“I did a low-residency program because I didn’t want to give up my job, and I chose a school that was far away so I would be exposed to different perspectives (I live in the Midwest, and I chose a program in the Pacific Northwest). Two things I wish I would have known before making that choice: Many of the students were from the region, so in many ways I was the one with a different perspective, and I was a bit of a minority (although this was also a benefit as a learning experience). Also, because of this strong regional contingent, a lot of local opportunities were generated during the time that I was in the program, including teaching assistantships and mid-term get-togethers that I just couldn’t participate in. I felt like I missed out on the full experience of the program due to geography, especially in regard to teaching and forming connections that would help in that area.”
Source: Lesley Weiss, quoted in “Should You Go Back to School? Four Writers Share Their Graduate-School Experiences and Help You Decide Whether or Not to Pursue an Advanced Writing Degree,” Writermag.com (free, but site registration is required to access the full article).
Brava, Lesley Weiss.
I can’t tell you how tired I am of people claiming that location should not be among the considerations when prospective students are applying to and choosing among or between low-residency MFA programs. I tried to counter that faulty notion myself when I devoted several paragraphs to “Geography” as a factor for prospective low-res students to consider when I was asked to contribute to The Creative Writing MFA Handbook.
Like Ms. Weiss, I opted for low-res in part because I did not want to move away from my job/life/connections where I was living (in my case, the Northeast) and I chose a program that was “far away” (in my case, in Charlotte, N.C.) because I thought it would be interesting to gain perspectives on a part of the country that was new to me.
And in some ways, that strategy worked. Attending faculty readings featuring poets and writers like Cathy Smith Bowers and Ron Rash during the residencies, for example, is something I would have missed had I chosen the program in Vermont that had accepted me, too. I also learned a lot from–and continue to value the friendships of–several of my Southerner classmates (although I haven’t managed to see two of my three closest MFA-friends-from-the-South since graduation in 2003, and I’ve seen the third only once, when I attended an AWP conference that was held in her hometown of Atlanta). But I, too, often perceived myself as a “minority” in my program, and my geographical background–a lifetime spent living, studying, and working along Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, in urban and suburban areas–was one of several contributing factors.
I have a couple of things to add to what Lesley Weiss has already said so eloquently. First, I think that location matters more when you’re looking at newer programs. I was in an inaugural MFA cohort, and frankly, not that many people outside the immediate area had even heard about the program yet (chalk up my own awareness to my overzealous research tendencies). I understand that the geographical distribution of the students has improved since my time in the program (as have some other elements of student diversity). Had I applied to, been accepted by, and chosen to attend a more established program in the same state, I suspect that the experience would have been quite different.
And, as I wrote in the Handbook, funding considerations matter, too. If you’re attending a low-res program some distance from home, you’ll need to factor travel expenses for multiple residencies into your budget. Moreover, some low-res programs in public universities offer significantly reduced in-state or regional tuition to eligible students.
So the next time you hear someone say that location isn’t/shouldn’t be a major consideration for low-res MFA applicants, please tell them to think again. I’m no longer the only one to say so!