Washington College

Casey Academic Center at Washington College in Chestertown (Sun photo by Chiaki Kawajiri)

Little Washington College wields heavy literary weight. Nestled in historic Chestertown, this private school of 1,200 students annually awards the nation's largest undergraduate literary prize, topping $65,000 in 2002 with no strings attached.

Who said knowledge had to be its own reward?

The Sophie Kerr Prize, awarded to the graduating senior who demonstrates the greatest "ability and promise for future fulfillment in the field of literary endeavor," is just one of the ways that Washington College demonstrates its bookish affinity. The school's Writer's Union is its most popular club with more than 100 members hosting readings by local and nationally known writers at its O'Neill Literary House. Poet Allen Ginsberg and novelist John Barth have both visited the Victorian mansion, whose mascot is a cat named Edith Wharton.

The school also has an impressive history. The nation's 10th oldest college and the first founded after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Washington College was chartered in 1782. George Washington himself gave the OK for the school to use his name. He also threw in 50 gold guineas and took a seat on its board until he had to vacate for higher office -- the presidency of the United States.

Not surprisingly, Washington College is best known for its humanities offerings, but the college offers majors in 25 subjects ranging from English and history to computer science and business management.

Diversity is something the college is working to improve. The school reported a minority population of nine percent of its undergraduate students from the United States in 2002. Another eight percent were international citizens. Forty-seven percent of undergraduate students are from the "Old Line State." There is also a small community of graduate students on campus pursuing a master's of arts in English, history or psychology.

Washington College is not cheap. Tuition, room and board and a student fee totaled $29,000 in 2002, but the college reports that 85 percent of its student body receives financial aid. The school has an endowment of $100 million.

Those able to make the investment receive an intimate educational experience in a bucolic setting on 120 leafy acres that is within walking distance of Chestertown's quaint, colonial center.

In Chestertown, Andy's is a popular student hangout for the over-21 set. In addition to a bar and restaurant, Andy's hosts live bluegrass and jazz music in its back lounge area.

Students under the legal drinking age congregate at Play it Again Sam, the local coffee bar, for a sip and nibble or a game of chess.

Approximately one-quarter of the student body participates in one of the six fraternities and sororities on Washington College's social scene. Rush is held for freshmen in the spring semester.

Spring also brings the lacrosse season, the campus' other abiding passion. The Shoremen's annual match-up with Eastern Shore rival Salisbury, "The War on the Shore," is a favorite with fans and tailgaters alike. Though a perennial contender for the men's Division III lacrosse crown, Washington College has only won one championship, in 1998.

Around the same time, a literary spell was broken. Despite its generosity, few winners of the Sophie Kerr Prize had gone on to much literary renown since the college first awarded it in 1968.

That changed in 2000 when a 34-year-old single mother and former drug addict from Baltimore won the award. Christine Lincoln's prize-winning collection of short stories examined "what it means to be African-American." In 2001, Pantheon paid $135,000 to publish her work as "Sap Rising." Booklist said the stories "evoke the small-town intimacies seen in friendships betrayed, marriages despoiled and young girls seduced by the allure of train whistles."

That praise is just an example of Washington College's rising literary reputation.

George Washington was known as a man who was "first in war, first in peace and first in the hearts of his countrymen." A Washington College graduate might someday add, "first on the bestseller list."