The Alex McGuiggan Scholarship was first awarded in Spring 2010 in memory of Alex McGuiggan, an English major at the University of Colorado Boulder. It recognizes the achievements of an undergraduate English major studying creative writing, with a preference for students whose strength is in writing poetry. Alex was an astute observer of human behavior known for his wry sense of humor, mastery of the art of friendship, and unwavering commitment to following his own path. The ideal Alex McGuiggan scholar should share not only Alex’s passion for writing and other forms of creative expression, but also these personal attributes. The $2,000 award is to be applied to student tuition.
Alex was a sophomore at CU Boulder who had turned 20 shortly before he died in February 2009. A Chancellor’s Achievement Scholarship recipient, Alex had come to CU in the fall of 2007 unsure of exactly what he wanted to study, much less what career he wanted to pursue. He was eager to begin his journey, however, even if it required geographic separation from his family and long-time friends.
As a high school student in the Chicago area, Alex studied the guitar intensely, striving to master it and emulate classic rock and blues guitarists such as Robby Krieger, Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and B.B. King among others. He spent countless hours jamming with friends, ultimately transposing his passion into a senior project for which he wrote and recorded his own original music.
As a CU student, Alex continued to share music discoveries and witty stories with his close friends studying at colleges and universities across the country. At the same time, he cultivated a close-knit group of fellow “Willville” denizens. Alex loved Boulder – its culture, its natural beauty, and of course, his new friends. No matter how much schoolwork he had, or how tough an exam he’d been through, he would gaze up at the Flatirons (which he termed “my mountains”) and feel at peace.
Like many CU students, Alex sampled a broad range of courses in his search for a college major. “Music in American Culture” and “Introduction to Film Studies” expanded his formal knowledge of these modes of creative expression. Introductory courses in Philosophy and Psychology intrigued Alex intellectually but didn’t spark his creative interests. The turning point came in the fall of his sophomore year when Alex enrolled in “Introduction to Poetry Workshop” with Instructor Serena Chopra: he discovered that poetry had simultaneously ignited both his creative and academic passions. Over dinner on Parents’ Weekend, Alex was brimming with excitement about the Poetry Workshop, feverishly describing to his parents everything he was learning and how Serena had encouraged him to apply to the English Department’s Creative Writing Program. Alex’s parents were initially caught off guard by his choice to major in English, given his preference throughout high school for video game controllers over books. Alex’s tastes had begun to mature at CU, however. He had developed a sophisticated – if esoteric – personal reading list comprised of people and events from the 1950s and 1960s. Then Serena challenged Alex to expand beyond the Beats to the French Romantics. Heeding the recommendation, he became entranced by Baudelaire, a flâneur (observer of the Parisian streets) who, in Serena’s words, “seamlessly unites sight — what he was literally seeing — with a deep and often quiet philosophy.” In retrospect, the connection between Alex’s newfound love of poetry and his fascination with music and its complex rhythms seems obvious. Scroll down to read Alex’s poem, The Royal Arch from Rise, composed for his Introduction to Poetry Workshop class.
Alex’s life ended unexpectedly early in spring semester of his sophomore year. He was anxious to hit the slopes that winter, having missed all of freshman year's action to knee surgery. His spring semester courses included “Masterpieces of American Literature” with David Rothman, for which the class was reading “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Herman Melville’s short story. He had worked hard on his analysis of Bartleby, which he submitted on Thursday, February 19. That following Saturday night Alex made a tragic decision, which would inevitably cost him his life. On Tuesday, when David Rothman learned of Alex’s death, he requested permission to share Alex’s essay with his class that afternoon. He did not tell the students that Alex had died — only that the essay had been written by a member of their class and they should discuss it. In David’s words, “the students had a wonderful conversation that proceeded to move from Alex’s interpretation to the story itself. Recognizing who Alex was, what he cared about, and what he achieved is a way to convey those values to other students. The humanities are about what it means to be a human being, and students can come to understand that all the more powerfully by encountering his work. They glean an important gift from his painfully young passing.”
The Alex McGuiggan Scholarship in Creating Writing was established by the parents of Alex’s closest friends from junior high and high school, who had become close family friends. Shortly before Christmas of 2009, these families invited Alex’s parents and sister to a holiday gathering. After dinner, they proposed a toast in memory of Alex, but the tribute wasn't finished. To the astonishment of Alex’s family, they were handed documents establishing an endowment fund, administered through the CU Foundation, to support The Alex McGuiggan Scholarship. These families loved Alex, and they wanted his name associated with a scholarship that would allow CU undergraduate students with similar dreams to his to pursue their passions.
From Alex’s 12/17/08 “Writer’s Statement: A Semester of Change” (Introduction to Poetry Workshop):
“I feel as though I’m just starting to develop a sense of poetry – and that is not to be confused with an understanding of poetry. Language is becoming more familiar to me, and I’m gaining a far greater recognition for poetic elements and how they are effectively used.
