Mirna: Hello, hello and welcome to MFAngle. This is your host, Mirna. We are a mix of poetry and fiction candidates at an MFA program, talking about the process of being in an MFA program. Today: applications, and we've all got those stories.
Mirna: So, what do you guys remember the most from the application process?
Honora: So I applied to ten school and a lot of those were rejections and I actually remember getting one of my rejections e-mails while I was in class, and I told myself not to open it because, you know, what if it was a rejection? But I really wanted to know. So I opened it, opened the email and, yes, it was a rejection. And I was really, really sad. I started crying and then I just was like I want to get out of here so when class was over I ran to the bathroom, just like cried. I know people were looking at me crazy, like, why is she in the bathroom crying? But I had to pull myself back together because I had other classes that day. So I pulled myself together, went to class, and I told myself like you know, you can’t cry over rejections because it’s just part of the process.
Bessie: Yeah. For me it was that I forgot to apply here. I actually applied to like 11 schools, like you.
Bessie: Yeah, it was expensive. And I started my application for this place but then I forgot to finish it and then I ended up getting an e-mail from the program director saying that they had extended their deadline for some reason so I finished it and this is like the school. The one school that accepted me. I got a couple waitlists but this was my only option at the end so…
Mirna: Yes, yes.
Bessie: Thank god they extended.
Mirna: So I initially didn't have enough money for the applications. I was working a job at the time but it's hard to save when you're an undergrad, right. So what I ended up doing is I started selling these packages of tortillas and buñuelos to my professors who knew exactly what it was going towards. So, it helped a little. I'm pretty sure that they didn’t need the stuff I actually made them half the time, but I helped a little bit and I got some money there my mom helped me make those and I also tweeted about it. I was like Twitter is out here, right? Someone will hear eventually and some people did come through and ended up giving me money. One guy gave me 50 bucks which I feel like is not a lot but also when you're not having any money, that's a lot and it helps. It helped for my application, so that was that was my rough bit.
Shaina: Yeah, shout out to the spirit of a hustler.
Mirna: [laughter] Thank you.
Shaina: I did my 1st round of applications working 60 hours a week teaching middle school. And so like a lot of my materials were put together between like exhaustion breaking down and trying to get sleep. Lots of my preps between classes were like oh let me write this poem let me edit this poem. And my kids knew what I was doing and they were super supportive.
Shaina: Being at an MFA program full time not fully funded is not easy and so in that program I did another round and then got into two fully funded, well, got two fully funded offers and, I mean.
Blessing: Yeah. I hope my story inspires someone because the previous I had applied but I didn't get in anywhere so I was just walking around the whole year being unhappy with myself but then one of my friends started to comfort me that she knows a person that applied 4 times. It was the fifth year that she got into… I think Iowa or something?
Blessing: One of those big program, yeah. I didn't think of applying but when I heard that I was inspired to do it again but by then most schools had already closed the application season so I was only left with the schools with January deadlines and then yeah I applied to Vtech. When I— around March I got the waitlist, so I was so happy. It wasn't the yes it wasn't also a no. But then yes
Blessing: I started agonizing about getting in. Because, if I’m on the waitlist that means that there are some very good people that need to say no for me to get it, but I'm here.
Mirna: Yes! And you’re also very good.
Mirna: So that was a Honora, Bessie, Shaina, Blessing, and myself, Mirna. We are current students at an MFA program so in this podcast we're going to be talking about the logistics of being in an MFA program. Most of us are also women of color so we'll be able to speak to those experiences and because we're still in our program we’ll be able to give you some pretty fresh takes.
Mirna: Funding, yall.
Honora: I was lucky to have a mentor to advise me you know it's not worth paying for an MFA out of pocket or even taking out loans to pay for an MFA because it can be so expensive so my mentor told me only to apply to fully funded programs and I'm glad I took that advice because before coming to an MFA I was an undergrad and I was a student who lived in a bubble I my tuition and just existed so I never actually knew what money looks like in the real world so even when I did apply to fully funded programs and they were talking about stipends I didn’t know you know, what that would look like. I was just a number and like $10000.00 sounds like a lot of money when you've never made money before.
Mirna: I'm like we have $20000.00 here which are given to us as part of our stipend, right. No we don't have to give it back we're working for it.
Bessie: Go Hokies.
[laughter] No way.
