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Students Named Finalists in NYT Essay Contest

A trio of SHP juniors’ personal narratives recognized out of 11,000 entrants
During the fall semester, the entire Sacred Heart Preparatory (SHP) junior class wrote personal narratives in their English classes, with the option to submit to the New York Times’ Learning Network Student Narrative Contest. Out of more than 11,000 submissions, three SHP students have been named finalists.
 
Sigal Malka (SHP ’23) and Alexander Medel (SHP ’23) both made it to round four, and Jerry Xu (SHP ’23) was one of just 16 runners up in the 2021 contest.
 
Xu’s narrative, “What’s In A Name?” is the story of his relationship to his last name. Excerpted from the piece, Xu writes:
 
“I cautiously replied with the pronunciation, afraid of the foreign sound, an elegant blend of a mother’s shushing and the whistling of her child.
 
It’s pronounced xǔ. 
 
As I stated my name, I realized that it had been years since I’d last truly pronounced it out loud. I didn’t know if it was the tranquil silence, or the spontaneous authenticity behind the question, or something else, but the shame I had felt just seconds ago retreated into the depths of the jungle of my mind like a tiger forfeiting its prey. I felt empowered.”
 
Malka’s piece, “Esperanza,” examines a young refugee’s search for hope. An excerpt reads:
 
“Forced to flee Venezuela as a refugee, she now had to swallow the scraps of the Colombian ecosystem and make a home for herself in a camp. I too fled Venezuela but not under force. While I was able to safely leave with all of my belongings, the odyssey of her escape from violence, hunger, and devastation was written on the muddy floors, chipped walls, and the half-finished roof over her head.”
 
Medel wrote about the loss of his grandfather, his “lolo” in “Midnight in Manila:”
 
“Returning to my pew, I looked out the window to see a butterfly standing silhouetted against the warm summer skies characteristic of Manila at night. White, watchful, and wise, it fluttered silently into the night taking its place among the stars as a herald of the forthcoming dawn.”
 
English teachers at SHP commended the amount of work that went into each essay; students pored over numerous rounds of revisions to pare down copy and get the narrative arc just right.
 
“When Sigal shared her final version with me, I recall commenting that she had finally tapped into the magic of storytelling,” said Colleen O’Donnell, SHP English teacher.
 
The exceptional outcome of their essays isn’t just attributable to one semester of learning, noted SHP English teacher Stephanie Bowe Ullman. “The beauty of their writing speaks to the instruction and encouragement they have received from all of their teachers in the department [throughout their time at SHP],” she said.
 
For SHP, it’s not the first time student writing has been recognized by the NYT. A year ago, Kelly Shen (SHP ’23), then a sophomore, was one of just 11 winners of the NYT’s STEM Writing Contest, with her piece, “From Babbling to Birdsong: What Finches Can Teach Us About Vocal Learning.”
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Founded by the Society of the Sacred Heart, SHS is a Catholic, independent, co-ed day school for students in preschool through grade 12