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Dorothy Clark Hobson Essay Contest

The 2019 Dorothy Clark Hobson Essay Contest encourages students of The W to write a scholarly paper or personal essay related to the Common Reading Initiative. Winners of the Hobson Essay Contest receive a cash prize and are recognized in November.

The author of the first-place essay will receive $250.00; the second place winner $150.00, and the third place winner, $100.00. The contest winners, as special guests, will be recognized in November and their essays will be published on this web page.


When Breath Becomes Air Essay Topics


Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air begins with the full knowledge that his memoir will end in his death. But Kalanithi’s words speak to us as if he is still alive.  We are allowed to see inside the mind of someone who is facing death with courage and curiosity, and wants to leave his experiences and memories behind for others to experience vicariously.  He wants us to know who he was—and knows his words will give him a type of immortality.  Have you ever read letters or diaries or listened to family or community stories about someone who became “alive” for you as you listened or read?  Has this experience made you feel as if you really did “know” this person, even though this person has died? If so, describe your experience and the person, and draw some parallels between the experiences Dr. Kalanithi describes and the experiences, personality, and character you came to know about the person in your own memory.


How did Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air impact or perhaps influence your thoughts about medical treatment in general? Did Dr. Kalanithi’s experiences make you think more deeply about the relationship between a doctor and a terminal patient? What does the very real experience of Dr. Kalanithi’s death show us about how a person COULD face death? Does his attitude remind you of any personal experiences? Have you ever had a loved one who entered hospice care (end of life care)?  Does reading this book help you understand your and your loved one’s experiences more clearly? 


Literary analyses of Dr. Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air point out that this book attempts to answer the question: “What makes a life worth living?” Do you think that his memoir answers that question? What are some things he chooses to do, even as he faces death, that help us understand his answer to the question? Does the book make you think about how you would face a terminal diagnosis? How do you think of death—as something a long time from now--as something painful and scary—or as part of the normal cycle of life? Do you think of death as the end or as a beginning?

Judging Criteria

Essays will be judged on the following criteria by a faculty and staff committee:

  1. Adherence to contest requirements and essay topics
  2. Connection to Paul Kalanithi’s ideas and themes in When Breath Becomes Air
  3. Clarity and organization
  4. Grammar and mechanics, and especially
  5. Specific details and thoughtfulness


Submission Guidelines

  1. Only one submission per currently enrolled full-time undergraduate MUW student will be accepted.
  2. All essays must be submitted electronically as Word documents to the Common Read Initiative Committee (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.) later than midnight on March 2, 2020.
  3. Essays must be between 700-1250 words in length.
  4. The cover page of the essay must include the following information: first name, last name, e-mail address, telephone number, and the following statement: “I testify that this essay is my own original work, and I understand that if my essay is selected as one of the winning essays, my essay will be posted to the CRI website and published in other appropriate venues, if available, without any other remuneration other than the published prize.”
  5. No identifying information, such as the author’s name, should appear anywhere else other than on the cover page.