Mirna: I also had a very similar experience. So this is my 2nd program, right. So the 1st time around I applied to several different like funding bases. I applied to non-funded, partially funded, fully funded but that's because like you Honora, I didn't really know what was going on like the most I had ever earned in a year because I was working a minimum wage job minimum wage job was like. $5000.00 a year which is nothing
Bessie: Oh my God, yeah, that’s nothing
Mirna: Nothing! So to hear $10000.00 or $20000.00 I'm like holy shit like I'm going to be rich.
Mirna: Like buy all the things I want, right. So it just looks real big but because of that I applied shamelessly in a way and that's money I could have saved like that's application money I probably didn't need to spend right. Plus, my mentors really drilled in that not only were the applications expensive but I wasn’t guaranteed a funded program so they encouraged me to apply to funded programs because like your mentors they were saying it's not worth it to pay. And now being here I'm like yeah it's not worth it to pay at all. I have to take out loans to make ends meet but it's not it's not worth it.
Mirna: And the 2nd time around when I got into this place I didn't even consider anything less than fully funded
Shaina: Yes. Same.
Mirna: I’m like I'm not going through that again right and I'm also kind of wanting to live in a place that's relatively manageable with the funds that they give us because like you said Shaina the 20 thousand- 20 thousand, completely different in both places right New York and the middle of nowhere Virginia.
Bessie: We're not revealing where we're at. It’s the middle of nowhere, that’s what it is.
Mirna: It's technically a town in the middle of nowhere.
Shaina: Yeah, a made up one at that.
Shaina: Cause I feel like this place didn’t exist, this town would like not be here.
Mirna: If the school didn’t exist—yeah, you’re completely right.
Bessie: Stop hating on Bburg.
Mirna: But in terms of money I just didn't have money to fall back on I didn't have anyone to pay for anything for me fully funding the full funding that came with a job here was really important.
Honora: But at the same time funding wasn’t the only thing, the only deciding factor. There were other things that helped make that decision for me.
Bessie: Yeah, uhm. I don't know for an international student that's a little different You can't take out any loans in the US because you have no credit. Yeah, yeah so it's even more complicated because you don't have credit so getting an apartment and stuff getting a car anything really because so much relies on credit and moving here in my leasing office only asked for my acceptance and funding letter partly because like we said this town runs on the university so the universities is like the best credit you can have, I guess.
Mirna: Yeah, once you have that letterhead on it right yeah that's enough.
Bessie: So the funding covered the apartment cause and it worked out for me but if it wasn't a fully funded program I don't know how I would have gone about getting an apartment or anything at all and also international students can’t work outside the university. I know it's not like you all American students are like working outside of this because it's probably very hard with time constraints but for us if the university does not employ us there is no way we can make money unless it's money under the table I suppose which there are so many risks that come with that especially now
Blessing: I think, uhm. I agreed with Bessie because as an international student the process is very expensive. I'm not paying the same application fees as everyone else, it’s higher.
Bessie: Yeah, we're like $20.00. Paying $20.00 above whatever you pay for the application
Blessing: Yeah and then also I have to prove that I can speak English so I have to send my transcripts to all the schools and it's expensive call about $20.00 per school I send to because you have to send it overseas and then so there was no option of me even trying to apply to a school that didn't offer some kind of funding but yeah that's why I came here too because the funding is better than what I was offered everywhere else also if you didn’t get funding and didn’t have a letter to show that your program is offering you full funding the Us embassy in my country was just like I think it's time to leave now. Or, you have to prove that your family has that kind of money to send you abroad to school or that even if you do run out of money to come step in. And I wasn’t about to ask my family for that. The minute I got my letter proving that it was fully funded I took that to the embassy and they didn’t even interview me. They were like, welcome to the US.
Bessie: Yeah I didn't even think about that but to get an American visa like as a student you have to prove that you have the funds so for me I was already here because I went to undergrad here but when I applied to undergrad like say your university will charge you I don't know $10000.00 a year which is very low right that’s not usually what you pay you have to bring a bank account statement saying you have $10000.00 in your bank account right now.
Mirna: oh my God
Bessie: Yeah not like I'm going to work to, no you have to bring it and prove that you are going to be able to like you know support yourself in the United States which is so dumb because it's not like you can get anything for free here really especially if you don't have citizenship. Yeah what Blessing was saying you have to prove that you speak really good English so you have to take the TOEFL or I had to at least, which is very expensive it's like $180.00 It varies from country and then you have to send it to every university to prove that yes I can speak English and that's why I'm applying to this program.
