Incoming first-year student McKenna Ritter of Aurora, Ohio, has been awarded a 2016 Thomas Wolfe Scholarship, a full, four-year merit scholarship in creative writing at UNC-Chapel Hill.
The scholarship program was established in 2001 with a gift to UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences from alumnus Frank Borden Hanes Sr. of Winston-Salem. It honors Carolina graduate Thomas Wolfe, best known for his 1929 novel, Look Homeward, Angel.
Ritter graduated from Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, Ohio. For four years, she participated in the Young Writers and Artists Festival, an annual celebration of writing and art at her high school. She also participated in the Princeton Creative Arts and Humanities Symposium, The Kenyon Review Young Writers Workshop and the 45th Annual Meeting of the Society for the Study of Midwestern Literature.
She has won a number of literary prizes from the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards national high school competition and received third place in Hiram College’s Emerging Writers Nonfiction Contest.
She is “incredibly passionate about poetry,” but also enjoys other hobbies including co-editing her school’s online newspaper and producing a literary magazine of collected student work, participating in yoga, working with Youth Challenge to adapt sports for children with disabilities, and volunteering with Children’s International Summer Villages (CISV) to promote global peace and friendship. She has taken educational trips to Peru, Senegal, Sweden and Cambodia.
In a one-sentence biography in her application, Ritter wrote: “I am irrevocably in love with the world: human beings, jazz music dancing with the breeze, art museums, conversations about religion in a rickety van, German Shepherds, creek whispers heard from the tent, plants, the laughter of a child with disabilities passing me a basketball, wool socks.”
She counts Willa Cather, Khaled Hosseini, Mary Oliver and George Saunders among her favorite writers and enjoys reading poetry, memoirs, short stories and novels.
In her application essay, “Why I Write,” Ritter wrote: “I will write, edit, read, look at art, lay on concrete watching thunderstorms, smile at greenhouses, cry at injustices plaguing the world full of people that I love but have never met, and create in all ways until I cease to exist. And maybe, in the chaos of it all, my writing will mean something to someone.”
Marianne Gingher, professor of English and comparative literature and co-director of the scholarship program, said Ritter impressed the Wolfe Scholarship committee as a person and writer far wiser than her years.
“Her talent is large, and her inquisitive, smart and tender sensibility distinguishes this young poet as a keen and empathetic observer of the world,” Gingher said. “She thinks and writes beyond her own skin. Her gaze is wide, and our entire University community — not just the creative writing program — will benefit from knowing her.”