the second annual poetry contest sponsored by the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy in partnership with Vanderbilt University’s English department and MFA Program in Creative Writing.  

(Sophie Kaiser, Vanderbilt University Class of 2023)

Renowned poet and Vanderbilt English professor Major Jackson and Cara Dees, an award-winning poet and Vanderbilt lecturer in English, judged this year’s contest. The judges selected Vanderbilt University senior Sophie Kaiser’s poem, “In my ASL class today, we learn how to sign UNITY,” as the winner. Kaiser, who is majoring in cognitive studies and medicine, health and society, said she was inspired by her continued study of American Sign Language. 

“With an inventive interlacing of language and form unique to each poem, these winning writers brilliantly showcase the resolve to hold tightly to and defend freedom against growing injustice and discrimination. Together, they assert the importance of upholding—to quote the first-place poem—‘who and what we vote and march for,’” Jackson and Dees said.  

This year’s winners are: 

First place: “In my ASL class today, we learn how to sign UNITY” by Sophie Kaiser. Kaiser is a senior at Vanderbilt University, studying cognitive studies and medicine, health and society. While she is not a member of the deaf community, Kaiser is passionate about learning American Sign Language and encouraging other individuals to learn as well.  

Second place: “Her eyelids were a lovely yellow-green” by TaKya Hughes, a first-year master’s of English student at East Tennessee State University. 

Third place: “Non-Immigrant” by Shlagha Borah, a first-year graduate student working toward an MFA in poetry at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

In addition to a cash prize, the winning selections have been published in the Nashville Review. The judges, however, were overwhelmingly impressed with this year’s submissions and wanted to acknowledge several other writers. This year’s honorable mentions include: 

  • Bhabika Joshi, Vanderbilt University 
  • Katelynn Commisso, Vanderbilt University 
  • AQ Hanna, East Tennessee State University 
  • Dee Norman, Vanderbilt University 
  • Holly Todaro, East Tennessee State University 
  • Gemillia Willians, Fisk University 
  • Gina Yu, Vanderbilt University 

Thank you to all students who submitted poems, and congratulations to this year’s winners. 

About the Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy 

The Vanderbilt Project on Unity & American Democracy is a nonpartisan initiative that aims to elevate research and evidence-based reasoning into the national conversation. Drawing on original research, evidence-based papers and crucial conversations from Vanderbilt’s world-class faculty and visionary thought leaders of all political persuasions, the timely endeavor aims to give policymakers and the public the tools needed to combat conspiracy and unfounded ideology with evidence, data and respectful discourse. The Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy can contribute to solving society’s most pressing challenges and bridging our most significant differences. Learn more here.