As a Black woman who writes about the Black-American female experience, I knew that not every MFA program would be for me. As opposed to writers who can endlessly write about trees, fingers, animals or even backpacking (#no shade), the topics that end up in my work are more charged to say the least. I knew that not all MFA programs would be for me, not because I wouldn’t necessarily be welcomed in the program, but because of larger social, political, and economic factors. I know that “social, political, and economic factors” is the vaguest description ever, but just hang tight. I got you, my non-white brothers and sisters. In this piece, I’ll list the steps I chose in picking the right program for me. While this list is not exhaustive, it does take into consideration that our values, economic considerations, identities and writing (as people of color) are probably different than those of traditional/historical academia.
Let’s do this:
1. Unless you have one MFA program you’ve been dying to go to your entire life, start out with a general list of MFA programs.
I know that it’s tempting to just research programs that you’ve heard about before, either through your previous creative writing classes or your random auntie who heard about “this one MFA program” from her friend. Don’t do it! As a POC it was helpful for me to research all of the options available to me instead of the ones I already had in my mind—it allows for truly finding a program that fits you, not trying to fit yourself into a program. Start with general annual lists of MFA programs like this one from Poets and Writers.
2. Narrow down your search based on the amount of funding you hope to receive.
I knew that I couldn’t even pretend to pay for my MFA. So, I automatically looked for programs that were fully funded. Will they cover my tuition? Will they give me a living stipend? Do they expect me to teach and not compensate me? Etc. This limited my options greatly, and even knocked out some programs I was considering before looking at the Poets and Writers list. Fully funded is the way to go
3. Check the faculty.
Are there non-white faculty members who will be teaching when you arrive? (Faculty of Color who are on sabbatical the entire time you will be there doesn’t count.) There is nothing worse than showing up to a program and realizing that every class you are in will be taught by someone who can never engage, understand, or empathize with your work. I’m not saying that every Black person can identify with my work, but there is a greater chance of someone Black understanding the cultural context of my writing. Out of the programs that were fully funded, I looked up the faculty of each to see if there was any Faculty of Color, or any faculty that wrote about similar themes to my own. This narrowed down my list even more.
4. Research the surrounding community.
When looking at the remaining 12 schools I had on my list after this third step, I then decided to look into the communities surrounding the school. For me, any MFA program will be null if I take two steps out of my classroom and the school and/or greater city/town environment is hostile or racist. I don’t have time for that. Also, if I couldn’t find even one speck of soul food in the surrounding area of the program, I probably wasn’t going to be attending. Find something that reminds you of home, or something that will ground you, in the programs you are considering.
5. Lastly, Talk to the alumni and/or current students of the program.
Many MFA programs will list their alumni students and/or current students. If this doesn’t exist for that school, call the program director and ask to speak to students in the program. For me, this was the very last step in deciding the programs I wanted to apply to. In speaking to students who had similar identifiers as me, I was able to really get a feel for what my experience (school and larger community) might be like if I attended the program. You need to know if any other POC have been successful in this program before you. It doesn’t mean you have to strike the school off of your list if you can’t find this information, but if you can’t find anything about other non-white people in the program, is it really the best program for you and your work?
Whew, ok! Although this list is short, the steps can be time-consuming—but extremely rewarding. By the time I completed these steps, I had a list of 7 schools that I felt confident about attending. I knew that if I were accepted, the faculty would be representative and invested in my work and my writing growth. I also knew that I could find something outside of the program that would make me feel like I belonged. My fellow non-white writers, deciding to enter an MFA program is a bold choice in itself. Make sure you choose the right one for you!
Ashieda McKoy is a first year poet in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. She is a poetry reader for the minnesota review.