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The High Desert Calls

Local students invited to submit entries to the Waterston Student Essay Competition



From memoirs to poetry, the rugged natural beauty and stark landscapes of the Oregon High Desert have been inspiring writers for centuries. Now, our unique environment is inspiring young writers to explore their creativity as part of the 2021 Waterston Student Essay Competition, hosted by the High Desert Museum.

The competition gets its name from local Bend area writer and poet, Ellen Waterston, a self-described "desert rat" who has four poetry collections and three nonfiction titles to her credit. Deeply inspired by the high desert environment she calls home, Waterston launched the original Waterston Desert Writing Prize in 2014 to "honor literary nonfiction that illustrates artistic excellence, sensitivity to place, and desert literacy—with the desert as both subject and setting," according to the competition's website.

  • Courtesy of the High Desert Museum

The original competition was geared primarily toward adults until just last year, when a student version was launched. While the original adult prize remains centered on a nonfiction, full-length book proposal, the idea was to offer a short essay contest specifically for high school-aged teenagers. As Waterston explains, "engaging students in writing and the literary arts is a strong priority."

While both the adult and teen versions have different parameters, they share a common root. According to Waterston, "Both the Waterston Desert Writing Prize (for adults) and the student essay competition are ways for established and younger writers to examine the role of deserts in their lives and, more generally, in the human narrative."

In 2020, local Redmond student Al Lehto took home the inaugural student prize with their essay entitled "The Badlands," which centered on their experiences in the desert badlands east of Bend. "Al Lehto wrote a masterful essay on their artist-mother's love of the high desert as the subject of her paintings and how excursions into the high desert as a child influenced Al's deep appreciation of the high desert now," Waterston says.

This year, high school students in 9th - 12th grades from across Central Oregon are invited to participate in the nonfiction writing contest and may focus on any aspect of the High Desert. Whether describing a place, relating a personal story, detailing an observation, or addressing a contemporary issue facing the region, students are encouraged to use their creativity.

"The word 'essay' sometimes suggests a certain type of writing," Waterston states, "but in fact, nonfiction includes lyric, documentary, and narrative styles, so there's lots of latitude. Students are encouraged to let the prompt of an essay about the desert lead them where it will. There's no one right answer."

In that spirit, the contest hopes "to foster young writers and discover what young creatives want to share about this beautiful region we call home," according to the website. Eligibility extends to all public school, private school, and home-school students, as long as they are 18 years old or younger and reside in Crook, Deschutes, Harney, Jefferson, or Lake County. Essays must be between 750 and 1,000 words and must never have been previously published, including in school newsletters.

  • Courtesy of the High Desert Museum

All entries will be judged on their ability to contribute to our community's understanding and appreciation of our unique High Desert region, cultures, and environment. Originality, clarity of expression, and accuracy will also be evaluated, and all entries will be judged blind, as participants are instructed to exclude their names, schools, or any other identifying information in their submissions. The final deadline is May 1, 2021, with the winner announced later in May by the Waterston Desert Writing Prize advisory committee to the High Desert Museum.

For young writers who take up the pen, this contest provides a wonderful opportunity to showcase their writing talents and earn accolades for their college resume or professional writing career. In addition to a $250 cash prize, the winner will be honored at a special awards ceremony and reception hosted by the High Desert Museum in September 2021. Their winning essay will also be published online and promoted by the museum as an example of nonfiction literary excellence.

Ultimately, "the goal of the regional student essay competition is to encourage young writers to engage with a desert landscape through writing, to observe and speculate about deserts, the impact of desert landscapes on them and the impact of humans on deserts," Waterston says. "The opportunity for the student writer is to dig deeper into their relationship with a particular landscape."

How to submit an essay:
Visit and email
Deadline is May 1, 2021

Editor’s Note: This online version reflects the original copy submitted by the author with Al Lehto’s pronoun being “their”. Due to a copy-editing error, this pronoun was mistakenly changed to “him” in the print version.

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