Phi Eta Sigma names winners of Nebraska Emerging Writer Contest

KEARNEY – Seven high school students have been named winners in a University of Nebraska at Kearney writing contest with the theme “Nebraska in the Year 2020.”

The Nebraska Emerging Writer Contest included submissions from students across the state in three categories: essay, poetry and short story. It was sponsored and organized by UNK’s Phi Eta Sigma chapter. Cash prizes totaling $500 were given to the winners.

Briannah Stromer, a junior at Hastings High School, won first place in the poetry division. Cydnee Coutts, a senior at Creighton Community High School, placed first in the short story category, and Elwood High School senior Hanna Wood won first in the essay portion of the contest.

Winners have been invited to read their submissions April 16 at the Student Language and Literature Conference organized by the UNK Department of English.

Winning entries include:

1st Place – Briannah Stromer, junior, Hastings High School, “Farmers in a Pandemic”
2nd Place – Brooke Slangal, sophomore, Axtell High School, “We Will All Get Through This Together”
2nd Place – Ashley Nierman, senior, Harvard Public School, “Whatever You Make It”

Short Story
1st Place – Cydnee Coutts, senior, Creighton Community High School, “Mother Nature’s Nebraska”
2nd Place – Alicia Vodehnal, senior, Clarkson Public Schools, “Troy’s Journey”
Honorable Mention – Emily Marin, sophomore, Creek Valley Public Schools, “The Flower Girl”

1st Place – Hanna Wood, senior, Elwood High School, “2020 in a Nutshell”

Phi Eta Sigma is a national honor society that promotes literacy and academic excellence. The UNK chapter currently has about 350 members. Judging committees for the writing contest were chaired by UNK students Brooke Benck, Kelcie Burke, Caroline Stanley and Mariah Watson. The contest is part of a larger call for philanthropic activities focusing on literacy from the national office of Phi Eta Sigma. Maria O’Malley, associate professor of English, is the Phi Eta Sigma faculty adviser.

First Place Poetry
Briannah Stromer
“Farmers in a Pandemic”

The news rattles out of the old TV
Wheezing and crackling away.
But no one’s around to listen to it go.
It’s just noise to accompany the day.

The old man who owns the house
Is out and about in his field.
There’s no masks or hand sanitizer.
Just rattling trucks
And sun warmed meals

The pandemic does not graze this piece of land
Doesn’t hinder the work to be done.
Cows need milked and eggs collected.
No time to think in the boiling sun.

Sure, he sees it
going into town to buy groceries
He sees the masks and the space between people.
And he just clicks his tongue and shakes his head
Remembering the time when people stood like rows of corn
Leaves brushing, heads swaying, bumping each other in the wind.

He’s got just the one mask
Sewn by his daughter way up North
With a sunflower print
And a tractor right near his ear

He likes to pretend sometimes he can hear it running
And he tries not to think them disturbing thoughts
Like how he’d sputter and run like a tractor if the disease got his lungs

He remembers as a boy getting hay fever
And surely the disease could do no worse
But still, he’s awful careful
With his COPD the way it is …
Well winter’s hard enough

His daughter’s always calling
She says she misses him an awful lot
But he knows she is seeing if he’s still alive
Got another grandkid on the way
If he’s not there to greet the littl’ un,
Who will?

So, the pandemic keeps him far from his daughter up North
And even further from his son out East
But he calls when he can
And he spends time playing games with the grandkids
He’s hoping it’ll clear up by December

Maybe then they’ll all come out
Cause he gets awfully lonely
By himself in that big farmhouse.

First Place Short Story
Cydnee Coutts
“Mother Nature’s Nebraska”

My eyes were pressed up against the glass door that separated me and the beginning of the first thunderstorm of the year. I call my sister over to see the dark, swirling clouds that form above us. We rejoice as we rush to put on our coats in order to witness the magnificent show Mother Nature is about to put on. We stepped out onto the porch where we were met with a cool, misty breeze. It smelt of moisture, dirt, and the first days of summer. The first crack of thunder sends a chill down my spine and a smile on my face. I love Nebraska storms. But it is not just the storm in itself, it is what comes after the storm that makes it all worth it.

The wind had a sudden shift from warm, dry air to a sudden cool, damp wind. With this, I knew the rain could not be far off. Lightning danced around the still daylight skies following with the loud clapping of thunder. When the rain began, it started off light and lovely, but without warning turned into a torrential, terrible downpour. The rain clambered on the roof and bounced off the sidewalks violently. This made my heart happy. The sounds and actions of nature have always held a special place in my spirit. My sister and I giggle as the wind blew cold mist on our smiling faces. We take a seat on our old and outdated patio furniture my family has been meaning to replace. I watch with wide eyes up at the unhappy sky. Lightning is a strange thing I think to myself. It strikes down looking for the nearest object to touch with its fury. It is so angry. It strikes nature’s trees without hesitation yet, the marks it leaves are beautiful and eerie.

The storm blew powerful winds up against the tall evergreen trees causing them to shift back and forth. The power lines above our house danced with delight. I watched the rain pour down the gutters of our roof washing away all signs of decomposing leaves that filled them. The thunder rolled deeply in my chest as it cried from the heavens. The storm soon after had to leave our small and uneventful town and move onto the next. I became saddened by the rain starting to let up, but in doing so I could see the warm, yellow evening sunlight peak through the cracks of the storm clouds. The rays were comfortable upon my pale and now cool skin as I stepped out of the shelter of my porch. My sister accompanied me as I walked down our driveway to observe the leftover regiments of the storm. Sticks and branches were scattered upon our lawn. Dare I compare the storm to a child; they throw a fit, leave a mess, and can be utterly terrifying, but how rewarding and truly beautiful they can be!

