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CEDAR FALLS — Natalie DeGabriele was an inexperienced paddler when she took a canoe across a lake during a summer camp several years ago.

It was a journey filled with struggle and anxiety until DeGabriele stopped to take in the wonder of the natural world surrounding her.

When the Cedar Falls High School junior wrote “The Wonders of the Willow,” a five-page essay about her memories of that day for an English class last spring, she strove for description and detail.

The writings of DeGabriele and other sophomores in four teachers’ classes were submitted to the Paul Engle Day: Glory of the Senses Essay Contest. The team of judges, all from ACT in Iowa City, liked what they read.

DeGabriele took the statewide contest’s top prize, a year of free tuition at the University of Iowa.

There were also six runners-up, each drawn from school districts served by different area education agencies. Among them were Clare Williams, another Cedar Falls High School student, and Kaia Neal from Decorah High School. Runners-up will receive a $500 cash scholarship.

DeGabriele, who learned of her accomplishment in early August, said initially it was a little hard to believe she had won. She “was shaking” when the news showed up in an email. “I re-read it so many times.”

She admits, though, to hoping for at least a runner-up prize in acknowledgement of the work put into the essay. It was “a big focus the whole month of May” during her sophomore English class, said DeGabriele. “We worked many weeks on it.”

She added, “I like writing. It’s one of my stronger subjects — not my favorite.”

The contest is run by the Iowa City UNESCO City of Literature organization. Iowa City was designated as the third City of Literature in 2008 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Paul Engle was the longtime director of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop and co-founder of its International Writing Program. The contest and an accompanying weeklong curriculum distributed to all high schools in Iowa are based on Engle’s writing, particularly his memoir “A Lucky American Childhood.” In the year 2000, a decade after his death, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack declared Oct. 12, Engle’s birthday, would hereafter be known as “Paul Engle Day” in Iowa.

Participants in the contest are to write about an Iowa experience, paying special attention to details that take in all five senses. Judges look at ways the students evoke the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches of the day they are writing about.

Matt Klemesrud, who was DeGabriele’s teacher, said “she took the instruction that was offered seriously every day” as the class wrote their essays. He said she displayed some natural ability but also worked very diligently. “I’m just really happy for her that it paid off.”

Klemesrud and other Cedar Falls’ sophomore English teachers received an email about the contest “halfway through spring semester,” said Brian Winkel, another one of the teachers. He thought the contest dovetailed well with the objectives in their curriculum.

“Over the course of the semester, we’d been working on personal narratives,” he noted. Winkel liked the added dimension of focusing on an Iowa experience.

He pitched the project to the other teachers, citing the value of getting the students’ writing to a wider audience. He also suggested the contest might motivate students and, if it produced any winners, they would see it was “really worth their time.”

So, the classes studied Engle and past student winners’ essays at iowacityofliterature.org/paul-engle-essay-contest. “We deconstructed them, we meticulously took them apart,” said Winkel, and discovered how they all led to an “aha” moment or revelation. He had students record their drafts and posted them online as podcasts.

“We did it like a sport,” said Winkel. “Well, more than like a sport, kind of like a job.”

“It definitely pushed me in the right direction when I read all those past winners,” said DeGabriele. “I saw how, like, saturated their writing was with description.” She noted that “not one sentence” of their essays was without adjectives.

She didn’t come up with the day canoeing on the lake as her topic right away, though.

“That wasn’t my original idea,” said DeGabriele. Initially, she proposed writing about gardening with her mom, but “it wasn’t immersing myself in nature” — another aspect of the assignment.

‘I was just thinking of the times I was disconnected from society,” she said. Then DeGabriele thought about being at Riverside Lutheran Bible Camp outside of Story City the summer before seventh grade. Kids weren’t allowed to have their phones — and there was that canoe outing.

“That one just came to me, which usually doesn’t happen,” she said.

As far as attending the University of Iowa, “It wasn’t something I was thinking of before,” said DeGabriele, noting both of her parents went to Iowa State University in Ames. However, “It’s been a big thought on my mind since this whole winning the paper.”

She has some interest in medical or health careers, so “I don’t think Iowa is a bad choice for me.” DeGabriele also has been thinking recently about a career that would involve writing.

The experience of writing the essay has had a more immediate impact on her educational path, though.

From seventh to 10th grades, she said, “I just took the easy mandatory class” for English, but consciously chose something different for this fall’s courses. “I took the really hard English class this year. I’m just trying to learn more and grow in my abilities.”

DeGabriele added, “I think I can handle it, hopefully. I’m doing OK right now, just got to keep that going.”

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