Karen Tucker wins 2019-20 P.E.O. Scholar Award

Karen Tucker has experienced the lows and the highs when applying for grants and scholarships. One of her strongest reactions to a decision was the rush she experienced in the spring of 2019.

“When I learned I’d been selected for a P.E.O. Scholar Award, it felt like my whole body rearranged itself. Dopamine is a powerful chemical,” she says.

Tucker is a Department of English doctoral student, working toward her Ph.D. in Creative Writing. She found out in early April that the Philanthropic Educational Organization had chosen her to receive the award as well as the $15,000 monetary prize.peo_primary_logo.jpg

The awards are “one-time, competitive, merit-based awards intended to recognize and encourage academic excellence and achievement by women in doctoral-level programs,” according to the organization’s website. The award provides time and space for Tucker to focus on her dissertation, a novel-in-progress about the opioid epidemic, and the link between trauma and active addiction.

The P.E.O. award is added to numerous others that Tucker has won, including an Elizabeth George Foundation Grant for Emerging Writers, FSU’s Spotlight Award for Fiction, FSU’s George M. Harper Award for Creative Writing, and a scholarship to Longleaf Writer’s Conference. Her fiction can be found in The Missouri Review, The Yale Review Online, Epoch, Boulevard, American Literary Review, and Tin House Online, among other places. She currently serves as Fiction Editor for The Southeast Review.

Tucker earned her Master of Fine Arts at Warren Wilson College in North Carolina before coming to Tallahassee in the summer of 2015. Support and encouragement she has received from FSU faculty members and her department colleagues is “instrumental” to her success, she says. In turn, she wants other Ph.D. candidates to take advantage of the opportunities that have benefited her.

“The P.E.O. Scholar Award funds Ph.D. candidates in a range of fields,” she says, “and although the website features a photo of a woman in safety glasses holding a test tube, they have a long history of supporting those of us in the humanities. Apply people, apply!”

Tucker took time from her home in Asheville, N.C., to elaborate on her studies and her appreciation for the English department community.

Could you write a little bit about your experience in higher education?

Although I arrived with an MFA, the rest of my academic background was pretty sketchy: college dropout at 19, followed by years and years of waiting tables. Never taught, never taken a lit class, one lonely publication. I say all of this in case anyone else shows up to grad school as scared and inexperienced as I was: you might think you’re dying a thousand times a day, but you can do this.

Could you explain a little bit about the process of applying for the award? Some organizations have detailed and comprehensive requirements for the applications. How stressful was the process for this one? What tips or guidance did you receive from department faculty members or other colleagues?

For me, the most stressful part of applying for anything comes after the required paperwork has been submitted. Rejection, rejection, rejection. Sometimes you just have to go to bed and sleep it off. But! There are those rare moments when you check your email and somehow a Yes has found its way into your inbox.

Were it not for the generosity of Dr. Adrienne Stephenson [director of Office of Graduate Fellowships and Awards], who made time to share valuable advice throughout the initial round of applying, my sad No file would be even sadder. Dr. Maxine Montgomery, who has taught me so much both inside the classroom and out, gave me multiple opportunities as her assistant to contribute to the FSU community and our Tallahassee community-at-large, and those experiences strengthened me, as well as my application, immeasurably. And Dr. Leigh Edwards not only wrote me a crucial letter of recommendation, she swooped in when an email snafu threatened to derail my application, and got things back on track. Heroes, all.

Could you write about how the award will help you achieve your ultimate goal?

The monetary award will save me from having to take on a second job during my last year as a student, and the accompanying stress reduction is no joke. More than that, it’s given me a welcome dose of encouragement. Already I find I have more stamina for the trickier parts of drafting and revision, and the recent no’s I’ve received, while still unpleasant little beasts, haven’t left quite as mean of a bruise.

Could you write about faculty and colleague support you have received throughout your time in the department?

Without a doubt, FSU’s village of colleagues and faculty has been instrumental in raising up this baby scholar. Along with Dr. Montgomery, Dr. Deborah Coxwell-Teague and Dr. Trinyan Mariano have been incredible role models, and I’m so grateful for the chance to learn from them during my formative years as a student and an instructor. My committee members, Mark Winegardner, Elizabeth Stuckey-French, and Skip Horack are all nothing short of brilliant, and their willingness to not only point out the, ahem, less effective parts of my fiction, but also to guide me toward writing smarter, stronger, stranger, has saved me again and again. If I named each of the colleagues who’ve helped me grow as a writer, this response would be absurdly long, so I’ll save those specifics for (please writing goddesses let this happen) a future acknowledgments page. For now, I’ll say that Misha Rai, SJ Sindu, and CJ Hauser, all extraordinarily talented writers, teachers, and FSU alums, have been among the best mentors a person could hope for.

Photo credit: Jared Lipof