Jackie Kenny always loved to read. And from that naturally came an interest in writing.
So when Kenny, from Castle Rock, Colo., learned of the the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship – a full, four-year merit scholarship in creative writing in the College of Arts and Sciences at UNC – as a high school senior, she immediately applied.
Kenny ultimately didn’t receive the scholarship. But because of Marianne Gingher and a few other professors in the department of English and comparative literature, Kenny still enrolled at UNC.
Four years later, Kenny, a senior on the UNC rowing team, stood in front of about 250 fellow student-athletes at the fifth annual Scholar-Athlete Awards Luncheon, held May 2 at the George Watts Hill Alumni Center.
Kenny was being recognized as one of the Top 10 Scholar-Athletes, the five senior men and five senior women with the highest cumulative grade point averages. And as she made some brief remarks, she thanked Gingher, her faculty guest.”I don’t think I can overstate how instrumental professor Marianne was in advocating for me financially and for securing me a spot from out of state,” Kenny said. “I absolutely couldn’t have come to UNC without professor Marianne’s help. And for that, professor, I’ll always be in your debt.”
Kenny and Gingher first met shortly after Kenny applied for the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship. As one of three finalists, Kenny flew to Chapel Hill for an interview that Gingher, the co-director of the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship program, helped conduct.
The Thomas Wolfe Scholarship’s level of support is similar to that of the Morehead-Cain Scholarship. But unlike the Morehead-Cain – which emphasizes a candidate’s leadership, moral force of character, academic achievement and physical vigor – the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship seeks to identify and reward students with exceptionally focused literary ability and promise.
Kenny displayed that and more, Gingher said.
“We’d ask her a question, she’d pause and really deeply you could see the wheels turning to deeply consider it,” Gingher said. “And I loved that about her. I loved the thoughtfulness and the earnestness with which she went about answering the questions. So we knew she was a jewel.”
Kenny applied for the Thomas Wolfe Scholarship in an extremely competitive year. Gingher said only twice in the program’s 17-year existence have two scholarships been offered. Kenny’s year wasn’t one of them. And she wasn’t selected.
Still, Gingher desired for Kenny to attend Carolina.
“They were like, ‘We really loved meeting you. We’re going to really help you out financially to get you to come here,'” Kenny said. “And because they were so enthusiastic about writing, as soon as I met the whole department, I was like, ‘This is where I want to be.'”
And at UNC, she thrived.
Majoring in English and minoring in comparative literature and creative writing, Kenny pursued her passion for writing. She earned first- or second-place honors the past two years in the Bland Simpson Prize in Creative Non-Fiction, awarded to three undergraduates for outstanding literary essays and belles-lettres.
Although not a Thomas Wolfe Scholarship recipient, Kenny said she still attended program dinners and events. She said Gingher treated her like an “honorary Wolfey.”
But until her senior year, Kenny had never taken a class with Gingher.
When she visited UNC for her interview, Kenny said Gingher had told her about the Senior Honors Thesis, which requires students to complete a book of fiction or poetry across two semesters. Kenny made it a goal of hers then to write for the Senior Honors Thesis. And she finally did so this year, with Gingher as a professor.
Gingher said Kenny started by writing a novella. And at times, she struggled.
“She was feeling a little bit discouraged, but the thing about Jackie is she doesn’t stay down for long,” Gingher said. “She is so resilient, and I think that has a lot to do with her athletic training and sort of this, ‘I’m just going to figure out what it is, realign everything and then go forward.’
“That’s exactly how she approached her writing, and she totally turned it around.”
Gingher said Kenny rebuilt her idea for her thesis toward the end of this semester. Instead of writing a novella, Kenny authored a collection of seven short stories, all of which she said featured elements of magical realism and dealt with environmental themes.
The final product earned Kenny the Louis D. Rubin, Jr. Prize in Creative Writing. The award was established in 1987 and is presented annually to the outstanding fiction writer in the senior class.
As Kenny continues writing, she said she wants to create stories that give people hope.
“The world can be kind of complicated and messy, and I love reading things that, even if the story is really sad, you can learn something from it,” she said. “I like stories that make you think and reflect on the world and just kind of make you see the immensity of the universe.
“So I want to make stories that allow people to take that pause and be like, ‘Wow, we’re really living and we should make the best of what we have.'”
After graduating, Kenny will volunteer in different agricultural positions. She also plans to find seasonal work at national parks before potentially applying to graduate school. In five years, she sees herself writing and working on a farm on the West Coast.
“I can see her future shining so brightly,” Gingher said. “She can do anything she wants to do.”