In Maya's Name: Helping Students Write their Futures
When Maya Smith-Dolana was four years old, she wrote her first book, titled The Detective Work, Volume 1.
Maya would continue to be an avid writer and reader throughout her youth. She wanted to be a novelist and so decided to major in creative writing at the University of Arizona. In 2019, Maya was about to begin her junior year when she died tragically at the age of 19 in a car crash after returning from babysitting.
Maya’s mom, Jessica – with additional donations from family and friends – has established the Maya Smith Creative Writing Endowment Fund in the Department of English to help students and to honor Maya’s passion for words and stories.
Exploring Her Passions
When Maya was four, her father moved to China, leaving her and her mom, Jessica.
“She was a resilient kid and very stoic about things and would claim it didn’t really affect her,” Jessica said. When asked about her father at school, Maya would invent something or say he was working in China.
Although Maya was strong in math – perhaps inherited from Jessica, who has a Ph.D. in bioengineering – she didn’t like it, gravitating instead to painting, reading, and writing fiction.
Her voracious reading habit started in earnest in the 4th grade, Jessica said, with Maya reading books secretly under the table at dinner or under her desk during class. She especially loved reading and writing fantasy. One of her favorite books was Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. “She would read it over and over and over,” Jessica said.
When Maya was eight, she saved up her money so she could buy an inkwell and parchment paper.
“Maya would talk to me about ideas for books as she got older,” Jessica said. “They always had really complicated plots that involved some element of fantasy.”
Bullied after standing up for one of her teachers, Maya hated high school and was adamant that she didn’t want to attend her graduation, Jessica recalled.
“She didn’t have a lot of friends, honestly,” Jessica said. “She never felt like she fit in. But when she made friends, she was the most loyal friend you could ever find.”
Jessica and Maya shared a close bond. “She just wanted to spend her birthdays with me,” Jessica said. “The fact that it was just me and her really shaped a lot about her.”
During chats while Maya was in college, Jessica would sometimes describe various work issues.
“Not only did she listen, she’d give me this incredible advice. She was really wise and crystal clear about right versus wrong. She was amazing that way,” Jessica said.
Finding Her Path
Although they lived in Salt Lake City, Maya and Jessica had Arizona connections. Jessica grew up in Tempe, and various family members have attended the University of Arizona. Maya picked UArizona because “there was familiarity and also warm weather,” Jessica said.
Even with a tendency to procrastinate on assignments, Maya got excellent grades in high school. However, during her first semester at the University of Arizona, Maya almost flunked out of school, Jessica recalls.
“I was completely blindsided because I never had to tell her to do anything,” Jessica said, adding that it was hard because she hadn’t realized that Maya was struggling.
Jessica thinks part of the problem was that Maya had unrealistic expectations about what she would do in some of her general elective courses: “Her initial thinking was this would be a huge opportunity to just debate and talk to people about the meaning of life. I think that contributed to her not doing well, along with some depression, a little anxiety. She didn’t know anybody, at least on campus.”
Jessica continued, “But as she came out of it, things really changed for her. She really started blossoming and she loved being at the UA and was really looking forward to the next few years in the program doing what she loved to do. She was just getting to the point in her life where she was getting more comfortable in her own skin.”
“I was lucky to teach Maya at the beginning of her creative writing journey here at UA, and I am very sad that none of us have the opportunity to see what would have become of her time here,” said Creative Writing Professor Susan Briante. “I remember Maya as a bright student, not just because of her intellect, but because she often beamed with interest and kindness.”
Honoring Maya’s Life
After Maya died, it was her half-sister Rebecca’s idea to establish the award, which Jessica thought was a great idea.
“I believe that your footprint is the impact you have on others,” Jessica said. “And I think in her short life, Maya had an incredible impact, but I wanted to make sure that what she stood for in her life could live on. I know that she would have been so excited that this was happening in her name because she really cared about people.”
Scholarship recipient Julian Cavell, who is majoring in family studies and human development and minoring in creative writing, loves to write poetry.
“In the future, I want to try and find a way to marry art and therapy, and actively encourage the people I work with to utilize creative writing as an outlet for feelings and emotions,” Julian said.
Julian added, “Growing up as a first-generation, queer, Latine student, college was never certain. I knew that if I was to ever achieve my dreams of getting a higher education, I needed to work hard in school to make sure that I was able to get scholarships. I cannot express in words how grateful I am for this scholarship.”
Arianna Velosa has always loved writing. In 2018, Arianna was featured in local ABC affiliate KGUN’s “Local Author Spotlight,” for her book The Light in The Forest, which included a half-human, half-fairy orphan and evil queen – the type of story Maya would have loved.
“It’s no secret how expensive college is, and it means the world to me that I was selected as one of the winners of the award,” Arianna said. “As someone who hopes to publish a novel one day and become a successful author, I look forward to using this scholarship to pay for school expenses so I can do well in school and improve my skills.”
Jessica loves learning about the scholarship recipients. “With every single one of them I just think, ‘Wow, Maya would love you. I wish Maya could know you.’
You can donate online to the Maya Smith Creative Writing Endowment Fund.
This story was included in the winter 2022 Developments newsletter.