The Isabelle de Courtivron Prizes are awarded annually to MIT students for writings on topics related to immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual and/or multi-racial experiences. Kym Ragusa, a co-director of the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Science's Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies (CB/BS), says this year’s “many stellar competition entries” included essays on hyphenated identities, second-generation experiences of family and community, and photography during the Vietnam War.
First prize was won by freshman Adrian Jimenez-Galindo, who is studying aeronautics and astronautics and physics, for his essay, “My Life Is In Technicolor.” Prize committee members praised Jimenez-Galindo for his “eloquent use of humor and personal narrative to speak of race relations in the United States.”
Junior Eric Trac received second prize for his essay, “Teardrops Don't Always Drip Down,” in which he describes his mother’s escape from communist Vietnam and her subsequent struggles to provide for her family in America. A double major in chemical-biological engineering and biology, Trac emphasizes that his intense efforts in high school and at MIT have not only been directed at attaining career success but also "to vindicate [his] mother’s sacrifices.”
We all drink coffee
Jimenez-Galindo’s essay centers on his multicultural background: his relatives hail from Cuba, Chile, Italy, the United States, Spain and Mexico. He writes, “We are all family. We all drink coffee. It doesn’t really matter where you were born, where you are from, or what are you supposed to look like, as long as you are confident in who you are.”
Arundhati Banerjee, director of global initiatives and CB/BS co-director, called the piece, “A well-controlled narrative held together with the running metaphor of coffee.”
Skills for a global world
Most of the contest entries — including Trac’s — were originally crafted for classes in MIT's School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, which offers a rich array of academic subjects related to human diversity. These classes build skills critical to today’s global workforce, says Emma Teng, CB/BS co-director and the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations.
“It [has never been] more crucial for students to learn how to communicate across cultures, and to respect diverse cultural viewpoints,” Teng says. “More and more we are finding that ‘third culture kids,’ who have had experiences living in multiple cultures, have an edge over their monocultural and monolingual counterparts. Bicultural/bilingual perspectives can help you relate to complexity and ambiguity — also crucial for today’s world.”
Ragusa, who served as one of the judges for this year’s contest, concurrs. “[MIT students] are working on some of the most important issues of our time: climate change, access to fresh water, sustainable food solutions. These are things that affect us all, and it’s critical that students are able to communicate with and learn from the different populations with whom they will be working.”
Ways of thinking
A native of Mexico, Jimenez-Galindo says he was encouraged to enter the contest by A.C. Kemp, who teaches Expository Writing for Bilingual Students. Jimenez-Galindo says he wasn't planning to enter, until he found himself stranded in an airport and had the opportunity to sketch out a first draft on napkins. “I wasn’t expecting to win,” he says.
Noting that he is now taking the "Cultural Pluralism in the Modern Middle East" class, Jimenez-Galindo says he values MIT's humanities coursework for providing a different perspective from those offered in science and engineering classes. “Humanities courses are just as demanding," he says, "and they make you think in a different way."
Trac, who wrote his winning essay for a class called "Exploring Identity through Asian American Literature," agrees. “Taking humanities courses is a chance to sharpen the abstract reasoning skills necessary to understanding topics such as identity, politics and the workings of society,” he says.
Both winners were awarded cash prizes for their work and were honored at a luncheon with the prize judges on April 13. The 2012 Isabelle de Courtivron Prize Selection Committee members were Ragusa; Kemp; Banerjee; and Chuong-Dai Vo, Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in Foreign Languages and Literatures.
Professor Emerita Isabelle de Courtivron
A co-founder of the CB/BS and former head of the Foreign Languages and Literatures Section, de Courtivron retired in 2010. “Isabelle has always been firmly convinced that our students, so many of whom have bicultural and/or bilingual backgrounds, have an important new perspective on issues of cultural identity today,” said Emma J. Teng, the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations and a co-director of the center. “There was no more fitting way to pay tribute to her years of service at MIT than to found a student prize.”