Distinguished Alumni Award


Sheba R. Wheeler, 96BA

Young Award 2002

Sheba R. Wheeler, 96BA, became a Pulitzer Prize-nominated reporter before the age of 30, and she did so by demonstrating solid "shoe-leather" journalism, tenacity, and tremendous grace under pressure. Practically straight out of the UI's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, this Temple, Texas, native landed a staff reporter position at the Denver Post, a paper with a circulation of nearly half a million.

Wheeler earned this distinction by telling people's stories-including her own-with detail and integrity. As a young girl who endured a childhood of poverty, family problems, and years spent cycling on and off public assistance, Wheeler possessed personal insight into the complexities of welfare reform. So when the Denver Post asked her-while she was still an intern in 1997-to provide a firsthand account of this experience, Wheeler transformed her pain into powerful words that resulted in a Pulitzer Prize nomination and a job offer from a paper with a history of hiring few interns.

The Denver Post recognized Wheeler's outstanding determination and talent, and she has used these qualities to speak for those who traditionally have not been able to tell their own stories. Covering a northeast Denver neighborhood that contains the highest concentration of people of color, she writes riveting stories of people, race, poverty, and housing issues.

Wheeler also has covered the police beat and worked in the Boulder city bureau. However, one of her most important assignments was covering the April 1999 Columbine High School shootings, for which the Denver Post's staff collectively won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for spot news reporting. As part of this coverage, Wheeler wrote about senior Rachel Scott, one of the first Columbine victims, and got to know Scott's family and friends during the course of telling their very painful story.

One of the ways in which Wheeler helped overcome her own difficult story was by attending the University of Iowa as a journalism major. She worked hard to get to Iowa, and while on campus, she always held at least two jobs and participated in everything from singing for Voices of Soul to writing for the Daily Iowan. Wheeler made the Dean's and President's lists numerous times and now regularly returns to the UI. She has been a professional-in-residence, helping teach other Daily Iowan reporters and journalism majors, and is the youngest member of the journalism school's Professional Advisory Board.

Though Wheeler has earned many awards for her work-in addition to being nominated for and sharing in a Pulitzer Prize, she also was named Print Journalist of the Year by the Colorado Association of Black Journalists in 2000-she remains humble and gracious.

Wheeler is a UI graduate who uses her skills and talents to cover the news—however hard it may be—with humanity and compassion.


About Distinguished Alumni Awards

Since 1963, the University of Iowa has annually recognized accomplished alumni and friends with Distinguished Alumni Awards. Awards are presented in seven categories: Achievement, Service, Hickerson Recognition, Faculty, Staff, Recent Graduate, and Friend of the University.


