Prepping for MFA Programs as
a Person of Color
"Will this be a mistake?"
Like interviews, wedding proposals, and acts of revolution, many changes in life start with a well-posed question.
For many weeks, I’ve been launching myself into phone calls and scheduled webinars where I don’t only have my fingers wrapped around a single inquiry, but a good handful of them. At this time of year, I doubt I’m alone. Since attending an MFA program is already heralded as a reckless, ill-thought act of fancy (or has been for the several years I’ve tossed the idea around in discussion with friends, whether they are possessors of the degree in question or not), it feels excessively adventurous to not dig deeper and try to feel out the walls of the pit you’re willingly stumbling into.
The initial entries to my list of questions likely looks like the list others have developed:
Will this be a mistake?
Will this prove my extended family right in considering me the eccentric, the one who could have gone to medical school but didn’t, the one inevitably doomed to a Dickensian demise fostered by substance abuse, dying penniless and cold in a dusty attic garret?
If I use the right font and indent properly, will I be closer to gracing the page of successful alumni wreathed in gracious smiles, comfy oversized sweaters, and professional accolades?
Speaking of sweaters, what do I wear?
And here, we take a sharp left turn.
What do I wear? Is this a program where a girl in a hijab feels welcome, feels disregarded in the best sort of way—no one is looking, no one sees anything out of the ordinary, no one cares—or eyed down and singled out in the worst ways possible?
I’m considering location, student population, and if I’ll have another face or two in the room to nod to in recognition.
This is where we start talking about the person of color prep list for MFA profit, and probably more than a little pain. MFA programs have been long chronicled online in ways that remind me of towering Manhattan skyscrapers housing internationally renowned publications and corporations, of conference rooms boasting eye-popping shades and eclectic patterns—and a distinct, stomach-sinking lack of anyone with a hint of melanin to their skin.
When you think about MFA programs as a person of color, you likely think about the discussions that crop up about students being asked to delete their own accent from short stories and curtail their character’s speaking to family members in Spanish. I know plenty of authors with their own horror stories, encounters with faculty and classmates alike underlying exactly how not welcomed or anticipated their presence is in their respective program.
From undergraduate classes onward, most students are asking, “Are there good food options on campus? How many notebooks should I take? Which professors should I take classes with? How is the campus culture?”
For me, as I Google, those questions expand outward, their roots prodding into the softest spots of my personal anxiety and the uncertainty I’ve grappled with since I made the decision to start applying. Those horror stories, those moments in which friends have lost their faith in their writing and regretted the money sunk into institutions that don’t value them as much as they deserve, have scrolled through my head.
And grappling with these questions only worsens them.
Am I making the right decision here?
Are there good food options on campus for me? Enough vegetarian options that aren’t limp burger imitations or salad bars to keep up my strength? Staff who will not blink or narrow their eyes when I tentatively ask if there are any Halal meats or cheeses available, or any way I can check labels for wine or pork derivatives?
Even stationery shopping is fraught. How many notebooks will I fill with an accurate log of my mistakes in going down this path less traveled instead of following my original plan of a Masters in Library Science?
Can cute pens be enough to distract me when I’m taking notes during a class where a professor has used the N-word twice and waved off a student’s tentative concerns? (This has happened to me before, and no, it is not enough. It is never enough.)
When I’m writing items on my prep list for a potential out of state school or a low-residency program, I’m not only considering alarm clocks, how many clothes I can fit into one carry-on, or whether or not I’ll need extra sheets. I’m considering location, student population, and if I’ll have another face or two in the room to nod to in recognition.
We’ve all gotten here and we can survive here.
You aren’t the only one in the room.
Like any other student, my prep list is focused alike on profit and trying to minimize pain. I anticipate pain, convinced that any program will not be free of microaggressions, of moments in which my decision to write marginalized characters will be questioned or an ill-timed remark will elicit nervous titters from everyone else in earshot except me, leaving me on the spot and speechless.
More and more, I’m starting to stumble upon pages where banners declare, “We welcome and encourage diversity.” It feels like progress from my undergrad days, being able to check off the boxes in student surveys that permanently register my application as being from a biracial, Muslim woman (accurately, “Asian” and “African-American,” rather than figuring out where to muddle the lines or choose one side over another).
Do I really need to enter another environment where I might come out whole, welcomed and warm, or torn to pieces one unsupportive critique session at a time?
But being in the industry, I know how externally devoted allies can lead me to questions I don’t want to ask, but keep having to:
Why would you think that was alright to say?
Why would you think that was an option for me?
Why would you question that aspect of who I am?
So, I prepare and I revise and I reconsider.
Recently, I attended an online webinar. During the live question-and-answer session afterward, I hesitated and then quickly typed out a single question for the admissions staff and current student presenters: “Are there PoC in the program who can speak to the culture of the school and their experience with it?”
One admissions officer, after a puzzled silence, asked if I could type out a definition of PoC. Another presenter hastily stepped in and defined the term, but the damage was done and doubt settled in.
Am I making the right decision? As a published author who already sees how far the industry has to go in the wake of We Need Diverse Books, do I really need to enter another environment where I might come out whole, welcomed and warm, or torn to pieces one unsupportive critique session at a time?
Will this be profitable? Will my writing improve here? Have others like me left their mark on this school?
Did they make it through with their words, their hearts, their dreams intact?
This change in life requires the right questions, and even more importantly, promising answers. Like other MFA students, there is a lot of stake for me in this choice: future publication and careers, yes, but confidence and hope and references and community.
So I’m making my list, over and over again. I add good socks and shoes, and a hat in case there’s ever a day my hijab isn’t safe enough. I think about whether or not I need erasers and if I’ll have a steady Wi-Fi connection, and check hate crime statistics and search for restaurants that could augment a lacking cafeteria.
This is what goes into a person of color’s prep list. And I hope, for all of us, that there is only profit—and as little pain as possible.
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