Blessing: I think I was able to get wavers because it was like look I’m sending you this email in English. There are typos and everything but everyone has those. Yeah I didn’t have to write the GRE and I avoided those GRE schools I wasn't messing with them.
Shaina: I also avoided GREs.
Bessie: I took it. It's $200.00.
Shaina: My 1st time around I applied because I like Applied shamelessly some of them require the GRE so I had to take it but then my 2nd time around I'm like I'm not doing that I am applying to schools that don't need GRE scores right now more programs are removing that requirement so not only am I saving money I'm feeling a little bit better about it yeah I'm not going to use math right now maybe to tip.
Blessing: You can always use your phone for that
Mirna: Exactly! Phones to everything for us we don’t need math.
Bessing: So what did your family or community support look like for you.
Honora: My family was you're going to do what? You're going to an MFA and whats that? it was like if you're not going to go become a doctor lawyer or something yeah. You don't get support no one is going to take money out of your pocket for you to go write somewhere.
Bessie: To think and love and whatever. Yeah Ok so you're not going to be a doctor lawyer engineer Ok so we're going to be poor that's your plan
Mirna: yeah that's exactly what I was told it was honestly awful just because applying the 2nd time I’ll admit applying the 2nd time I had a little more support from my family sorry been in the other program for 2 years that kind of knew what was going on they had actually evidence of it being a semi-successful program so they weren't as hesitant but the 1st time around they threw a party they're like yes Mirna it's going to go off to New Mexico I was going to New Mexico from Indiana so completely across country they're like she's going cross country to be a po-et. So please to this party bring gifts and remember she's going to be a poet. So make sure their monetary gifts. I'm Ok, cool.
Shaina: I think that I got like slack from my family, well they like gave me slack. because they were like Oh you did this career you taught you made money you were successful you want to stop doing that and go get your poetry degree? I guess
Because you always know that you can go back it wasn't like yeah but I feel like if I had I gone out of undergrad and been like Im just gonna get my MFA they would have been like wait you're taking a little too far I think your poems are great and also you know you need a real job. Like being a teacher.
Mirna: Oh you thought you can do that and work for it yeah
Blessing: I think for me to stop shading me when I prove to them that you know you can make writing work and that's not always the case but you don't go complaining because if you’re like I want money they’re like get a real job and stop this writing thing
Bessie: It has gone on for long enough
Blessing: So you have to pretend to be okay most of the time.
Mirna: And I will say to those wanting to apply to MFA program that are getting some of this resistance from the family a selling point that could potentially work is a lot of the fully funded MFA programs you are teaching. Yeah, you're either for another professor or you're working at a writing center or you're teaching your own class you are technically becoming a professional that your parents or family members or friends will be more likely to recognize you're becoming that kind of professional so that you could also work that in and still get paid for it which is honestly what we want to do
Bessie: I think that's a great point especially like if you are a student who is already in the u.s. but you are an international student and you know that once you graduate you have to either get a job that can only happen for one year, that’s the OTP. And then you have to go back to your country or you have to enroll as a student in another institution and get an extended to be so that's all very complicated of course but if you don't figure out a way to stay in the country legally you have to go back right so getting in is very important and yes the teaching component of it all it's a very good selling point for families I agree and you can also say well depending on where you're from like if I go back there's no way I can put to practice the degree that I got were as in this program I can continue to somehow continue to pursue my interests or something along those lines I think.
Honora: I think some people fail to realize that for some of us being in an MFA is literally safety. There are not many options. If we’re going to continue doing what we’re doing, what we enjoy, our passion which is writing, we have to be in an MFA program because we’re not going to get that anywhere else that is going to help us become the writers that we want to become. What happens if you go back to your country? Poetry or writing in general is something And you don't have freedoms to explore your craft the same way you do in America so some people is really really important.
