5th Annual High School Achievement Awards Contest Attracts Record Number of Entries

By Peter Schroeder

Thirteen Juniors and Seniors from a dozen California high schools won top awards in the 2024 Pat Vachini Outdoor Writing and Photography Achievement Awards Contest sponsored by the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC).

Now in its fifth year, this annual contest is open to any upper-class students in any California high school—public, private, parochial, or charter as well as students at the equivalent grade level, being home-schooled. This award encourages high school students to pursue their interests in writing and photography about the outdoors, and consider careers in outdoor journalism. In turn, they can inspire readers to explore and treasure the outdoors.

The Achievement Awards contest solicited written submissions on outdoor subjects in a variety of formats, of 500 words or more, including essay, news article, personal experience, documentary, blog and research studies. Poetry entries must be 20 lines or more, either as a single poem or a combination of several poems, Photographers were required to submit a portfolio of three images of any combination of outdoor subjects (fauna, flora, scenic, people). More than 40 writing and photography entries were submitted this year, beating last year’s previous high of 33.

Writing submissions were judged in six poetry categories and one prose category. Poetry categories included “Water as Image,” “Nature as Metaphor,” , and “Appreciating Nature.” The sole prose category was for “Business & Features.”

Each student entry was judged by four members of OWAC, all professional, nationally published writers and photographers specializing in outdoors activities.  Every student received feedback on their work from the judges. Top winners also received Certificates of Merit and cash awards.

The contest is officially named the Pat Vachini Outdoor Writing and Photography Achievement Awards honoring the late wife of Don Vachini, former OWAC President and one of California’s foremost outdoor writers and photographers.

OWAC is the only organization of outdoor media professionals in the state of California. Members include newspaper and magazine staffers, freelance writers, book authors, bloggers, internet outdoor websites, photographers, broadcasters, editors, and media professionals covering winter sports, bicycling, fishing, camping, birding, boating, water sports, wildlife watching, camping, and other outdoor activities.


Student Winners and their respective categories are listed below:

Poetry Category “Image of Water”– Amara Collins 1st, Nikola Fox 2nd, Aleshka McPretl 3rd; All Novato HS

Poetry Category  “Nature as Metaphor”– Olivia Huang, Rio Americano HS, 1st, Hope Greenleaf, Novato HS, 2nd (tie); Mia Golden, Rio Americano HS, 2nd (tie)

Poetry Category  “Appreciating Nature”– Piper Coffey, Novato HS, 1st (tie); Jonny Luo, Saratoga HS 1st (tie);  Finn Fleury, Novato HS, 3rd;

Prose Category  “News & Features”– Ava Ghazanfari, Rio Americano HS, 1st (tie);  Madeleine Winchell, Rio Americano HS, 1st (tie); Sofia Barker, Novato HS, 3rd;

Photography “Landscapes & Natural Settings” – Jonny Luo, Saratoga HS, 1st; Audrey Tung, Lynbrook HS, 2nd; Marina Kidwell, Rio Americano HS, 3rd (tie); Amelia Melanchuk, 3rd;

Photography “People & Animals in Nature” – Eddy Miao, Palo Alto HS, 1st; Claire Zhao, The Harker School, 2nd; Victor Bahng, Castro Valley HS, 3rd (tie); Sheyla Hernandez-Garcia, North Salinas HS, 3rd (tie);

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