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Mastering the Classics

Classical Studies students put their knowledge of Latin and Greek to the test—literally.

Worn Greek engraving on a piece of stone.
Photo by lemaildeclaire

Exams—an unavoidable part of academic life. For most students, the word itself might evoke feelings of stress and thoughts of late-night study sessions, but for students studying Latin and Attic (Ancient) Greek, it symbolizes a unique opportunity.

During the 2023–2024 academic year, Latin and Greek students of all learning stages competed in translation exams, earning national recognition as they showcased their proficiency in these “dead” languages. Administered beyond the confines of BYU’s Testing Center or Learning Suite, these exams give students the opportunity to test their skills and knowledge in a competitive atmosphere.

Intermediate and Advanced Latin Translation Exam

The first of the translation competitions—the Classical Association of the Middle West and South (CAMWS) Intermediate and Advanced College-Level Latin Contest—occurred toward the end of the fall 2023 semester. The competition, which happened asynchronously on college campuses across the country, provided students with a translation exam that tested their proficiency in Latin. CAMWS (a professional organization that promotes the knowledge and appreciation of classical antiquity through the support of pedagogy, original research, and public outreach) then evaluated students’ translations to determine winners.

Out of the dozens of collegiate students who participated from around the Midwest and South, six BYU students won awards for their language mastery—awards that included cash prizes, books related to classical antiquity, or commendation certificates.

At the intermediate level (students who have had a least two years of instruction), four BYU students earned recognition for their achievements.

  • Allison Gale (Classical Studies ’25) earned the highest score in the nation and a cash reward
  • Michael Ball (Statistics ’23) earned a book award with the eighth highest score in the nation
  • Eliza Anderson (Illustration ’22) earned a certificate of commendation
  • Marcus Thurston (Classical Studies ’26) earned a certificate of commendation

Additionally, two students at the advanced level (those who have had a least three years of instruction) took home awards.

  • Tori Nielsen (Classical Studies ’25) earned a book award with the 13th highest score in the nation
  • Maddy Sorenson (Classical Studies ’23) earned a book award with the 17th highest score in the nation

Allison Gale says, “Knowing that I’ve done so well on an exam that so many people took is thrilling, and it definitely validates all the hard work I’ve put into studying Latin at the university level.”

The Maurine Dallas Watkins Contests

Latin engravings on a stone wall in the Vatican.
Photo by Jill Mackie

In February 2024, nine BYU students participated in the Maurine Dallas Watkins contest—named for patron of the contest and Chicago playwright. Created over sixty years ago, the contest has collegiate Latin and Greek learners at intermediate or advanced levels take translation exams. Students are required to translate a passage of either Latin or Greek simply by sightreading. Professors administer the exams to their students in their classrooms and send them back before the exam window closes.

Five of BYU’s nine participants walked away from the competition with national awards. The winners include

  • Clifford Simpson (Classical Studies ’24), who won second place in the nation in Intermediate Greek
  • Tori Nielsen, who won third place in the nation in Intermediate Greek
  • Allison Gale, who won Honorable Mention in Intermediate Latin
  • Jon Hanna (History ’24), who won Honorable Mention in Advanced Greek and Intermediate Latin

Tori Nielsen appreciates the mentorship that motivated her to take this exam. “BYU has an amazing Classics program,” she says. “I was proud to not only represent the hard work that I have put in, but the expertise and effort of my professors who have taught me over the years.”

Elementary and Advanced Greek Translation Exam

The 2023–2024 competition season rounded out with the CAMWS Elementary and Advanced College Greek Exam. This multiple-choice exam serves as the only standardized test used to measure the language acquisition of first-year language learners. All three BYU winners in the exam tied with each other, each receiving a ribbon for their achievements:

  • Sofia Eyring (Classical Studies, Anthropology ’26)
  • Julia Hill (Classical Studies ’29)
  • Bethelle Rushton (Mechanical Engineering ’29)

As a novice Greek student, Sofia Eyring felt grateful for the preparation she underwent prior to her exam. “The competition experience was a little nerve-racking but overall fulfilling,” she says. “After having been a Greek student for the past two semesters, it felt nice to put all of my work to the test.”

In the CAMWS Advanced Greek exam, Tori Nielsen earned the second highest score in the country, echoing her notable performance in the Maurine Dallas Watkins intermediate Greek translation contest earlier in the year.

The Importance of Classical Languages

Scenic shot of the Acropolis in Athens, Greece.
Photo by Jimmy Teoh

Latin and Greek, though no longer anyone’s native tongue, still resonate in the academic world and beyond. By participating in national competitions, BYU students studying Latin and Greek breathe new life into these languages. These contests serve as mediums through which students can test their skills in interpretation and translation, doing their part to ensure that classical culture continues to endure. According to Marcus Thurston, the challenges Latin and Greek pose make their mastery a gratifying accomplishment. He says, “The competition was a good demonstration of all the progress I had made. The competition proved I had reached [a] level of competence that had felt unreachable when I started studying Latin.”

To learn more about the majors included in the Classical Studies program, check out their website.