Bessie: Yes absolutely I'm from Honduras and that's not the country where you want to be writing about being queer that's not the country where you want to be writing about you know fuck the government that's not a country where you want to be expressing your anti-establishment views or whatever because you can get you can get in trouble you know for some Latin America especially right now being a journalist is extremely dangerous like they are murdered to you know they’re murder pretty much and no one does anything so yes the US is still safe haven for writers that might be changing of course is we're in very different times
Mirna: Oh yes
Bessie: Like living in a dystopia waiting to wake up. But right now it is. You know in the US you don't expect to like write a poem and get immediate like people outside your door asking for your death that but yeah that might happen in other countries Yeah I mean it is a safe haven for writers and you have a community of people who are invested in your work and commenting on it and making it better I mean if you're lucky but you know ideally you
Mirna: Overall though I think we can agree funding is incredibly important so for those looking into programs we cannot stress enough how important money is you have to eat you have to pay rent and utilities you have to fend for yourself unless you have a trust fund obviously which you know some people do I was with those people we've got some advice for you. So keep that highlighted the funding keep it highlighted keep it underlined bolded anything you need to bring it to your attention.
Shaina: So yeah I think the key here is the know what your needs are my 1st program was a large programs though there were about 30 people that came in with me so exactly so it's hard to build community it was kind of like do what you need to do get out of a factory and the place I mean it was a great place let me not like be shady, but it was a large place and if that’s not what you were into then that doesn’t work. It made if you will impersonal and like I got a lot of debt you like I said I've took $20000.00 of loans and I think if you want to work full time write and can afford to pay then you should do a little residency. You can have a career and also have your writing career be happening at the same time. If you want to work part time right part time like pay a little then you can take out those like larger partially funded programs you know and then if you're like many of us like artists and writers and you need to or you want to be writing full time apply fully funded like no lie, apply fully funded. And just be looking at what type of the support you need and also look at the faculty before you apply a don't look at numbers and then just go for it see who is in that program and who's teaching
Mirna: Yes let's talk about that because professors professors are so so important and I could start off with a real quick because my mentors I love them I talk about them all the time my like cohort knows them by name like yes they are fantastic people but they really stressed the money obviously but then they also stress how important it is to look into the professors that are teaching and the MFA programs I knew I wanted to work with a woman of color so that definitely made it to the top of my list next to money obviously and I honestly feel like I got really really lucky I got into a program that had full funding this is my 1st time around had full funding and I had the top choice my top choice of Professor. I got lucky again because I was able to follow her into the 2nd program right but. Honestly had it not been for her I don't think one I obviously would not have ended up here but 2 I would not have survived that 1st program like she was it. So, when you're looking into these programs there's there are what 2 to 3 years I recommend 3 years but that's just me there 2 to 3 years of intense scrutiny of your writing so you have to find someone you think you'll mesh with both personally and in terms of the progress of your writing because you're going to be working with them pretty intimately as far as it goes with you know your writing for 2 to 3 years so people are important really these relationships are really really important.
Bessie: Yeah I totally agree I mean knowing who I would be working with who would be reading my writing providing feedback was very important to me, I said feedback very weird. Providing feedback very important to me. Like Mirna, working with women of color was a priority. In undergrad my only creative writing professor was a white dude he was ok you know his feedback was valuable but of course some of the experiences I wrote about just weren't relatable to him. I’m a Latina woman from Honduras. Spanish is my 1st language. I wrote and still write about political chaos and what it is to be gay in a country like Honduras. So yeah, when applying I wanted to have mentors who would be able to look at my work with perhaps a little bit more of an understanding of it and the question and questioning if that's really realistic because of course it's not realistic to a white dude that hasn't had to live it
Mirna: To straight white dude from America who was born here with citizenship
Bessie: Yeah like how are they supposed to be like oh yeah this is very believable I mean yeah.
Honora: When I was looking and I was very lucky because my mentor like you did in out. So she was able to tell me like who was teaching where who was going on sabbatical. Yes everything so I knew exactly like you know where I wanted to go based on who was teaching even though it wasn't the only factor was that I know you're very important to me because I needed someone who was going to be there to you know read my work and understand and I wouldn't have to explain myself to them and also if you look at a program and you look at who is teaching there that tells you a lot about what that program stands for. So, if they have like no people of color
Honora: Just like just not that just know that if something is off or like people of color are leaving that program you know that something is off
Mirna: That's incredibly important.
Bessie: Trust your POC instinct.
