Carnegie Mellon University

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January 14, 2020

Rolla Believes in the Power of the Pen

By Bruce Gerson

Maureen Rolla is turning the spotlight on Carnegie Mellon’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards.

Founded by University Professor of English Jim Daniels, the writing awards program gives high school and college students in western Pennsylvania an opportunity to share personal experiences with difference and discrimination through poetry and prose.

Rolla joined Daniels in 2018 as an administrative coordinator and has worked with him to expand and diversify the program’s footprint. They reached out to more schools, teachers and administrators in the region, launched a series of email communications to help build awareness and attract entries, and refreshed the print and online promotional materials.

“We have a growing contact list of 550 people from 54 high schools and 20 colleges in the western Pennsylvania region. There’s a good mix of urban, suburban, public, private, religious and charter schools,” said Rolla, who earned her bachelor’s degree in English at CMU.

Rolla takes part in judging the entries as well as a member of a preliminary panel that includes student writers from CMU’s English Department, the School of Drama and the School of Computer Science. She said the team looks for pieces that are relevant, impactful and have concrete details that make the student’s experiences come alive.

“I strongly believe in the power of sharing our personal experiences through writing.”

She also has helped to establish a fall speaker series on campus.

“The speaker series brings in two established authors who are writing about themes that are relevant to the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Writing Awards. It gives students a way to engage with authors who are writing about these issues and it brings attention to the awards,” Rolla said. 

Last year, the program attracted a record 215 entries, and this year it received 181 entries from a record-high 24 high schools and seven colleges and universities. Two of this year’s winners are from schools that had never submitted entries before.

“I strongly believe in the power of sharing our personal experiences through writing. Anything we can do to provide that avenue for students and to help them see writing as a safe outlet for self-expression and sharing is really important,” Rolla said.

Rolla said Daniels has hosted writing workshops at several area schools, including Allderdice and Woodland Hills high schools, and Pittsburgh Milliones/University Preparatory School.  He hopes to do more of those moving forward. She attended the one at Woodland Hills.

“It’s crucial to connect with students and teachers where they are and with what they need.”

“To see the bravery of these students to stand up and read their work telling their stories was very impressive to me,” she said.

Rolla is working with Daniels to develop a fellows program to help conduct more writing workshops in schools.

“Jim is very dedicated to the awards program and committed to the role of writing in breaking down barriers,” she said. “Our goal is to grow and deepen the engagement with students and schools. It’s crucial to connect with students and teachers where they are and with what they need.”

Throughout her career in publishing, higher education and in several roles at the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, Rolla remained connected to her alma mater. She has participated in the Dietrich College’s “Under Construction” panel discussion on careers and has been a guest speaker on careers for humanities majors. While at the Carnegie Museums, she was involved in the launch of CMU’s IDeATE program.

Returning to CMU was the right choice for two reasons, she said.

“First, to continue the work I’ve been doing at the museums to advance diversity, equity and inclusion. It’s very important in Pittsburgh. And two, to come back to a place where I have such strong ties and formed lifelong friendships. Writing and literature have always been important in my life,” she said.

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