Encouraging a Deeper Education and Experience: 2015 Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society Convention

Gala Dinner Group

left to right: Natasha Morgan, Michael Belman, Christina Sanders-Ring, Kasandra DeFrieze, April Stokes, Kimberly Ackers, and Dr. Timothy Helwig

It all started with encouragement. Encouragement to go to college, then, once in college, encouragement and support to put out our best work, get our voices out there, hear other voices, represent other voices authentically and correctly, all while attempting to fulfill our dreams in the world and giving back the encouragement we have received; be the best version of ourselves we can be.

These are some of the sentiments I have as a Western Illinois University  English major who had the opportunity to attend the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society Convention in Albuquerque, New Mexico last week to present my creative nonfiction piece along with five other English Majors: Kasandra DeFrieze, Christina Sanders Ring, and Michael Belman from the Quad Cities campus, and Natasha Morgan and Kimberly Ackers from the Macomb campus.

As we headed across the country from Illinois to New Mexico after tirelessly editing and reediting our works for presentation, we found we are connected to other students, faculty, and professional writers by the same mutual desire to help, encourage, and support each other. The opportunity to attend the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society Convention came with an enthusiastic “you can do it” from our Sigma Tau Delta Chapter Sponsor, Dr. Timothy Helwig and support from our English faculty mentors. We arrived back on campus with an overwhelming feeling of gratitude knowing we have learned pieces of who we are and gained a deeper appreciation of our education. This convention took us outside of the classroom and opened, broadened, and deepened our minds to the diverse thoughts, voices, opinions, feelings, and personalities of other student writers and professional writers from across the nation.

Kimberly Ackers, President of Western Illinois University’s Phi Delta chapter of Sigma Tau Delta, shares her experience and what she gained attending the convention:

“Attending the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honors Convention was definitely the experience of a lifetime. This was my first time attending this convention, let alone any convention like it. I had no idea what to expect. I was just ecstatic to have an opportunity to share my fiction outside of WIU, and I had no idea how much knowledge I would gain or what the experience would mean to me as a writer, an English scholar, and a future educator.

“I gained a lot from the whole experience. I was exposed to writing and talent from students around the entire country; I had the chance to see what others were putting their heart and soul into, and it was wonderful to see what talent others my age had and were developing. While at the convention, I attended a writing workshop hosted by author Gary Dop and a publishing panel of accomplished writers that helped me focus on my writing and my personal and professional goals. Gary Dop really helped me focus on developing strong, unique characters for my stories, something I struggle with at times. At the Paths to Publication panel, I got great insight into what it takes to get my stories out to the public. I have been rather shy with my writing, but I realize my stories and poetry are not doing anyone any good hiding in my desk at home. From the panel, I’ve learned about the best paths to get my writing out to the right publisher, and how to get over any trepidation I might feel about publishing my work.

“Another panel I attended was on teaching English in high school. This was invaluable. I think that with the huge pressure of just getting certified for teaching here at Western, we don’t get to talk much about what it will be like once we land a job in teaching. I gained some valuable insight into the inner workings of schools including how professionals in the education field form their curriculum and help first year teachers adapt to the new environment. I feel so much more confident about getting a job after attending this panel. I used to worry so much about not fitting in at a school or finding my feet after graduation, but after hearing from five accomplished and seasoned teachers, I feel much more confident.

“The greatest thing that I took from this experience really was inspiration. Being around so many people that are in love with literature and writing as much as I am has really lit a fire inside me. Any doubt that I may have had in the past four years about studying English has been completely washed away. I felt at home at this convention. I was surrounded by a group of people that felt like family to me. I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to attend this convention. I was worried I wouldn’t make it, and it all worked out. It was absolutely worth every moment of stress and hard work it took to get there.”

I couldn’t agree more with Kimberly. Everything about being at the convention was inspiring: the people, the readings, the panels, and the discussions. Everyone had worked hard editing, preparing, coordinating, funding, and networking to organize and attend the convention, and the atmosphere was inspirational with expressive and creative positive reinforcement. The stories, knowledge, and research built with voices of skill and experience gave us insight to think about other perspectives and a bigger picture bringing out our confidence and excitement in moving forward to finish our undergraduate degrees.

Kasandra DeFrieze writes about what her experience attending the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society Convention meant to her:

“The Sigma Tau Delta Convention allowed me to step out of my senior-itis and enjoy being an English major one more time before I graduate. It was fun, engaging, and the perfect way for me to re-focus my attention on school. Prior to attending the convention, graduation day was all I could think about. It was nice to see so many enthusiastic English majors, and it made me very proud of my education.”

I felt a lot of pride in my education, too! I had so much help from the English professors at WIU to get the confidence to submit to this convention (I could write a whole article just on gratitude for the professors at WIU). To prepare for the convention, Professor Barbara Ashwood helped me immensely by supporting my ideas; by helping edit, cut, and reorganize my submission; and by offering presentation advice. She is still supportive and continues to encourage me to take opportunities offered at WIU for English Majors.

Dr. Helwig first encouraged me to submit to the convention, and once I decided to submit, helped walk me through the submission process, answered so many questions, and helped us secure funding to be able to go to the convention. He continually provides suggestions for opportunities for us to keep connecting and stay connected. All the professors I’ve had at WIU have been supportive and encouraging, and I’ve been grateful to be able to go to them for honest and professional advice regarding my educational and professional goals. When I was at the convention, I noticed how many students across the nation also attributed gratitude to their professors, as students need and are grateful for the help, encouragement, and feedback their professors provide.

Dr. Helwig shares his sentiments after attending the Sigma Tau Delta International English Honor Society Convention:

“As the Midwestern Regent for Sigma Tau Delta and an essay reviewer for the convention, I was impressed with how well our six Western students performed on this international stage in Albuquerque, while also taking advantage of opportunities to listen to renowned authors like Gary Soto. I watched as our students read and took questions from the audience about their poetry and creative non-fiction pieces, and I moderated a panel with two of our students presenting outstanding literary analyses from their literature classes in the QC. I hope we have at least as many Western students going to the annual convention next March when it will be held even closer to us in the great city of Minneapolis.”

I, too, hope English majors at WIU take the opportunity to submit their critical and creative pieces for consideration to the convention in Minneapolis. Western Illinois University has a supportive English Department of professors and students, and with their support, six WIU English majors attended this year’s convention! We have gained diverse understanding and broadened our experience in the English discipline as we connected with professional writers, faculty, and students across the nation, and we encourage English majors to get out and connect, too.