Blessing: When I was considering professors I'm not I wasn't really particular about professors like that because I had to learn the hard way that your favorite writer might not be a good teacher
Mirna: That's true
Blessing: And yes you’re stuck in a program where you're like adore this person and they can't teach you anything cause or maybe they can teach but they’re shit people to be around. Then I was also very careful not to pick a program were its like The Hunger Games you know oh my god yes the people in your cohort are always very competitive
Mirna: Oh my god yes
Blessing: Or tear people’s work in workshop I don't want to go there so when I interviewed for this program I asked the person interviewed me like how many people of color do you have that it's very diverse and then would you accept the kind of stories I write and I write a lot about Nigeria I haven't lived anywhere else extensively. They were like we have a Nigerian and I was like oh sold. So you have to look at the professors and they have to look at the mix
Mirna: Yes, I failed to look at the mix in my 1st program I was like I saw that one person. I saw that one person I'm like I want to work with them and I am going to work with them and they're going to be great for me and that's it.
Bessie: And then you were all the diversity and would literally ask you to do all the photo yes
Mirna: like can you pose for us you shake this person's hand and you hold this is
Bessie: Can you wear a sombrero while you’re at it?
Mirna: Can you be a little more Mexican? So we can like, see it. But god, yeah. I failed. I failed on that.
Blessing: There is someone who complained about being in a program where she was writing a story about Nigeria and they said it’s not African enough. How would you know?
Mirna: Exactly! Yes I got that too. I got that for one, I know this is a little off track but for one of my poems in this 1st program I was talking about the student protestors that went missing in Iguala because it was really big and the time it was like pertinent and I'm like that could have fucking been us right like
Bessie: Everyone should look into it
Mirna: Yes if you don’t know about it you probably should and and feel guilty about the fact that you don't but. I wrote about it and I was like Ok cool and then my workshop which was all white people by a white professor who didn’t mediate they all essentially told me oh this is Mexican? You should make it more Mexican and like what the fuck does that look like and like I'm literally telling you about this yeah exactly what it was like
Blessing: Put a filter on it
Mirna: One of those movie filters where it just looks like brown and dirty, because that’s what Mexico is right.
Shaina: So if you're like us than you are readers and writers and consumers of creative writing and at the end of each episode we're going to give you a few things that we are reading and thinking about in our writing to keep you reading and writing as you think about MFA programs so we're going to give you some contemporary works that we are recommending to you. I say I Can't Talk About the Trees Without Blood by Tiana Clark. It's black it's woman has a lot of religious things in it it's queer is amazing just be prepared to weep and not breathe the whole time.
Bessie: I’m reading Randy Ribay’s Patron saints of nothing it's a YA novel it follows this young Filipino American guy whose cousin is murdered in the Philippines so he goes back to investigate the murder and talks a lot about what's going on right now in the Philippines.
Honora: I’m reading Aria Aber, Hard Damage. It just came out, its debut book it's so beautiful so personal so historic and it's a book you read and you're like wow like how does someone poured this out to poetry in this way and how can I do that.
Mirna: Sara Borja’s Heart Like a window Mouth like a Cliff was published earlier this year through Naomi press it it is woman it is Latinx it is daughter of immigrants it is guilt lots and lots of guilt and there's this fantastic lyric say in the middle of the entire book and its form is a little surprising but it is home in a lot of ways that I wasn't expecting the 1st time I read it I'm recommending
Blessing: I’m recommending Suyi Okungbowa, David Mogo, GodHunter and they go David mogul takes on the task of fighting them in order to save his beloved home so you can imagine everything that could go wrong.
Shaina: And as you leave here is a generative thought: write a not elegy for an elegy that has been written and so many times the thought behind this is just that we are living in some wild times and we know all the things that we are memorializing and all the things that we keep having to return to in Memorial and mourning and so how do we write call that out that we are we are memorializing and losing the same things over and over again if you want to look for reference Danez Smith not an elegy for Mike Brown is a good place to start.
Mirna: So thank you again to Honora, Shaina, Bessie and Blessing for joining us today and sharing your insights about funding, professors, people your current contemporary works which are all fantastic and at this point I feel like I'm just going to have a running list of everything you're going to suggest. So thank you so much for your time and your thoughts we love you and we will see you again soon.
Sarah: The MFAngle was produced as a part of Dr. Tyechia Thompson’s Intro to Digital Humanities class. We would like to thiank Mirna Palacio Ornales, our host, Blessing Christopher, Bessie Flores Zaldivar, Shaina Jones, Honora Ankong, our contributors. Joe Forte our audio engineer, the university libraries at Virginia Tech for giving us space. Dashiel for editing all of this and for creating our fantastic theme music and we would like to thank the listener for listening.