Age: 17Closter, NJ
Project Title: The Language of Memory: Combating the Erasure of Self-Identity
My portfolio examines how language is used as a tool to resist the erasure of memory and sense of self against trauma, marginalization, and illness. Casting a lens on a familial narrative —from my ancestors living in a rural Dutch community during Nazi occupation, to moving across three continents, to combating dementia—I explore how language preserves self-identity, culture, and empathy during periods of oppression. By investigating how language passes on these experiences beyond the lives or memories of those who originally experienced them, this project answers the following questions: how does language preserve experiences—and, ultimately, identity—during times of war, atrocity and marginalization? Does identity fade as memory fades?
My name is Katherine Vandermel, and I’m a rising senior at Bergen County Academies, where I’m a candidate in the IB Diploma Programme. From a very young age, I’ve had an interest in storytelling through art. This evolved into my passions for exploring storytelling in multiple dimensions—specifically, through reading and researching literature, and of course, writing literature. I’m incredibly honored to be named a Davidson Fellow at this stage of my academic career. To be among such brilliant, intelligent, and innovative individuals is truly humbling and fulfilling.
My project explores how language preserves self-identity, culture, and empathy during periods of oppression. By investigating how language passes on experiences beyond the lives or memories of those who originally experienced them, this project answers the following questions: how does language preserve experiences—and, ultimately, identity—during times of war, atrocity and marginalization? Does identity fade as memory fades? In my writing portfolio, I translate the first verse of the Dutch clandestine poem “Het Lied der Achttien Dooden” piece by piece into prose poems of their own. Each translation is linked to another piece of writing: a poem, a short story, or a memoir, in order to foster a dialogue around the relationships between language, memory, and identity. This portfolio was inspired by my study in Dutch clandestine literature for a history project. Further, the scaffolding of my project was also derived from my grandmother’s experiences with dementia, from which I was compelled to fuse my passions for creative writing and reading literature into a portfolio that would preserve and amplify a personal and historical narrative.
This portfolio is composed of pieces from as early as my freshman year of high school until mid-junior year. Since writing has always been incredibly immersive for me, throughout this process I occasionally struggled to prevent the grief I experienced—both first-hand and on behalf of my relatives—from hindering the construction of my manuscript. As I continued to write, however, I learned to compartmentalize this emotion during the creative process—grief was not only taking me away from this project but compromising my ability to achieve the goals I’d set out to accomplish. As I wrote and assembled my portfolio, I uncovered common threads in the anecdotes that I initially had created inadvertently. Images that I naturally found myself returning to drove me to further develop and interrogate the nuances of meaning that I felt within each piece I wrote; I also found myself linking certain images from the beginning of the portfolio to the middle to the end.
The implications of this project extend far beyond the experiences of my relatives, towards reclaiming a battle fought by millions of people around the world: generational struggles of individuals who seek to share their experiences as their memories disintegrate. Word by word, this portfolio demonstrates the resilience of language—through linguistic, cultural, and temporal barriers, memory (and, by extension, identity) persist. While this project assumes a voice of adversity—preserving past stories of trauma and anguish—this project is ultimately a voice for humanity. Across generations and cultures, storytelling remains a way to preserve the bare bones of our identity.
As a student at a public magnet school with a competitive application process, I’m very lucky to have access to enriching classes. At BCA, all classes begin at the honors level or higher. Some of my favorite classes have been Creative Writing Research, IB Language and Literature, and IB History of the Americas.
At BCA, I lead two school publications as Editor-in-Chief of our global affairs journal and as an editor for our school newspaper. Further, I’m involved in the creative writing research program, and have been fortunate enough for my writing to be recognized by the National Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, Hippocrates Poetry Society, Columbia University, Columbia College Chicago, and National Council of Teachers in English, and for my work to appear in Alexandria Quarterly, Apprentice Writer, and National Poet Quarterly among others. I also enjoy music: I study as a voice major at Juilliard Pre-College, sing in choir, and have performed at many venues such as Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and the Kimmel Center for Performing Arts. Moreover, I’ve been an international finalist at DECA’s 2019 ICDC Conference in Orlando and have received recognition at various Model United Nations conferences. I’m a member of the National Honor Society, Tri-M Music Honor Society, and National Chinese Language Honor Society. As a former competitive swimmer for 7 years, I like to swim in my leisure time, in addition to playing tennis, tutoring younger children, trying new food, and bothering my cats.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Ideally, at a cafe in Amsterdam, drafting a book manuscript and drinking a café au lait.
If you could have dinner with the five most interesting people in the world, living or dead, who would they be?
William Shakespeare, Charles Gounod, Vincent van Gogh, Mr. Bean, and Celine Dion
In the News
CLOSTER TEEN AWARDED $25,000 FOR HER LITERARY PORTFOLIO EXPLORING STORYTELLING TO PRESERVE IDENTITY OF FAMILY HISTORY
Katherine Vandermel to be Named a 2020 Davidson Fellow Scholarship Winner
Closter, N.J. – The Davidson Fellows Scholarship Program has announced the 2020 scholarship winners. Among the honorees is 17-year-old Katherine Vandermel of Closter. Vandermel won a $25,000 scholarship for her project, The Language of Memory: Combating the Erasure of Self-Identity. She is one of only 20 students across the country to be recognized as a scholarship winner.
“I’m incredibly honored to be named a Davidson Fellow at this stage of my academic career,” said Vandermel. “To be among such brilliant, intelligent, and innovative individuals is truly humbling and fulfilling.”
Vandermel’s portfolio examines how language is used as a tool to resist the erasure of memory and sense of self against trauma, marginalization, and illness, following her ancestors living in a rural Dutch community during Nazi occupation, moving across three continents, and combating dementia.
Vandermel is a rising senior at Bergen County Academies where she is a candidate in the IB Diploma Programme. Vandermel plans to pursue a career as an author, furthering her interest in storytelling through art.
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Profoundly gifted students are those who score in the 99.9th percentile on IQ and achievement tests. Read more about this population in this article.