BMCC Recognizes Outstanding Student Writing at James Tolan Award Ceremony

May 2, 2018

The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC/CUNYWriting and Literature program recognized outstanding student writers at the 2018 James Tolan Student Writing awards on April 24 in Theater 2, at 199 Chambers Street.

The program included welcoming remarks from Provost and Senior Vice President Karrin Wilks and English Department Chair Professor Joyce Harte. A special remembrance of English Professor James Tolan was delivered by BMCC English Professor Holly Messitt. Two student award winners, Kelly Otterness and Damian Ruff, read excerpts of their work at the ceremony.

BMCC English Professor Diane E. Simmons came up with the idea for an award recognizing student writing in 2003, soon after the BMCC Writing and Literature program began. Simmons worked closely with Tolan to make the awards ceremony a reality and by 2004, outstanding student writers were being recognized with awards that were funded by donations from BMCC faculty.

The awards were renamed for James Tolan after he passed away in March 2017.

Professor James Tolan

“Jim Tolan [shown right] was a profoundly invested teacher. He was a poet and a creative writer,” said English Professor Jason Schneiderman, who called the award ceremony the perfect memorial to Tolan.

Several of Tolan’s poetry collections were published over the years, including Filched (Dos Madres Press, 2017) and Mass of the Forgotten (Autumn House Press, 2013). He was the recipient of honors from the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

“Jim cultivated creativity in himself and others and wanted his students to believe in themselves as writers,” said English Professor Holly Messitt. Tolan connected with his students through his own working-class background, and approached their writing with an enormous generosity of spirit, she says.

“His students have told me that his influence as a teacher has left them with greater insight into how to move through the world as a human being,” said Messit.

Following the awards ceremony, the Writing and Literature program, in collaboration with Poets House, presented National Book Award Finalist and Whiting Award winner Shane McRae as part of The Fourth Reading of the 2017-18 Working Writers Reading Series.

BMCC Student Writer Damian Ruff

This year’s student writing award winners

  • Kelly Otterness, “Colorblind Racism’s Lenses or How to Stay Colorblind in a Colorful World,” critical essay
  • Damian Ruff [shown right], “The Bluest Eye and The Myth of the Black Man: A Queer Reading of a Toni Morrison Classic,” critical essay
  • Damaris Frias, “La Isla de Oscuridad,” fiction
  • Jorge Patino, “Contact: Epitomizing Feminism” critical essay and “Palabras,” fiction
  • Daya Van Dam, “The Case of Free Will Versus Fate in Shakespeare’s Plays: How Prophesies Come True: Human Action or Written in the Stars?” critical essay
  • Domonique Eaddy, “Searching for Heroine,” fiction
  • Jayshawn Lee: poetry
  • Margaret Rempe: “Broken Window” and “If I Knew Any Better,” drama


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  • Ceremony followed by Poets House Working Writers Reading Series featuring author Shane McRae
  • Student Awards funded by faculty donations
  • BMCC Writing and Literature program has held award ceremony since 2004

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