The 2016-2017 Princeton Writes essay contest invited University staff to share their thoughts on something they believe is overlooked or underappreciated at Princeton. Among 40 submissions across 31 academic and administrative units, four essays stood out. Tom Dunne was awarded the Princeton Writes Prize, and Matt Eaton, Jon Horowitz, and Gwen McNamara received honorable mentions.

Pictured at the Princeton University Art Museum, from left, Princeton Writes Essay Contest honorees Tom Dunne, Jon Horowitz, Gwen McNamara, and Matt Eaton. Photo: David Kelly Crow.

The four honorees painted a captivating picture of their “special something” at Princeton through a rich blend of original perspectives, unique style, and fond memories.

In his essay “Anonymous Monument,” Tom Dunne, Deputy Dean of Undergraduate Students, wrote about a depression in the stone step below the door of West College, on which he stumbled when he first arrived at the University. What would become a literal touchstone in the years that followed first took him by surprise – “because I was nervous with expectation, and I also didn’t expect to encounter a defect on a campus radiating such manicured perfection.”

This was Dunne’s first submission to the essay contest. “I thought I would do revisions,” he said, “but I actually wrote it in one sitting and was sort of happy with it.” He sent his essay in shortly before the deadline and, over time, forgot about it. When John Weeren, director of Princeton Writes, eventually appeared in his office, Dunne first assumed it was to talk about another project. His colleagues, already aware of the purpose of Weeren’s visit, joined him. “It was like a mini pop-up surprise party,” Dunne said. “It was nice to have them there to celebrate.”

Matt Eaton, Information Technology Manager in the Office of Admission, recently moved to Princeton from Rutgers University. His office in West College reveals a beautiful view of Cannon Green, but it was something less obvious that inspired him to enter the essay contest.

He chose to write about the Cotsen Children’s Library in his essay “A Guide to Princeton’s Wonderland,” a decision prompted by numerous visits to this unique corner of Firestone Library with his two-year-old son. “I imagined we would be bringing him over to the library for years to come,” he said, “so that’s why I picked this subject.”

Eaton, who doesn’t usually write in a creative vein, liked how inviting the contest seemed. “There was a line in there that said: ‘You don’t have to be a professional writer to compete; amateurs are welcome.’ This was kind of new ground for me,” he said, recalling being both in shock and pleasantly surprised when Weeren came to his office to congratulate him on his honorable mention.

Jon Horowitz, Associate Director for Digital Communications in the Office of Alumni Affairs, focused on technology in his essay “Wired.” “It’s everywhere, but because it’s everywhere I don’t think it’s appreciated,” he said. “Wired” underscores the omnipresence of technology on campus, as well as the importance of the “warriors” working 24/7 to supply, maintain, and improve it.

Horowitz didn’t start his essay until two days before it was due. “I like writing on deadline,” he said. “Between journalism and days in college, I would always wait till the last minute when papers were due; otherwise, I would just keep rewriting.” He has always written in his free time – short stories, novels, “even just tinkering a lot” – though with a small child and a new one on the way, free time is scarce.

For this reason, Horowitz was drawn to Writing Space, a Princeton Writes-sponsored forum for writers and would-be writers who want to hone their skills, share experiences, and find inspiration. “Writing Space,” he explained, “is one of the things that I feel literally created a space to at least think about writing, even if it’s just for that hour.”

Between social media, web-based stories, and print materials, Gwen McNamara, Communications Coordinator at the Pace Center for Civic Engagement, rarely puts down her pen. She also regularly attends Writing Space. There she was inspired by a prompt inviting participants to select one word in a poem and use it to create something new. McNamara picked the word crunch. “I liked the idea of thinking about the sound,” she said.

This idea became the springboard for her essay “Trail Walk,” an exploration of the wooded trail along Washington Road and under Streicker Bridge that she visits as often as she can. “It helps to be quiet and to be with yourself a little bit sometimes, to process and reflect and appreciate, too,” she said. Her essay embodies her conception of writing, which she described as a way of “capturing your memories and the moments that you have either with family or friends or your kids” and “not wanting to lose sight of those special stories.”

Like every submission, the essays chosen for special recognition demonstrate that the written word is alive and well in offices across campus. The Selection Committee looks forward to celebrating this vitality at a reception for all contestants on June 12, from 2:30-4:30 p.m., at Maclean House.

Princeton Writes is grateful to University community member Célia Chalfoun for contributing this story.