Poets & Writers

MY MFA EXPERIENCE

One of the tried-and-true pieces of advice dispensed to the hundreds of writers applying to MFA programs each year goes something like this: “Talk to current or former students.” While this remains a valuable tip—who better to tell you what a certain program is like than one of its recent graduates, after all—it assumes everyone has equal access to those writers. This isn’t a problem to be taken lightly. As one of the graduates featured in the following pages pointed out to me, “Given the creative writing world’s bias toward whiteness—like the rest of society—this practice can further inequality among marginalized identities.”

Rather than repeat the suggestion in this, our annual MFA Issue, I made contact with writers who had recently graduated from MFA programs and asked them some questions about the application process, their selection criteria, their time in the program, and their perspective now that they’ve received the degree. To the writers who e-mailed in response to a Twitter call for participants, I chose ten whose thoughtful consideration, candid impressions, and insightful answers to my questions may be helpful to those who are looking to start the whole process themselves this fall.

Seven of the ten writers graduated this past spring; the other three graduated in 2018. Five earned degrees in fiction, three in poetry, and two in multiple genres. Although none was awarded a degree in creative nonfiction, several of the featured writers discuss the support they received in their programs while they worked in that genre. Indeed, half of the programs represented here offer the MFA in creative nonfiction. Additionally, two are low-residency programs, and the other eight are full-residency. Not one of the featured programs is located in a city near a coast (the closest, the University of North Carolina in Raleigh, is 140 miles inland). Instead I chose to focus on programs located in what could be considered the interior—in Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin. But it is worth pointing out that one of the programs, the University of Arizona in Tucson, was attractive to the applicant precisely because it is located near the U.S.-Mexico border. In any case, these are not the usual New York or California schools we tend to hear so much about. The experiences of those who went to NYU, Columbia, UC Irvine, and even Iowa have been shared far and wide. I was more interested in what it’s like to attend a program in a town of fewer than 10,000 people (Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier) or a low-residency program that emphasizes “the importance of Native writers offering voice to the Native experience” (Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe).

While the experiences of these writers are by no means universal, certain themes do emerge that offer a portrait of what is important to today’s MFA students: funding, diverse faculty and peer groups, professional development opportunities, and, of course, time to write. By hearing directly from writers who recently went through the process, from applying to matriculating to graduating, it’s possible to learn about not only the challenges and drawbacks—so that applicants might avoid them—but also a few of the intangible benefits of attending an MFA program. As one of these writers said, “Nothing could have prepared me to be loved like this.”

Gionni Ponce

2019 MFA in Fiction Indiana University in Bloomington

To how many programs did you apply? It took two years of applications to find the right MFA program. In my first round I applied to only three schools in the immediate area surrounding Los Angeles, because that’s where I was living at the time. Though I was accepted into a program, I ultimately turned down the offer because there wasn’t enough funding. I applied to thirteen programs for my second round. I opened my geographic criterion, but I only applied to fully funded programs with a strong representation of people of color on faculty. Before my second round of applications, I signed up for evening writing courses at UCLA Extension and worked on creating a stronger writing portfolio. I drafted new stories for workshop and integrated the feedback over the summer before applications were due. I also studied for and took the GRE, which gave me significantly more options for schools to which I could apply.

What criteria were most important to you during the application process?

My No. 1 criterion was funding, but working with a diverse faculty was the most important factor in my decision. As a person of color, I didn’t want to have to justify my work and its existence to my professors as I had read about other people doing.

To how many programs were you accepted?

In my second round of applications, two of thirteen. Of those two, I was first wait-listed at both schools before being accepted.

Why did you choose the program you attended?

At the end of my first round of applications, it was extremely difficult to say no to the first program that accepted me. I was worried that I might never receive another offer. But after much back-and-forth with my admissions officer, it was clear that I’d never be able to afford it. During my second round of applications, I received an offer from Indiana University one week before the deadline. On the day of the deadline, I received an offer from the University of Miami. It was a really tough decision, especially given that Miami is run by a group of stellar women of color. In the end it came down to the funding. The packages each university offered were comparable, but the cost of living in Bloomington is much more manageable on the available stipend.

The core faculty of Florida’s University of Miami includes Jaswinder Bolina and Maureen Seaton in poetry and Chantel Acevedo, A. Manette Ansay, M. Evelina Galang, and Amina Gautier in fiction.

Did you receive funding?

Indiana University provided a full tuition remission as well as a very modest stipend—about $15,000—to cover living costs. In the past three years, students and faculty have been lobbying to raise the graduate student stipend, and the faculty has

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