A Composition Teacher’s Reward: Biochemistry Student Earns Scholarship for Writing

By fall of 2015, ASU biochemistry student Alec Smith had long since forgotten about a writing contest he entered almost two years prior. At the prompting of his mom—who had been an English major and “was all about writing,” as Smith puts it—he had submitted an entry to “Write about a time when food created a memory” for The Chipotle Cultivating Thought Essay Contest.

So when his mom called that October, they were both floored. Smith was selected alongside nine other grand prize winners. Not only would his piece, titled “Two Minutes of Recollection,” eventually be published on Chipotle cups throughout the country, Smith would earn a $20,000 scholarship. The announcement was an official deal: he and his family had to stay on a non-disclosure agreement until March of 2016.

Last spring, I received an email from Smith (he had been a student in my English 102 class), telling me the news. I was so delighted to hear from him and to celebrate his writing accomplishment. I had noticed his particular aptitude for writing when he was my student. And we had a running joke: we both remembered a moment when I had asked him what his major was. “Biology,” he told me (he has since switched to biochemistry). And he said it with a smile, half-knowing I was expecting him (OK, maybe wanting him) to say English. I sat down with him recently to hear more about the scholarship—and about the role of writing in Smith’s life.

Smith told me that he has always liked writing. He credits his mom for encouraging him creatively and recounts his interest in short fiction: “Through high school, I always wrote short stories, both in-class and out-of-class. I would show my mom what I wrote. I was really into Harry Potter, so I was always writing fantasy pieces.” Smith applied this same inventiveness to nonfiction pieces. I remember his thoughtfulness and imagination when responding to in-class prompts and memoir activities. This type of creative rendering of real-life stories is ultimately what earned Smith a grand prize in this national contest.

His piece described his four-year-old self bonding with his grandma in her old-style kitchen. He wrote about how his grandma would share light-hearted gossip about her church friends, and how she cooked almost everything in the microwave—even fish. Smith laughed when we talked about it: “She liked her microwave a lot.” Earning the scholarship by recounting these pivotal memories was especially meaningful to Smith because his grandfather got to read the piece and hear about Smith’s scholarship right before he passed away. “It was a blessing to be able to share that memory with him,” Smith says.

Smith’s piece ran on selected Chipotle cups for two to three months. Between the Chipotle scholarship and funding he already had before winning the contest, Smith, currently a junior, says he can cover books costs and tuition for his final year-and-a-half at ASU.

With the ability to think creatively comes the ability to better connect with people.

–Alec Smith

Smith plans to go to medical school, something he’s always wanted to do. He sees his writing ability as an asset—even knowing that “going into a science major would involve more lab reports and less creative writing,” he says. Lab reports can be up to 20 pages long. While the assignments are necessarily fact-based, he says that he sometimes inserts a little bit of his voice—or some sort of creativity—in order to set his big discussion paragraphs apart. Smith believes that, “this enables the reader to enjoy the reading process more; it makes readers more receptive to my message.” He also says that being a writer has helped him in his interpersonal communication. “Being able to write creatively has helped me think creatively,” he says. “With the ability to think creatively comes the ability to better connect with people.”

Smith shared that the Chipotle contest was a distinguishing moment for him as a writer. And while he is in a major that is more “fact-based” (as he describes it), he is able to combine his interdisciplinary knowledge with a bit of originality.

His perspective also serves as an example of the practical application of writing and creativity in our students’ lives: “Many see medical professionals as detached or hard to talk to. What I’ve experienced as a writer has helped to build my verbal communication skills. Hopefully, I can be the kind of doctor that patients see as someone they can talk to—not only for basic physical needs—but also for their emotional well-being.”

—Meghan Bacino

Photo courtesy Alec Smith