Portrait of an Alum: Mary Coggins

Portrait of an Alum: Mary Coggins

Photo: Mary in County Wicklow, Ireland

The “Portrait of an Alum” blog series gives a glimpse of life after graduation, with a particular emphasis on our students’ readiness for the transition to college and how their affections and outlook have been shaped through their experiences, teachers and Christian community at Veritas.  For this profile, Director of Communications Sara Kennedy interviewed 2011 graduate Mary Coggins, who recently completed her undergraduate work at Belmont College. This is a summary of their conversation.

Four summers ago, graduate Mary Coggins was on her way to Belmont College in Nashville. After ten years at Veritas, she nervously headed to a new city eleven hours from home, knowing no one. Today, she finds herself at a similar launching place, preparing to enter American University’s School of Fine Arts graduate program in Washington, D.C.

“Good Literature Changes People”

Mary spoke this sentence with conviction. Though she works at Red Apron Butcher in D.C. to help pay for upcoming grad school tuition, her first love is writing. In 9th grade, Veritas humanities teacher Rick Trumbo introduced Mary to the work of Flannery O’Connor. Captivated by the weighty, rich work of O’Connor, she began to explore the writings of other leading southern writers – who she now names as the inspiration for her own writing projects.

In the Honors program at Belmont, Mary quickly understood the value of the writing and reading requirements at Veritas. Even in the first semester of the program, she was singled out to guide the work of other students. With writing mechanics, basic structure and an excellent vocabulary firmly in place, she was able to focus her attention – and deeply enjoy the challenge of more creative approaches to story-craft.

Much like the senior thesis at Veritas, students in Mary’s English honor program were required to create a major work for board review. In the tradition of the great southern writers, Mary chose to write a memoir style novel following the life of her great-grandmother. From her earliest days in Petersburg through the sea change of life in the tri-cities over the next eight decades, this leading lady was forced, despite the expectations of culture and tradition and experience, into an independence well ahead of her time.

Though the capstone project was turned in, graded and her degree awarded, writing and re-writing her great-grandmother’s story continues to play an important role in Mary’s life. She very much wants to “get it right”, both for the sake of the story, and to honor her beloved great grandmother and hero. Her commitment to historical accuracy, and her desire to expressively fill in missing details create the framework for her work in this genre – creative non-fiction.

It is her hunger to truly pay attention, to deeply listen and to winsomely share the stories of others that makes Mary an excellent writer and a life-long learner in the best classical tradition.

Mary graduated from the Honors program in English just a few weeks ago, with a minor in Sports Writing (a joy for her sports-loving father, Veritas basketball coach Phil Coggins). During her time at Belmont, she had the joy of traveling in the footsteps of famous writers throughout Ireland – and throughout the South while visiting the homes of friends. In September, she will enter American University’s School of Fine Arts to pursue a Master’s Degree in Creative Writing.family

Though four years have passed since Mary’s graduation from Veritas, she remains appreciative of the investment of her many teachers over ten years, of the high standard for writing and the breadth of literature read. Her college experience was made considerably easier by the preparation she received at Veritas – a remarkable testimony and one she hopes students understand when they feel overwhelmed or unequal to the task – in sum, “it feels hard because it is hard” – but worth it for the freedom gained and the foundation laid.

We are truly excited to continue to watch this gifted writer’s story unfold – through the pages of her first novel – and the beauty of her attentive life.

“The writer should never be ashamed of staring. There is nothing that does not require his attention.”

– Flannery O’Connor

Photo: Teresa, Caroline, Mary and Phil Coggins.  Caroline is a rising senior at Veritas.