2015, Archives, October 2015, The MFA Years

The MFA Program You Haven’t Heard Of: Spotlighting the MFA at West Virginia University

Image: Via Tsuji

Last year, when I was applying to MFA programs, I was too fragile to keep up with the constant updates in the MFA Draft Facebook group. However, I decided to join this year. I’m not sure why: to relive the agony and anguish? So I can remember how I managed to do just about everything wrong in terms of applications (this will be next month’s blog)? I think that more than anything else I was curious about where people are applying. Right now, many of the group’s members are sharing their prospective lists of schools, and I noticed that West Virginia University (WVU) is missing from many lists. WVU was always on my radar because the program has close connections to Ohio University, where I received an MA. And if you’re applying this season, I think it should be on your radar too. Here’s why:

  1. Let’s talk numbers. So many schools are reticent when it comes to money, but I’ll lay it out there: we’re all receiving full tuition waivers (except for some nasty, unavoidable university fees) and a generous living stipend. This year, it’s 15,000. This goes a long way in a college town like Morgantown. This stipend covers all three years. There are also opportunities to teach during the summer and make extra money during the break.
  2. We do have a heavy teaching load (2 courses each semester). However, our GTA training emphasized keeping our teaching workload down to enable us to stay focused on our work as students. I’ve taught at the college level before, but a lot of the strategies we learned at orientation were new to me, and they  make the grading process faster and more efficient. If you’ve never taught before, this is a supportive undergraduate writing program. Although major projects and certain policies are the same for all composition classes, instructors have a lot of individual freedom in terms of how the day-to-day class runs. Still daunted by the teaching load? After the first year, there are various opportunities for course remissions. And third years are pretty much guaranteed to teach a workshop!
  3. This is a supportive writing community–not a competitive one. And for me, this was a critical factor in deciding if I wanted to come to WVU. Some thrive in a more competitive environment; I wanted an MFA so I could continue to develop relationships with other writers. In 20 years, I want to be able to send my work to the friends I’ve made in my MFA. I want them to send their work to me. WVU fosters an encouraging community. Workshops are tough but fair and professional. We all want our writing to improve, and we all want to see our peers’ writing improve as well.
  4. This is a small program, which is one reason why it’s congenial. This year, 7 MFA students were admitted: 3 in creative nonfiction, 3 in fiction, and 1 in poetry. This does mean that like with most programs, the application process is competitive.
  5. WVU brings in visiting authors. Even though I’m a CNF student, I participated in a week-long workshop with visiting fiction writer Susan Straight. And there are countless other planned readings and events on the books for the rest of the year.
  6. We have an MFA student run  literary journal, Cheat River Review. This gives students an opportunity to work on the editorial side of writing and learn more about publishing. Our newest issue just launched and we’re very excited about it.
  7. There are opportunities to take other courses in the English department. Next semester, I’m taking an American Literature class on Ecogothic fiction. WVU also encourages students to take workshops outside of a chosen genre. Classes in technical writing and editing are also offered, and could be beneficial to those MFA students who aren’t so sold on teaching long-term.
  8.  There’s a lot more praise that I could give the program, but I’m just trying to hit the most obvious high points. If there’s something I haven’t covered that you’d like for me to touch on, please leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer. And do take a look at the English Department’s website for more information about applying: http://creativewriting.wvu.edu/about_the_program

One reason WVU might not be on your list right now is because you’re just not sure if you could handle living in West Virginia. I understand. And I don’t exactly have an antidote to that concern. What I worried about most when I first committed to WVU was actually just about living in Morgantown. If there’s anything that I regret about coming here, it’s that I feel some degree of discomfort and unhappiness in living in this town. Sure, there are plenty of things to love about Morgantown. It’s relatively cheap because it’s a college town; it has some very cool, historic neighborhoods; there’s good Indian food; there are some decent breweries; it’s physically gorgeous with trees, hills, and the Monongahela River. However, I do think there is something palpably sinister about this town.  The streets smell of sewage. Dried vomit coats the sidewalks. There are high rates of drug overdoses. Poverty and homelessness are pressing concerns.

One of the first things my GTA orientation mentor told me was to invest in pepper spray. I learned quickly that I couldn’t walk to campus without wearing sunglasses or headphones. Otherwise, people catcalled me, asked me for money, or harassed me about Jesus.

I live in a 100 year-old house. I love its stained glass window, its butler pantry, and the original tiles on the bathroom floor. This feels like home. It has been made home, thanks to the IKEA furniture my boyfriend put together. It is across from a terrific bakery, near a local brewery’s tap room, and is a 10 minute walk to campus. I love my apartment. When I first moved here, I felt safe here, even as I heard the old house creak and settle.

My middle-aged neighbor drinks a lot. Sometimes when he’s drunk, he calls for an ambulance. When he does this, I watch from my bay window, shaking my head. It’s a little sad, but mostly harmless.

But then, last week, I watched from my bedroom window as a different neighbor straddled a young woman and punched her in the face. It was 4:00 in the afternoon. It was broad daylight. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I’ve seen fights before, of course, but never like this. I called the police immediately. After that, I started sleeping with a steak knife under my pillow.

I know that in sharing this, I may be perpetuating stereotypes about West Virginia–and that concerns me. But I want to be honest about what has been the biggest struggle about coming to the program. I hope that the list of things I admire and appreciate about Morgantown rightly high-light all that is good about this place. There is a lot of good here. But the longer I live here, there are parts of this town that deeply unsettle me, especially as a woman who lives alone. I don’t share this story to discourage people from applying; the purpose of this post is to do the exact opposite! But I feel like I need to be honest about all of the positives about this program, and what has been (for me) the biggest struggle. What I’m trying to say is that I’m learning to live here. And I don’t always like it. But I want to emphasize that it has been worth it. It’s worth it because of the community and the good people who are here. That’s what I remind myself. And that’s what I want to share with you

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