Dozens of local high school students opened their hearts and minds Thursday, April 7 in a special event at the Western Illinois University-Quad Cities campus in Moline.

Over 60 students from Moline, United Township and Bettendorf high schools gathered for the fourth-annual Get Lit Writing Contest & Event. The creative writing and art showcase aims to bring area students to campus to feature their poems, short stories. and artwork.

United Township student Janae Walker reads her poem, “Letter to an Uneducated White Person,” at the Get Lit event Thursday, April 7, 2022 at WIU-QC, Moline (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Many pieces were heartbreakingly anguished — revealing the teens’ struggles with body image, social media pressures, racial and sexual identity discrimination, depression, suicide, stereotypes, self-esteem, climate change, fear of failure and challenges with parents and society, among many tough topics.

“What matters is, you’re speaking your truth,” Get Lit organizer Everett Hamner, WIU-QC American literature and film professor, told students before they read their work. “You’re saying to each other, this is what I see, this is what I feel. This is what has happened, this is what matters to me. Whether it’s formally perfect or not, that’s what we want to honor.”

WIU-QC in Moline started the event in 2018, and Thursday was the first one in person since 2019. Over 60 area students spent five hours at Western, including tours and lunch, to celebrate the written word and visual art.

The painting “Golden Child,” by Noelia [first name only as requested], a Moline High School junior, won second place in the contest Images category.

They had 83 students enter over 100 works — open to any QC high school students. Hamner had entries from six schools — Moline, UTHS, Bettendorf, Orion, North Scott and Maquoketa.

“This is to balance all the pressure they get towards STEM,” he said. The event is sponsored by WIU, the Interdisciplinary English and Arts Society (IDEAS), Student Government Association and WQPT Quad Cities PBS.

“The goal more than anything is to celebrate their imaginations and give them the opportunity to speak their truth to each other — to discover that matters and it’s something that our society cares about, even if we spend a lo more time generally awarding athletics and other kinds of extracurriculars,” Hamner said.

Get Lit organizer Everett Hamner, WIU-QC American literature and film professor, speaking before students read their work on Thursday, April 7, 2022 (photo by Jonathan Turner).

Secondarily, Western wants to help students become more comfortable with the idea of going to college, he said. “If Western is a good fit for them, of course we want to put our best foot forward and invite them.”

The student works for Get Lit have gotten more intense and traumatic than past years, Hamner said. “We’re allowed to let what we really think be heard here. I would also say, there’s a rawness that’s increasing. 2018, 2019, there were some true things spoken, but proportionately now there’s more rawness.”

The isolation and challenges of the past two years also played a big part in the new themes, he said.

Expressing society’s wrongs

Ava Saucedo-Serra, a Moline High School freshman, is a double talent threat — she won first place for her painting, “Women,” and read her poem on what she doesn’t understand about people who hate and discriminate.

Ava Saucedo-Serra‘s painting “Women.”

“I’m a person with a lot of passion and I wanted to express things that I see wrong with today’s society,” Ava said. “I’m a strong believer in, be the change you want to see. I hope that my passion will be put onto others and their eyes will be opened. I think with a little more love and a lot more support, we can get there as a community one day and we can do it together.”

Ava really wants to get into public speaking and help change minds.

“I really love being around other like-minded people, so I was really excited to be here, and I’ve always liked art, as a way to express myself,” she said.

In her artwork “Women,” Ava painted lilies (representing motherhood), and green represents life, and women are capable of producing and nurturing life.

In her poem, she expressed her frustrations, including with family members who have closed minds.

“I think this generation, we want to educate ourselves, and we want to be the change,” Ava said.

Neena Cameron, a Moline High School junior, got second place for her poem.

“We want to make people uncomfortable and make them realize, this isn’t a dream, this is a reality,” she said, noting her poem implored people to not judge her by her appearance.

Neena Cameron of Moline High reads her poem, “Is It Me?,” at the Get Lit event Thursday, April 7, 2022 at Western Illinois University, Moline (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I want to pursue writing when I’m older and I felt this was a step up to see how much I can express my feelings on paper,” Neena said. “And I just wanted to see how it was in college and hear everyone else’s stories, and see how it is. And get a feel for how many other things I can do when I’m older. I want to do journalism.”

She said she was impressed by Western, which opened her eyes to possibilities after high school.

“I really got into writing because I felt like I have so many ideas in my head, but I wasn’t good at communicating them,” said Megan Daehler-Burnett, a Moline High School senior. “I began writing them down, because I could take the time and edit it, revise it and really put all of my thoughts into actual words. I wasn’t really into writing before this year, and then I ended up taking a creative writing class.

Moline students Ava Saucedo-Serra, left, Megan Daehler-Burnett, and Neena Cameron (photo by Jonathan Turner).

“I really like this and this opportunity came up,” Megan said of WIU. “It was something out of my comfort zone, and I wanted to push myself. I don’t really know what I want to do after high school. I just want to explore all the options and see what I can find.”

Her poem was about gender and sexuality, and avoiding the boxes society puts girls in, she said, noting it was autobiographical.

“We have these emotions and feelings, and what is going on is so much bigger than us,” Ava said. “If we can come together, things are gonna change.”

Get Lit winners

For the six categories (and 18 total winners), the first-place winner will receive $50; second place, $40; and third place, $30. The following students are WIU-QC 2022 Get Lit Award Winners:

Poems

  • 1st place: “I Was Told,” by Megan Daehler-Burnett, Moline High School senior
  • 2nd place: “Is It Me?” by Neena Cameron, Moline High School junior
  • 3rd place: “Darling, What Are We?” by Maya Sierra, United Township High School senior

Short Stories

  • 1st place: “Cicadas,” by Ava Garrard, North Scott High School senior
  • 2nd place: “The Best Classroom in the World is at the Feet of an Elderly Person,” by Jackie Miller, Maquoketa High School senior
  • 3rd place: “Just a Normal Day at the Beach,” by Arwen Carducci, United Township High School senior

Images

  • 1st place: “Women,” by Ava Saucedo-Serra, Moline High School freshman
  • 2nd place: “The Golden Child,” by Noelia [first name only as requested], Moline High School junior
  • 3rd place: “Magazine Man,” by Hemlokh Royse, Moline High School

Race/Class

  • 1st place: “Dia de Los Muertos in Charcoal,” by Daniel Contreras, Moline High School senior
  • 2nd place: “Letter to an Uneducated White Person,” by Janae Walker, United Township High School senior
  • 3rd place: “My Cents of Body,” Akylah Crowder, United Township High School junior

Gender/Sexuality 

  • 1st place: “You Are a Liar and I Find Myself No Longer Believing,” by Oliver Montan, Moline High School freshman
  • 2nd place: “Blue Screen, Lucid Dream,” by Celine Suarez, United Township senior
  • 3rd place: “To the Man,” by Abby Berger, United Township senior

Environment/Climate 

  • 1st place: “Force of War,” by Kirsten (KJ) Schmidt, Moline High School junior
  • 2nd place: “Kyiv, My Dear,” by Jaxon Roberts, Moline High School sophomore
  • 3rd place: “Creation,” by Lucas Eaton, Moline High School freshman