Local ACU student wins award in national essay contest

By Patty Hullett
For the Mirror

Courtney Cook, a senior at Abilene Christian University (ACU), applied for a scholarship writing competition last month and was awarded the Bill Short Prize in World Literature based on her winning essay titled “In Defense of the Art: How Literary Fiction Promotes Empathy.”

Courtney Cook

Cook, from Midlothian and a 2018 Heritage graduate, was then invited to present her work at the 2021 Alpha Chi National Convention, which was held virtually April 8-10.

Alpha Chi National College Honor Society invites its membership of juniors, seniors, and graduate students from all disciplines in the top 10 percent of their classes. Since the Society's founding in 1922, it has become active on nearly 300 campuses nationwide, and chapters induct approximately 10,000 students annually.

According to Cook, to apply for the scholarship, she needed to submit a paper she had written during her undergraduate career that was considered a scholarly work. "Therefore, I submitted the research paper I had written for my English Capstone course. The criteria for entering this conference was much the same, but the theme this year was ‘And justice for all’, which focused on analyzing the representation of people groups in all avenues of study. I think my paper topic about extending empathy

to refugees fit this theme quite well.”

Cook continues, “Of 60 total presentations, only 13 students were awarded with a distinguished recognition ‘for giving the best scholarly, creative, or artistic presentations in their fields’. In my own World Literature Division, there were a total of five presenters, including myself.”

Courtney Cook with an induction certification and a red rose to commemorate her induction.

Of her Capstone English course, Cook relays, “This class, taught by Dr. Todd Womble, focused on World Literature and explored a variety of worldviews that were extremely different from my own. For our final paper, we were asked to write a 10-12 page paper explaining the value of literature in the 21st century. Because this class was so focused on worldviews I often couldn’t relate to, but nonetheless felt touched by, I decided to argue in this paper that the value of literature is its inherent ability to instill empathy in readers.

"To explore how fiction creates empathetic people, I first introduced research from psychologists Black and Barnes, and Mar and Keith Oatley. These researchers positioned that, when we read, we engage in a sort of 'moral laboratory' that allows us to simulate emotional, empathetic responses to the things fictional characters endure. After we’ve engaged in these empathetic simulations through literature, we’re better equipped to extend empathy to the people we encounter in real life. To add substance to this argument, I included Bandura’s theory of social cognition, which asserts that fiction consumers view fictional characters as models for moral ideals, exemplifying morally relevant behavior that readers will be inclined to replicate. After introducing this research, I apply these theories on readerly empathy to Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, a novel we read in my Capstone class.. This novel focuses on two people living in the Middle East, and it follows them as they go from citizens of their homeland to marginalized refugees in countries across the globe. American readers who engage with this text watch as the main characters, Nadia and Saeed, transform from secure citizens who don’t think twice about the refugees who live around them – a position surely relatable to many Americans – to forgotten refugees themselves. This paper concludes

that, in essence, empathy is an exercise in extending humanity to those who do not immediately resemble our own understanding of what a person ought to be. Nadia and Saeed’s reflections on their own connection to humanity and the longing desire every person has to be fully recognized and accepted by others, creates essential pathways to empathetic expressions in readers.”

Although Cook’s paper didn’t win one of the organization’s prized scholarships – Alpha Chi awards $74,000 a year in twenty-six scholarships and fellowships to individual members enrolled in full-time study –  she said she was honored to be given the opportunity to present her paper in the Alpha Chi conference earlier this month.

Cook is the 20-year old daughter of Jacob and Meagan Olson of Midlothian. She is sister to Calvin Olson – 18, Christian Cook – 17, Whitney Olson – 17, Bradley Olson – 15, Landon Olson – 13, and Orion Olson – 10.

After graduating with her Bachelor’s degree in English Teaching in May, Cook will be heading straight into ACU’s Master’s of Education in Teaching and Learning program. 

The Olson / Cook family, with Mom and Dad in the center, Courtney Cook at far left, and her six other siblings.

Cook says, “After getting my Master’s in Education at ACU, I actually plan to stay two more years and get my Master’s in English. I’ll be student teaching for the entire 2021-22 school year, and I could also easily see myself enjoying teaching so much I don’t want to go back to school myself, but that’s my plan for right now. After I graduate with my Master’s in English, I plan to teach high school English."

When Cook is not in class, she works as a tutor at the ACU Writing Center and as a Graduate Assistant in ACU’s Education department. She is also involved in ACU’s Women’s Club, which is an honor’s society for female students on campus. This well-rounded young lady grew up at Creekside Church in Midlothian, but she has been attending Highland Church of Christ in Abilene since attending college in Abilene.