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The Krause Essay Prize and its $10,000 award is presented annually by a unique panel of judges: UI graduate students. Photo: Tim Schoon/UI Office of Strategic Communication Students in the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program's graduate seminar dug into their weekly reading assignments with particular enthusiasm this past spring?and for good reason. By the end of the semester, they were tasked with selecting the best of the bunch for a prestigious award on behalf of a university known for its literary tradition. This marks the 12th year that nonfiction graduate students served as judges for the newly renamed Krause Essay Prize, a national award presented to an essayist who pushes the boundaries of the genre through experimentation, exploration, and discovery. Thought to be the only national literary honor selected by students, the prize is accompanied by a $10,000 award for the first time this year thanks to a new partnership between the UI Nonfiction Writing Program and the Kyle J. and Sharon Krause Family Foundation. Shawn Wen, winner of the 2018 Krause Essay Prize, is the author of A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause. Her writing has appeared in The New Inquiry, Seneca Review, Iowa Review, White Review, and the anthology City by City: Dispatches from the American Metropolis. This year's Krause Essay Prize recipient is Shawn Wen, a San Francisco-based multimedia artist and the author of A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause (Sarabande Books, 2017), a book-length essay on the life of French mime Marcel Marceau. Wen, whom students selected from a pool of 14 nominees, accepted her award at a ceremony in September in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber. Nicol?s Medina Mora Perez, a third-year MFA student from Mexico City, was among the prize judges in the spring seminar taught by author and Nonfiction Writing Program director John D'Agata (98MFA). Perez said that beyond discussing the merits of the nominated essays each week, class conversations revolved around how they define essay writing and the type of nonfiction they wanted to champion as representatives of the UI. By serving as judges, Perez says, students had the opportunity to read a broad selection of contemporary nonfiction that they may not have otherwise sought out. "By the end of the semester I had a clearer idea of the sort of work that people are publishing today, which includes stuff that I'd like to imitate and stuff that I'd rather not," Perez says. "I guess it's a bit like watching the World Cup with your soccer teammates: You see moves that you think are cool and want to steal for your own gameplay, but you also notice pitfalls that you should learn to avoid." Wen says she's been "over the moon" since learning she was selected as this year's Krause Essay Prize winner. A producer for Youth Radio in Oakland, California, Wen says discovering essay writing "was very much like falling in love" and has long admired the UI's approach to the genre. "When I started writing essays, I felt like all these dusty windows in my brain were opened, letting in light and fresh air," she says. "It's incredibly meaningful to me that my writing has been recognized by this program and its students." D'Agata dreamed up the prize in 2007 as a way to introduce his students to high-caliber essay writing and the many forms it can take. The professor asked colleagues from around the country to recommend their favorite essays from the past year, which he then compiled into a reading list for his seminar. As an added twist, D'Agata noted that submissions could be from any medium?including radio and film?as long as they were "essayistic." To give class discussions a sense of consequence, D'Agata had students evaluate each piece at the end of the semester and select a single award winner. Author Aaron Kunin received the inaugural Essay Prize, as the award was previously known, and it soon became an annual tradition. D'Agata's seminar students spend the semester dissecting the pieces, giving presentations, and writing critiques for the The Essay Review, the Nonfiction Writing Program's national magazine. Over the years, the class has crowned winners as varied as poet?Claudia Rankine, science writer Oliver Sacks, performance artist Sophie Calle, and the producers of Radio Lab. A current group of 14 writers and artists from around the nation serve as the nominating committee, includes luminaries like Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison (06MFA), and Kiese Laymon. "In the U.S. we do a great job teaching students about the powers and pleasures of reading and writing?poetry and fiction, but not so much with essays," says D'Agata, who in 2016 published an anthology titled The Making of the American Essay. "Essays are often an afterthought in literature classes in America." In 2017, the Kyle J. and Sharon Krause Family Foundation made a $500,000 donation to bolster the endowment of the UI Nonfiction Writing Program?the largest gift in the distinguished program's history. Founded in 1976, the Nonfiction Writing Program, a graduate program within the Department of English, is regularly ranked among the best in the nation and has launched the careers of alumni who have gone on to write for magazines like the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Harper's. "The Krause Foundation is about giving back and giving forward," says Elliott Krause (14MFA), a Nonfiction Writing Program alumnus who now works at the Wall Street Journal. "Helping fund the Essay Prize is a rare chance to do both. Eleven Krauses and counting have graduated from the University of Iowa; the Krause Essay Prize is a way to both express our gratitude for all Iowa has given us and be a champion for the arts." The support from the Krause family has not only allowed the program to award a cash prize for the first time, but also to invite winners to campus to present their essays and spend time with students and faculty. When Wen visited in late September, she taught a series of master classes for nonfiction students. D'Agata says that the foundation's support further legitimizes the idea of a student-driven award and its importance to the literary world. "It's also helping to bring attention to the entire genre," D'Agata says. "There are a lot of awards out there for works of fiction and poetry, but very few awards for essays. This award is saying, 'essays are awesome.' If you're an essayist, you don't hear that very?often. The Krause Foundation is helping to fix that." Krause Essay Prize Winners The UI Nonfiction Writing Program has awarded a national essay-writing prize annually since 2007. With support from the Kyle J. and Sharon Krause Family Foundation, the award was renamed the Krause Essay Prize this year. For more on the prize, visit krauseessayprize.org. 2018: Shawn Wen, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause 2017: Peter Middleton and James Spinney, Notes on Blindness 2016: Oliver Sacks, Gratitude 2015: Claudia Rankine, Citizen 2014: Sophie Calle, The Address Book 2013: David Rakoff, Waiting 2012: Lauren Redniss, Radioactive 2011: Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands 2010: Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, New Normal? 2009: Mary Ruefle, The Most of It 2008: Joshua Raskin, I Met the Walrus 2007: Aaron Kunin, Secret Architecture

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