One Duck’s tale of becoming a prize-winning essayist

Laurel Sturgis O’Coyne

From nontraditional undergraduate student to prize-winning essayist, the journey feels far from complete for Laurel Sturgis O’Coyne.

The University of Oregon doctoral candidate marked a milestone this April when she won the A. Owen Aldridge Prize in Comparative Literature for her 2020 essay “Toward Weaving/Reading Hemispheric Land and Literature.”

Simultaneously “floored” and “blown away,” Sturgis O’Coyne humbly questioned whether the congratulatory email was a phishing scam. She wrote the winning essay as part of her doctoral exams in the comparative literature program at the UO.

The Aldridge Prize, which includes publication in the Comparative Literature Studies journal and an invitation into the American Comparative Literature Association, is one Sturgis O’Coyne hopes will open doors to teaching opportunities. But she never dreamed it would take her this long to become a teacher, or that she’d delve so far into academia along the way.

Sturgis O’Coyne’s previous degrees at UO include a bachelor’s in French and comparative literature, summa cum laude, and a master’s in French, where her thesis earned honors with distinction and she gained two years’ experience teaching.

Her own education has been a becoming; an ongoing process of transitions. When Sturgis O’Coyne, a Eugene native and mother of two, enrolled at Lane Community College 10 years after finishing high school, intending to transfer to the UO, her goal was simple: get a bachelor's degree and a teaching job.

“I just need this piece of paper, and then I'll be able to get a real job, a grown-up job, where I can support my kids,” she thought.

Quickly realizing she needed a master’s degree to teach, she prepared for graduate school. Not feeling quite at home in either her French or English courses, she was turned on to comparative literature by a professor. An interdisciplinary field, it was a way to broaden her specializations by analyzing how they intersect and differ.

The winning essay also came about through process; that of gaining perspective on the literature Sturgis O’Coyne was studying. She’d noticed that thinking of literatures as separate objects didn’t feel right. 

“French over here, English over here; still didn’t make a lot of sense, so I was trying to find a way to bridge that,” Sturgis O’Coyne said, “Similar to how as an undergrad, I didn’t quite fit in in either world.”

She was also trying to distinguish herself in the field, to say something new. Much of the French literature she was studying was from the Francophone nations of the Caribbean. In that region, she saw an opportunity for internal comparison among the many interwoven languages and cultures in the hemisphere of the Americas, from the Indigenous to French, English, Spanish and Portuguese.

With a declaration of hemispheric American literature and two theoretical lenses, ecocriticism and translation, she had certainly distinguished herself in the eyes of her advisers, though they remained supportive.

“’That’s kind of bizarre,’” she said she was told, noting that most students compare across regions rather than within them. “‘We don’t usually see it that way.’”

But undeterred, she kept reading.

The theoretical lens of ecocriticism helped her to follow a common thread through the texts. The hemispheric relationships she was using language to study, especially as they related to food systems, all tied back to larger structures of settler-colonialism.

Translation, Sturgis O’Coyne’s other theoretical lens, meant she strived to stay focused on the way language is used to tell a particular story of a writer’s identity. In her essay, as in her pursuit of study, Sturgis O’Coyne seeks to amplify ways of seeing and interacting with the world that aren’t based on subject-object relationships, but rather see everything as interwoven.

“Laurel's achievement is remarkable, and her essay, weaving together Latinx, Indigenous and French literatures of the Americas, offers a crucial and imaginative path for thinking about multilingualism beyond the bounds of national identity,” said Michael Allan, her adviser and an associate professor of comparative literature, himself also an Aldridge Prize winner. “I have admired Laurel's brilliance ever since she was an undergraduate here at the University of Oregon, and it was delightful to see her work receive the national attention it deserves.”

But even as Sturgis O’Coyne prepares to earn her doctorate a year early and achieve her “triple duck” status, she is careful not to say she’s “arrived.”

“I’m nowhere near done,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever feel done learning, which is maybe why I’m good at this. Research is about constantly pursuing those answers.”

—By Anna Glavash Miller, College of Arts and Sciences