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Zeng ’17 wins Caro prize for second year; C-Span broadcasts

Jasmin Ortiz

Jasmin Ortiz

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While many students across the grades submitted their best research papers in attempts to win the Robert Caro Prize for Literary Excellence in the Writing of History, Sarah Zeng ‘17’s essay stood out as the finest for the second year in a row. She was honored at the award ceremony at Head of School Dr. Tom Kelly’s home on June 15th.

The award ceremony was broadcasted on C-SPAN-2, and streamed, where it has been viewed over 500 times.

The ceremony began with Kelly’s opening remarks about the honor of the award, followed by history teacher Barry Bienstock discussing his relationship with Robert Caro ‘53. Then, Caro spoke about Sarah’s essay, followed by Zeng herself, who spoke about her research and offered closing remarks.

Compared to last year, Zeng was “more mature and experienced,” whereas last year she had to initially spend some time acclimating to the experience of researching independently, she said.

“What stood out us in reading Sarah’s essay was the fact that she had a clear and unique thesis and that the paper was incredibly well written stylistically,” Link said. “Her writing flowed very smoothly and she engaged the reader throughout the essay.”

“Although Sarah’s work is very complicated, it’s all very clear in her writing,” Caro said during the award ceremony.

The award was named after Caro, who is an award-winning historian and biographer of President Lyndon Johnson and developer Robert Moses.

According to History Department Chair Dr. Daniel Link, students who engage deeply with a subject, study it comprehensively, research it thoroughly, and write about it compellingly are the essays that stand out, and students who work closely with teachers as they pursue their work end up producing the strongest essays.

After winning the Robert Caro award in 2016 for her paper on the mysteries of the Cuban missile crisis, Zeng reached out to Caro for advice regarding how to conduct research for her next paper: the history of Sino-American relations in the 1970s.

Zeng also chose to focus on this topic specifically for her Independent Study Project, and worked closely with her mentors, Bienstock and Director of Independent Studies Avram Schlesinger, who both helped her a great deal throughout her process, she said.

To go about conducting her research, Zeng reached out to several different professors and former diplomats to discuss their experiences and opinions.

To learn first-hand information and explore the topic from both American and Chinese viewpoints, Zeng traveled to China the year before her senior year, Zeng said. “Contacting experts and convincing them to speak with me wasn’t easy, and I spent a lot of time studying and preparing for each interview,” she said.

She interviewed diplomats about the closed-off trade and travel between the two countries during the 1970s and how the two countries began to reach out to each other and later officially established diplomatic relations during that period, Zeng said.

Over the summer Zeng spent the rest of her time producing a roughly 40-minute documentary that she later showed clips of to her independent study class and put up online, she said.

Throughout the year for her independent study, Zeng focused mostly on the specific roles that both Mao Zedong and Richard Nixon played in establishing U.S.-China relations even though their efforts were mostly unknown to the public at the time.

Zeng’s experience is a great lesson to students that adults are often eager to share their experiences with inquisitive students, Link said.

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Zeng ’17 wins Caro prize for second year; C-Span broadcasts