Remi Mir ’17 was the “odd one out” in her family — the sole native New Yorker in a family of Bengalis, the one who never seemed to fully grasp her parents’ language. Daniel Stone* ’17 was a young gay man growing up in Nigeria, in a culture hostile to homosexuality. MIT has brought the two together as winners of the 2014 Isabelle de Courtivron Prize for student writing.
“I didn’t expect to win it because, based on what I’ve seen, there are amazing writers here at MIT, and the way they tell stories, it’s almost magical,” Mir says. “To be included among the winners of the de Courtivron is a huge honor.”
Celebrating MIT's many voices
Established in 2011 as a tribute to French Studies professor emerita Isabelle de Courtivron, the prize recognizes student writing on topics related to immigrant, diaspora, bicultural, bilingual, and/or multi-racial experiences, and honors cross-cultural fluency, a key to leadership and success in today's global world. The prize is awarded each year by the Center for Bilingual/Bicultural Studies, a program in MIT’s School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences (SHASS).
“We have a very diverse population at MIT and it makes good sense to have a writing contest that celebrates that,” says A.C. Kemp, lecturer in English language studies and head of this year’s prize committee.
Entries for this year’s prize included fiction, memoirs, research, and even a piece in the form of a dictionary. Students wrote about their experiences in African, Indian, European, Asian, and Deaf cultures, among others. “There were a lot of beautifully written entries,” Kemp says, but Mir’s and Stone’s essays clearly stood out, and the judges’ decision to award them both prizes was unanimous.
"Being a kid of two cultures has taught me that I don’t need to force myself to wear the 'socks' of only one culture at a time. I can mix and match and still be comfortable with who I am."
— from “The Socks Don’t Have to Match,” by Remi Mir ’17
"Once upon a time, I found myself in Nigeria, and I split at the seams to accommodate the gap between my cultural mindset and the country’s overall mindset."
— from “The Faces of Reality,” by Daniel Stone ’17
Exploring and sharing experience through stories
Mir and Stone are both freshmen computer science majors who say they began writing to explore their experiences more deeply, and to share them with others. “It was nice writing this essay because I didn’t even know I had this story to tell,” Mir says.
Her essay, “The Socks Don’t Have to Match,” explores her youthful feelings of alienation from both the Bengali culture of her family and from others in New York who picked on her for being “Indian.” Raised speaking Bengali and English, Mir says she didn’t truly find her own voice until she took Spanish in high school. “Of all the languages in the world, Spanish did that for me. It freed me from my silence,” she writes.
Remi has continued to study Spanish in SHASS and credits her professor, senior lecturer Margarita Ribas Groeger, with encouraging her to enter the de Courtivron Prize contest. “The humanities classes at MIT are a hidden gem, very strong, and taught by brilliant faculty,” she said. “I took Spanish 4 and loved it. I learned so much and also felt that my professor cared a great deal about us, not only as students, but also as people.”
The freedom in words
Stone says he entered the de Courtivron Prize contest at the suggestion of a friend and found it gave him an opportunity to reflect on his personal journey. “Writing this essay was a way for me to come to terms with how I felt. It’s also good for others to understand what it’s like to lead a double life,” Stone says. “For the most part people just have a vague sense that I’m gay and have had a hard time in Nigeria."
In his essay, “The Faces of Reality,” Stone describes adjusting to his sexual orientation and moving from the repressive environment of his homeland to the openly multicultural world of MIT. “My fixation wasn’t merely on MIT’s extremely gay-friendly culture; it was on the unbearably beautiful idea that MIT really did exist, that it represented the possibility of a new world for me,” he writes.
Stone reveals in his essay that he first began writing because he “found so much freedom in words.” At MIT he has continued to write — both stories for himself and for the Institute Admissions Office blog. Stories are part of what make the humanities so important, he says. “MIT is very technical, but in every scientific breakthrough there are social implications…and developments that only the humanities perspectives can explain and make clear. The SHASS classes at MIT give you a greater scope, and the ability to see more dimensions of the world, what the world is about,” he says. “The humanities provide the stories.”
Award for Excellence Dinner
Stone and Mir earned monetary prizes for their essays and were formally honored at the Award for Excellence Dinner, held by the Foreign Languages and Literatures section on April 24, 2014. In addition to Kemp, this year’s Isabelle de Courtivron Prize Selection Committee members were: Lecturer Susan Carlisle, of Comparative Media Studies/Writing, and Senior Lecturer Jane Dunphy, director of English Language Studies.
*Note: "Daniel Stone" is a pseudonym being used at the student’s request.