Western University, like many institutions, has a long-standing writer-in-residence program. For nearly 45 years, Western has welcomed professional authors to campus to work on writing projects and to participate in local literary events, visit classrooms and help community members with their own writing. In 2013, however, the institution spun off from tradition and created yet another writer residency – this one exclusively for students.
A collaboration between the University Students’ Council and Western’s department of English and writing studies, the student writer-in-residence program comes with many of the same duties typical to any other residency. From September to March, the student writer-in-residence holds weekly office hours, attends and hosts public events, and creates community programs.
“The department jumped at the chance to co-sponsor the program because of our commitment to the promotion of creativity on campus,” says Thy Phu, vice-chair of the department of English and writing studies. Dr. Phu says it’s mainly up to the student writer-in-residence to choose how they get involved with the writing community. “The idea is that the program evolves according to the [student’s] vision,” she says. “The position is deliberately flexible.”
For the 2015-16 student writer-in-residence, math major Helen Ngo, the position offered the opportunity to connect with and engage students from a variety of programs. “There are people writing from all disciplines, and sometimes it’s harder to find them if they’re not in the really obvious ones,” she says. “I knew that there were people in science backgrounds who also wrote, and I really wanted to reach out and get them connected to the rest of the writing community.”
One way Ms. Ngo did that was by launching a student pen pal project, which encouraged participants to write to strangers. “I had a lot of really good feedback from that. People were out there getting to connect with someone from a different background who was walking on the same campus as them,” she says.
She also hosted a publications seminar to help people looking to get their work read by a larger audience, and a creative writing event to encourage students to brainstorm ideas for class assignments or for fun. There are a few more perks to working as a student writer-in-residence as well – the position comes with a $1,000 stipend and mentorship from the university’s current professional writer-in-residence.
Students who want to apply for the position have to be entering the fourth-year of their undergraduate program in any discipline. A selection committee chooses the candidate based on the strength of the their writing sample, publication experience and public engagement plan.
Dr. Phu says the department generally receives no more than 12 applications a year. In March, it was announced that the 2016-17 student writer-in-residence will be Victoria Wiebe, a psychology and creative writing student.
As she leaves the position, Ms. Ngo says she has learned a lot from it. “Writing is something that’s so personal to people and it’s tough to share it. I noticed that was a common worry from people who I spoke to,” she says. “Going out and reading your work for the first time in front of a public audience can be one of the most nerve-wracking things that a writer can do. But you learn so much from it and you grow so much, and it gets easier, every time you do it.”