Best Articles of the Year: Higher Education

2010 Circle of Excellence Awards Program
Judges Report


CASE Districts I-II


This awards category received 71 entries, and the panel of judges narrowed the list of finalists to 13 for discussion and from there chose seven winners.

Overall, the judges felt the submissions represented a good range of the types of stories they like to see in a higher education story, encompassing literary journalism, in-depth research articles, creative approaches to stories, and strong profiles.

Other observations about the category:

  • The judges were surprised and disappointed in how many writers needlessly inserted themselves into their stories with an occasional or frequent first person reference or used the somewhat jarring second person technique.
  • In too many entries, the writer or editor didn't bother to figure out what the real story was. This is likely due to vague assignments.
  • In the majority of entries, headlines, sub-headlines, and navigation tools throughout the articles were poorly conceived. Many headlines were lazy or misleading.
  • What we saw too few of were well-crafted story leads. Writers and editors need to put much more effort into this critical area of storytelling.

The judges chose seven stories to recognize in this category and summarized their comments:


Gold Awards

Colby College, Colby Magazine, "Jeronimo Maradiaga's Journey" by Gerry Boyle

This is an example of outstanding reporting and "effortless" writing that does not get in the way of a riveting story. The magazine deserves credit for publishing a story that stays true to the Maradiaga's experience even when it doesn't always cast the college in the best light.


The University of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Gazette, "Ultimate Fundraising Championship," by Trey Popp

This entry had perhaps the best lead of all the submissions. The story-on a topic most of the judges didn't care for (boxing)-pulled us all in and along immediately. The storytelling was anticipatory and entertaining, very well-crafted. The writer clearly found the core of what makes fight night so thrilling for this crowd of spectators and fighters.


Silver Awards

Columbia University, Columbia, "Against the Grain," by David J. Craig

While a number of entries focused on important research at various institutions, this entry, on celiac disease, rose above its peers in its reporting and anticipatory storytelling.


Columbia University, Columbia, "Alice in Columbialand," by Paul Hond

A delightful article with creative approach to a historical subject. All the judges found this entry charming and refreshing.


Bronze Awards

The University of Pennsylvania, The Pennsylvania Gazette, "Are Better Brains Better?" by Trey Popp

The judges all felt that this was an important article that explored multiple points of view on an unsettling and complex campus life issue.


Tufts University, Tufts Magazine, "The Cheetah at Twilight," by Casey Lyons

A finely crafted story on an important topic that receives little attention in other media.


Tufts University, Tufts Magazine, "Fugitive Soul," by Rebecca Kaiser Gibbon

A beautifully written profile that delves deeply into this poet's life.



CASE Districts III-V


78 Entries


Gold Awards

Denison University, Denison Magazine, Vicki Glembocki, "The Education of Abdu Ali"

Duke University, Duke Magazine,  Karl Leif Bates,  "Descended from Darwin" 

University of Notre Dame, Notre Dame Magazine, John Nagy, "Shovels Ready"


Silver Awards

Auburn University, Auburn Magazine,  Suzanne Johnson, "Veggie Tales"

Penn State Alumni Association, The Penn Stater, Vicki Glembocki, "Who Killed Betsy Aardsma?"


Bronze Awards

University of Dayton, University of Dayton Magazine, Andrea Appleton, "A Commitment of Moral Obligation"

Duke University, Duke Magazine, Robert J. Bliwise, "A Witch's Brew"


The judges were thrilled with the quality of the winning entries, which showed evidence of strong understanding of the subject gained through thorough reporting, and powerful employment of the second phase of writing: thinking. The winners were creative and compelling in use of structure, voice and pacing. The leads were very good. These writers understand story telling.

Entries that did not succeed tended to have dull or formulaic leads, such as: When Alumnus Jones, '98, did something in general, he/she had this thought. The pieces showed a lack of energy, a failure to synthesize the information to be presented, and lack of structure for the reader to follow. Many pieces failed to answer the bigger questions about the topic or person.  Several pieces were seen as solid, basic, acceptable writing, but not award winning story telling. 



Gold Awards

"The Education of Abdu Ali" - This is a very nicely written portrait of an extraordinary student who fled Somalia as a toddler and immersed himself in study and service as an immigrant in Boston. His story is an inspiration, and so is reading this piece. Very tightly written and well done.

"Descended from Darwin" - The writer takes what could be a tedious subject and makes it compelling, beginning with the whimsical lead about the doomed courtship of two fruit flies of different species. Excellent explanatory journalism.

"Shovels Ready"  - This piece rose to the top because of the writer's creative and meditative approach to what would have been a very dry piece in less skilled hands. Superlative example of expository writing that elevates this piece beyond the seemingly prosaic subject matter.


Silver Awards

"Veggie Tales" - Very solid feature, nicely written.  The personal approach enlivens the piece. Augmented by research casting doubt on the sustainability of conventional agriculture, and the case for eating locally grown food.

"Who Killed Betsy Aardsma?" - Engaging story, varied sentence structure helps pace the piece. The prose is well structured, delving deeper into revelations, holding the reader's attention to see where the trail goes. Nicely done.


Bronze Awards

"A Commitment of Moral Obligation" - Engaging profile of a dedicated army colonel, a bonafide war hero from Vietnam, who returned to active military service in Iraq and now commands Walter Reed Army Hospital. Nice understated approach to strong material.

"A Witch's Brew" - Intriguing story of a scholar's deep examination of a 300-year-old witchcraft trial in Germany. The piece is well-written -- nicely paced, and doesn't get bogged down in tedious detail. Another example of trusting the material and not overwriting.



CASE Districts VI-VIII and International


Gold Award


University of Portland, Portland Magazine, "An Elevator in Utah," by David James Duncan


Silver Award


Stanford University School of Medicine, Stanford Medicine, "Superheroes Turning Sadness Upside Down," by Erin Digitale


Bronze Awards


University of Portland, Portland Magazine, "Cold Case," by Brian Doyle


Utah Valley University, UVU Magazine, "5 Triumphs, 1 Price," by Brad Plothow



The 41 submissions included a few dressed-up press releases but many solidly written articles and profiles. Some profiles, built on strong reporting, were marred by a lack of focus. And some compelling story lines got lost when authors introduced institutional elements.

Gold: Portland Magazine's "An Elevator in Utah" by David James Duncan, aptly subtitled "On how children make despair look stupid." Judges were drawn to its emotional intensity and movement, and its spot-on choice of detail. And, as editors and readers, we wished more stories would open their doors to reveal the sort of surprise contained in that Utah elevator.

Silver: Erin Digitale's "Superheroes Turning Sadness Upside Down," Stanford Medicine. Judges praised the reporting and many lauded the structure, which alternated between the story of a child diagnosed with a deadly brain tumor and that of the Stanford scientist treating him and studying his disease. "It was an excellent and out-of-the-ordinary decision to focus so heavily on the patient's family, whose only connection to Stanford Medical School is that their son was a patient at its hospital," one judge wrote. "Their story brought the scientist's work to life."

Bronze: "Cold Case" by Brian Doyle, Portland Magazine, and "5 Triumphs, 1 Price" by Brad Plothow, UVU Magazine. Judges admired both stories for taking fresh approaches to profile writing.

A note about one submission to which we awarded no prize: Brian Doyle's column "All Legs & Curiosity" (Portland Magazine). Although narrower in scope than the winning articles, it elicited delight, envy and a few tears.