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Before she even set foot on campus this fall, freshman Marcela Grillo had achieved national recognition as short story writer.
Grillo won a National Medal in Fiction from the Scholastic Art & Writing Awards in June and will be featured in an anthology of teen writers for her story "My Cuba," a short fictional work inspired by her grandfather's childhood prior to his escape from island nation in 1956, during the height of the Cuban Revolution.
Before it was an award-winning short story, "My Cuba" was a high school paper assignment. During her sophomore year, Grillo's Spanish teacher assigned an open-topic essay related to history in the Spanish-speaking world. Reflecting on her Cuban heritage, Grillo decided to write about the experience of her grandfather.
"I knew about the basics - Che Guevara, Batista, Castro, U.S.-Cuban politics - but I didn't really know about it from his perspective," she says. "Interviewing him was a great way to personalize the assignment, and it allowed me to identify more with my Cuban side."
Grillo incorporates anecdotes from her grandfather's childhood into the narrative and uses journal entries to weave back and forth between the narrator's younger and older selves. Written in Spanish, the story garnered positive feedback and an "A" from her teacher.
Grillo also participated in Girls Write Now, a mentorship program in New York City that matches professional writers with teen girls to develop their writing skills and confidence. She met with her mentor once a week to work on new stories and edit existing ones, and, in 2011, rediscovered the Spanish essay inspired by her grandfather.
"I had originally envisioned it as a screenplay," she said. "But we looked at it again, and I came up with the idea of translating it into English and submitting it as a short story."
That December, Grillo submitted "My Cuba" to the New York City Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. Of the more than 200,000 works of art and writing submitted, "My Cuba" was one of the top 500 pieces selected to win an award. Grillo won a Gold Key - the highest regional distinction - and her story was passed along for national review. The Scholastic Art & Writing Awards and the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers then awarded her story a National Silver Medal, which she accepted at Carnegie Hall on June 1.
"It's been a really amazing experience," Grillo said. "I never expected it would get as much attention it has." Grillo received even more good news when The Alliance for Young Artists and Writers selected "My Cuba" for the organization's anthology of short stories, "The Best Teen Writing of 2012."
Recognition from the nation's capital was not far behind: "My Cuba" is one of 70 winning stories selected by The Alliance to be exhibited in both the offices of the Department of Education and the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities headquarters in Washington, D.C.
Now at Connecticut College, Grillo is busy taking a variety of classes, including introductory courses in biology and sociology, a first-year seminar on film and a 200-level English course. And while she is excited about exploring her many academic interests, Grillo admits that "My Cuba" reinforced her passion for storytelling. After re-imagining the story of her grandfather's childhood in Cuba, Grillo says her bond with her family history - and her confidence in her writing ability - is stronger than ever.
"This experience reaffirms that writing is the path for me," she says.