“At this point, I feel I have a very strong poetic eye or vision, but my mechanics and voice are lacking in order to effectively vocalize my thoughts and perceptions. Often when this wave of restless anxiety overtakes me, I have to remind myself that progress, especially prominent progress, takes time; just as when I was first developing the necessary skills to become semi-proficient on the guitar, it will take time. Another prime analogy comes to mind: a beautifully well-written piece of work is not born instantaneously, it takes time and revision before the ultimate product is reached, and if an individual piece takes so much time to be etched, then an overall writing style must be a near never-ending drive towards perfection, or at least voice. I am a little proud of my perception of my own progress, because I feel that, in and of itself, is a testament to my growing knowledge of poetic construction; the simple fact that I am training my mind to the workings of overall poetic concepts gives me a sense of accomplished satisfaction because I know I am on the right course, I just need to stay fervent.
“In the end, these various elements create a bit of a conflict inside me: I am not where I had hoped to be in terms of developing my own poetry, but that is almost completely attributed to the fact of my ever-evolving taste for poetry. The more I read, the more voracious my appetite becomes and I am driven to pursue more and more authors. I have started to realize that I am in the ‘sponge’ stage, as I’ll call it, of honing my craft; I have previously had such a limited knowledge of the realm of poetry, and now I have stepped out onto the frontier and am staring bountiful endlessness straight in the face. Instead of a fixed destination at which I want to arrive, I have now set my sights on intrepid travel – where my destination is the journey itself, and the quest is life-long: and while it appears a bit of a daunting task, I have an excited optimism for the future and what it will hold for my craft.”
Words are powerful reminders. They help keep the soul of a person still within our hearts and minds. If you knew Alex, we’d love for you to share your memories on our website. Please email the English Department’s webmaster, Kim Elzinga, with your comments. If you have any favorite photos of Alex, send those along, too.
Mike McCarthy (friend since junior high): “Alex had that unnamable quality that inspired the best in everyone around him – inspired everyone to be happy. Many times when Alex and I would be jamming, we would talk about our plans for the future and what we wanted to do with our lives. What struck me is Alex only did what he loved, and because of that, he loved everything he did, and every moment he was doing it. He lived in a way most people only dream. I never saw him without a smile on his face. Anything you were doing was better because Alex was there.”
Matt Frank (friend from junior high): “If I had to describe Alex in one word, that word would be loyal. Loyalty is a quality one hopes to have in any friendship. But he also had a much rarer quality of loyalty: his dedication to the truth. Not about facts or mathematics, but that of the spiritual kind, so often misunderstood that it is easy to be pointed in the wrong direction. When you stray from who you really are, it takes a true friend to, not only notice, but also set you on the right path.”
Annie Walchak (high school friend): “He was such an unbelievably sweet and considerate person and he really was loved by everyone. He may have been one of the quieter boys, but looking back at these [prom] pictures, I swear you can just see how genuinely kind he was.”
Mary Anne Uhland (high school friend): “When you met Alex, it wouldn’t take long to recognize his quick wit and good sense of humor. Alex had an amazing ability to see beyond what meets the eye, and he was able to appreciate the beauty in the world around him.”
Brandon Gallegos (CU friend): “My thoughts on Alex will never change – [he was] a brilliant kid with a huge heart and pure soul.”
Cameron Nail (CU friend): “Alex taught me more about myself and life than he’ll ever know. He had a way of saying things that cut directly to the truth, straight to the heart. I will probably never know a better friend. Alex will live forever through all the lives he touched.”
Steve Littell (junior high school advisor): “[Alex was] a wonderful boy – not only a scholar and athlete, but a sweet kid, a favorite of mine in a great advisory. I remember his presence and face so clearly – always a smile, a friendly comment. He was such an important part of a legendary crew of boys and girls – fun and positive…..I feel very, very lucky to have known Alex.”
Bruce Woodbury (senior high school advisor): “I will treasure the three years I had with Alex in my advisory at New Trier. He was clearly one of my favorites and I can still remember that cute smile of his. Alex was someone I could always count on to do a favor for me or to show a new advisee around the school. Alex was a serious student who worked hard to be successful in his studies. He came into his own when he discovered Relay for Life and loved that involvement as it showcased his giving nature.”
Serena Chopra (“Introduction to Poetry Workshop” instructor): “Alex was a young, burgeoning artist, engaged and scattered with thoughts. He was newly curious and was just discovering the universe around him and inside him. That energy only happens once in an artist’s life, and it is students like Alex that keep me teaching. At the end of the semester, leaving the room that I taught Alex in, for the last time, I couldn’t help but see his sweet face, nodding, and him scratching notes about everything that I was saying. I feel blessed to have known him.”
David Rothman (“Masterpieces of American Literature” professor): “I know that nothing I can [write] can return your son to you, but I can share with you some of his work, which I hope makes you proud, for the enclosed essay shows real promise… Thank you again for your generous permission to share Alex’s essay with the class. In doing so, you have given me the opportunity to be a better teacher, and [have] given his colleagues a precious gift. I did not know your son well, but I can tell from this essay that he cared about his work and was on his way to becoming an excellent writer.”
Only after his death did Alex’s parents recall how early his interest in poetry had surfaced: as a kindergartner, he had written a 14-word poem entitled “Jets”, which had been published in a book on teaching poetry in the primary grades.