DENTON (UNT), Texas — Like so many other high school students, Leta Cunningham spent the second semester of her senior year preparing for life at a university — the University of North Texas, where she was accepted into the Honors College.
She was looking forward to her graduation ceremony and leaving for UNT. But she needed to become healthy first. Cunningham had developed anorexia during her senior year of high school, becoming severely underweight. She spent two months in an inpatient hospital facility for patients with eating disorders, and was released in time for graduation.
Now a senior English major at UNT, Cunningham wrote about her struggle with an eating disorder and her hospital stay in a first-person essay, "My Mother’s Bread." She will read excerpts from it, and other works she created for her Honors thesis, as the student speaker for UNT's University Scholars Day April 11 (Tuesday).
Sponsored by the UNT Honors College, but open to all UNT students who are earning bachelor's degrees, Scholars Day gives students a chance to present their research in the same way that faculty members and other professionals present at conferences, either through display of research posters or by giving oral research paper presentations.
This year's Scholars Day will take place from 9:30 a.m.- 4:30 p.m. at UNT's University Union. Students will be judged for their paper and poster presentations, and first-, second- and third-place cash prizes will be awarded for both papers and posters. The students may also win additional funds to travel to regional, national or international professional conferences during the next year and present their research papers or posters.
Cunningham wrote "My Mother’s Bread" during the 2016 spring semester and entered it in the personal essay category of the writing competitions of Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, which is sponsored annually by UNT’s Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism. Cunningham won the first place prize of $3,000. "My Mother’s Bread" will be included in this summer’s edition of Ten Spurs, a literary nonfiction journal published by the Graduate Institute.
She calls writing about her eating disorder "therapy."
"I first started writing it during my freshman year at UNT, which was a year after the inpatient treatment. Writing it was a reminder of how far I had come," she says. "I'm really passionate about promoting awareness and overcoming misconceptions about eating disorders. An eating disorder is nothing to be ashamed of."
Cunningham says the title of her essay is a tribute to her mother.
"My mother has always baked fresh bread. Rich, nutty, soft, moist bread. It's so absolutely satisfying on its own that it requires no butter or cheese or jam," Cunningham wrote in the essay. "Her bread was the staple of our household - something we ate with every meal."
She remembers the day she started refusing the bread as her eating disorder progressed.
"I knew I could no longer indulge in slices of something that would go straight to my thighs, straight to my stomach, straight to the pitches of fat under my arms. The day I started refusing those rich carbs, the smell of bread baking in the oven drifted through the house, under the crack in my bedroom door, taunting me, tempting my empty stomach," Cunningham wrote in the essay.
When Cunningham returned home after being hospitalized for two months, fresh bread was baking in the oven. She and her mother ate it straight from the loaf pan after the timer went off.
After graduating from UNT in May, Cunningham will enter the master of fine arts program in creative writing at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. She'd like to eventually teach writing at a university.
Other students who will be presenting their research at University Scholars Day include:
●Kyle M. Allen, an Honors College student and political science major graduating this May. Allen will be presenting part of his Honors Capstone Thesis research on Russia's military intervention in post-Soviet Union states. He has already started taking master's classes in political science at UNT, to receive his master's degree in May 2018.
●Isabel Delwel is a junior biology major. Delwel, who is in the Honors College and UNT's McNair Scholars Program, researches bacterial phage, viruses that infect bacteria, with Lee Hughes, associate professor of biological sciences. Earlier this semester, Delwel became one of 67 students in the U.S. selected to participate in the 2017 Howard Hughes Medical Institute Exceptional Research Opportunities Program. She will spend 10 weeks this summer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, doing research.
●Bihan Jiang is a student at UNT's Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, which allows students who are the same age as high school juniors and seniors to complete regular UNT courses and do research in UNT faculty members' laboratories. Jiang, a second-year student at the academy, created a method for removing harmful gases from fossil fuel resources such as coal, natural gas and petroleum. The harmful gases — nitrogen compounds, sulfuric gases and carbon - lead to lower fuel values and the formation of acid rain and are harmful to the environment.