And then there it was. When sunlight so generously hits the water particles that linger in the air after a frightening storm, it provides comfort and hope within its bright and enticing colors. The colors of the rainbow shined down upon me. I flashed my sister the biggest smile as I pointed to the brightly lit arch of colors. I take a moment to inhale the freshly wet earth and thank god for the beautiful earth we have the privilege to call home. Thank God for Nebraska. How generous these storms can be for my homeland. It brings my father business and the satisfaction of caring for my family. It supports small businesses and self-employed farms. Every time a storm comes around it is truly a blessing. I look forward to such events knowing that it can bring such joy and relief to my community.

The warm air called to me. What better way to honor such an event than to hop in the car and ride around with the windows down. As I sit behind the wheel with the wind in my dull, brown hair and experience the post-storm weather, the troubles of the world melt away. Main Street is buzzing as pickup trucks and cars continue their evening activities. The sun was bright as it started to kiss the west horizon. Every Nebraskan knows there is nothing better than our sunsets. The music pulsed through my car speakers and my sister and I sang every word of whatever song came on. It is days like these that make me never want to leave home.

First Place Essay
Hanna Wood
“2020 in a Nutshell”

In 2020, Nebraska was a disaster. From when we had school closings, to when the election was recounted several times, we all fell on hard times. Well, back in March 2020, schools closed. Schools closed because of COVID-19. All the schools tried to teach with an online learning system. Our President, Donald Trump was impeached, twice (once in 2020 and once in 2021). Nebraska was a total and utter disaster.

In the beginning, our schools were the first to go. Back in March of 2020, COVID-19 got the best of everything. Mass confusion was spreading across the district like wildfire. People didn’t know what they were supposed to believe. One side of the story was that masks were important and that they slowed the spread of the virus. The other side said that there was no need for masks because they had observed that they did not protect from the virus since the amount of people that actually wore a mask was so low.

Online schooling was a major step into working around the issue of group gatherings in Nebraska. My whole class received an email saying that they were starting online classes. Online classes were so much better than going to school. Other people didn’t like it as much. This meant that each teacher had to create a new type of curriculum for the online students. Each teacher used their own technique. Most of the teachers assigned assignments on certain days. Some teachers made it confusing and used several different teaching apps which students never seemed to understand. This experience was kind of fun for me because I like to do homework at home and at night instead of going to school and having to sit in class.

COVID-19 took control of everything. People were forced to wear masks and workplaces were shut down. Nobody would stop talking about COVID-19. The hospitals were crowded because people were being admitted when they were sick and might not have even had COVID-19 but were labeled as that. There was, at a time, a theory flying around that people were dying from COVID-19 when they weren’t actually dying from COVID-19. Some of the doctors were wanting to say that every sickness was in a direct relation to COVID-19. Some people believed that they started to develop medical issues from wearing a mask since the flow of oxygen directly impaired their ability to breathe. “Since the effects of wearing the mask related back to some of the symptoms of having COVID-19, they decided that they wanted to be tested. Some of the people tested negative and some of them were positive” (Li). There was, at a time, a theory going around that people were listed as dying from COVID-19, but they weren’t actually dying from COVID-19. People tested over and over again, for various reasons, even if they weren’t even sick or if they had the common cold or simple allergies. People who had babies weren’t even able to see them, even though they carried the child for full term inside of them for nine months. However, most people think that the COVID-19 virus was and still is politically related. Everyone was freaking out and taking COVID-19 way out of control.

Then, there is the fact of the President of the United States being impeached. The fact stands that he is the third president to be impeached. He may not be the only president to be impeached, but he is the only president to be impeached twice (once in 2020 and once in 2021) for obstruction of congress. This was believed by some to be a direct attack on the Constitution of The United States of America. This then led to mass riots about which governing party was understanding the Constitution correctly.

Lastly, there is the election. The belief of voter fraud was widespread. The people believed that there were lots of rigged results. One theory was that people that were deceased were presumed to be voting in the election. The numbers for both parties seemed at times to be blown out of proportion. Each side believed that they had the majority of the votes. Each side seemed to be either winning or losing. In the end, Biden won the election. The votes were so close that many people believed that it was a rigged election, on one side claiming a victory that didn’t seem to be real because of the narrow win, and the other side with a narrow loss that seemed to be a falsehood. In either case, the end result did not please everyone. If you watch the election speeches that Trump and Biden made, both of them were being extremely unprofessional.

In conclusion, Nebraska was a disaster. It is nowhere near where it was at the beginning of the pandemic. COVID-19 was a huge factor in all of the events that have transpired in the year 2020. The pandemic was the fuel to many of the fires and to many of the campaign rallying points. The President of The United States was impeached for acts that were to seem to be malicious to The United States. The election was most literally decided by who was going to have the best plan to combat the pandemic. In all honesty, I hope that 2021 is nothing like 2020.

Work Cited
Li, Tom, et al. “Mask or No Mask for COVID-19: A Public Health and Market Study.” PLOS ONE, Public Library of Science, 14 Aug. 2020,