I first heard about MFA programs when I took a writing class at Cornell University as an undergrad. Back then, I was still a Government major who thought I would go into the non-profit world or politics.
I knew I wanted to tell Zimbabwean stories and fight for female empowerment. I didn’t know that I could go to graduate school for writing.
Applying to MFA programs was brutal. MFA programs are highly selective with most having slots for less than 10 students in a given year. It was especially discouraging for me since I was consistently told that it was rare to get into an MFA program straight from undergrad.
I applied anyways and, to my absolute shock, was accepted into three programs. I decided to go for UMass Amherst.
From my experience with this program, here are some of the things I would encourage anyone who is applying for an MFA to consider.
What is the duration of the program?
UMass Amherst is a great program with a stronger roster of teachers, including MacArthur Genius Grant winner Ocean Vuong. I loved that the program is three years, unlike other programs which are two years long. Three years gives me the time and space to finish working on a novel.
What is the scope of the program?
If you write different genres, see if it will be possible to pursue both.
UMass Amherst also allows students to take workshops in different genres. Because I write both poetry and fiction I was excited by the prospect of being able to take workshops in both poetry and fiction.
What are the funding opportunities available?
For me it ultimately came down to finances. UMass has one of the highest stipends amongst MFA programs. My tuition is covered by the Writing Program, and I was awarded some fellowships to help me relocate to Amherst.
UMass also has a strong Graduate Student Union that has worked to ensure that grad students receive benefits such as healthcare. Although the stipend is generous compared to other programs, most students still have to work a second job on campus or off campus.
Being an international student can be tough because you can’t get extra work off campus.
If you have the means to save before going into an MFA program or if you can get a summer job before your first semester, do it! Every penny counts to helping with relocating and paying Graduate fees (even where tuition is covered, students still have to pay some graduate fees). If you can, do ask your program about fellowships you qualify for. Fellowships have helped me a lot and pushing for additional funding for low-income students sometimes ensures that the next cohort will have access to more resources.
How else will you be challenged to grow?
What I love about UMass is that I get to teach my own class, and structure my own lessons so I really feel like I’m making a difference.
I came to grad school straight from undergrad so I was really nervous to jump into teaching an undergraduate class. The first semester of teaching was hard because I had to juggle being both an instructor and a student while also trying to carve out time to write.
Thankfully, the university offers an intensive training program and mentorship which really helped me to prepare me for the rigor of teaching a college composition course.
Once I got into the groove of it, it became easier.
Will you find community there?
The professors I’ve worked with at UMass have been wonderful mentors but I wish there was more diverse faculty. There are currently no Black permanent faculty members which is disheartening.
While the workshops I’ve taken so far have been really helpful and people are kind and generous with their feedback, I would say I would like to see more African students here.
I am the only African student in my program so I don’t really have a community of writers that understand where I’m coming from and my writing traditions.
I’ve formed a group for African writers with students from other MFA programs who have experienced the same loneliness that I have here and we support each other.
Things didn’t get too lonely though because I grew to love Amherst a lot as it reminds me of the small-town vibe of my home town, Bulawayo.
What work do I want to produce during my MFA?
Before entering an MFA ask yourself what you want out of it. What specific projects do you want to work on? How are you going to use each year or semester in the program? When you’ve figured out what you want, then every choice you make has to be in service of that goal.
I recently completed a short story collection and I’m also working on a historical fantasy trilogy based on The Great Zimbabwe, Khami Ruins, the Mutapa Empire in Zimbabwe and other Southern African kingdoms. The short story collection is a mix of realistic fiction, magical realism, and fantasy. A lot of the stories are inspired by the myths and legends that I heard when I was young and also the current political/ economic climate in my country. With the novel, I really want to honor the lives of so many female leaders and war heroes whose stories have been excluded from historical archives. I guess I see myself as doing the work of a historian but taking creative license to how I tell their stories. At the heart of all my projects is African women.
How will you make time for self-care?
While pursuing these goals remember that as artists, our mental health is important. MFA programs can feel quite intense and insular. With so much reading to do, so many writers around you and all the pressure to write, it’s easy to get lost in a world of literature.
I would advise incoming students to have a writing and/or living space that is separate from the MFA space.
You need a place where you can practice self-care, have some down-time, and disconnect. Protecting your energy and mental health is really important during the MFA years.
What do you want to do after your MFA?
Think about your post-MFA life. What are the opportunities that will become available to you? How can you open up more of them before you graduate?
Having said this, I’m not really sure where I’ll go from here. Three years ago, I didn’t even know what an MFA program was and now I’m here. So I think there will be surprises up ahead and, for now, I can only hope that they will be good ones.