By Sonya Lara and Taylor Portela
Sonya is currently pursuing her MFA in poetry at Virginia Tech. She attended a community college for two years where she obtained her Associate of Arts. Before attending the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she took a year off from school. Although it was not her choice to take a gap year, it defined who she is as a person and a student. After receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she worked various jobs for two years before moving to Virginia.
Taylor is currently pursuing their MFA in poetry at Virginia Tech. After receiving their Bachelor of Arts from the University of Michigan in 2014, they moved to Washington, D.C. Here, they worked at the New Organizing Institute, organizing RootsCamp, a national (un)conference for progressive organizers, as well as at the Center for Democracy & Technology, assisting the President & CEO and supporting the Communications and Development teams. Their five-year gap between undergraduate and graduate studies allowed them the time and space to develop their craft and immerse themself in D.C.’s drag community.
Sonya Lara (SL): You took five years off in between your undergraduate education and your graduate education. Was there a certain event/situation/day that you can recall that made you want to return to school? What was it?
Taylor Portela (TP): It seems like every year away from school I had an epiphany about returning. For a couple years, I was deciding between applying to Ph.D. programs and MFA programs. My real dream was an MFA, but I didn’t think I had enough credentials or experience to apply successfully. So I made a list of goals and decided that if I achieved them, I’d apply to the MFA and hold off on the Ph.D. At first this looked like writing in form, reading contemporary poetry, and finding answers to the dreaded question: who’s your favorite poet? Next, I tried to get enough work published so I could submit a writing sample that had some sort of stamp of approval. Then I started opening up my drag numbers with reading poems and trying to build a tangible audience for my work. After completing these three stages, the final spark came after my grandmas died months apart in 2018. One had been a painter and the other a seamstress. My application, in my eyes, became the biggest way I could honor their lives and their creativity.
TP: How many other times had you contemplated applying for a master’s degree? Why did you not pursue it during those times in your life? Was it for the same program you’re currently enrolled in (i.e., an MFA)?
SL: The only other time I thought about applying for a master’s degree was when I considered becoming a librarian. Because the library is one of my favorite places to visit, I thought it would be a perfect fit. I walked into the downtown library in Madison, where I was living at the time, and asked a librarian if I could schedule an informational interview with her. She was phenomenal. We talked well over an hour and a half and she took the time to answer all of my questions. But I found that the more information she gave me, the less excited I was about the job. There was this voice in the back of my mind reminding me how much I loved writing and that this wasn’t the right place for me. I left the interview incredibly disappointed. I was so sure that becoming a librarian was what I would do that the idea of it falling apart before my eyes was devastating. I went home that day and sat in my room staring at my walls wondering when I’d figure out what I was “supposed to do” with my life. That hunger to find something I was passionate would later lead me to look into MFA programs.
SL: What was the best part of taking time off in between degrees?
TP: All of it! Learning what it felt like to work a day job and leaving my stress at my desk at 5:00PM. Exploring what creativity could look like and build as a queer person – forming community around dressing up, breaking norms, and centering “play” as a value. Understanding myself through intense self-care that slipped through the cracks while I balanced working and pursuing my undergraduate degree: therapy, journaling, creating good habits and routine, and learning how to acknowledge my fears but not let them dictate the way I lived. In short, the best part of taking time off was having enough time and space to build the life I had dreamed of.
TP: Who was the first person you told about pursuing your graduate degree at Virginia Tech? What was their response?
SL: That’s a good question. I’m pretty sure I texted my best friends Natalia and Alana in our group chat in all caps. I couldn’t believe that I got in. I went into the application process very skeptical. I told myself that I most likely wouldn’t get into any schools, let alone the three I that I did. I sent screenshots of the acceptance email to my friends and then went home later that day and cried in my room. I hadn’t let myself fully accept how badly I wanted to get into the program until I got in. They were extremely supportive, which isn’t surprising. Alana’s mother even sent me a beautiful bouquet of flowers in the mail.
SL: Did you find it difficult to return to school after that much time away from academia?
TP: With my first semester almost complete, I can say that, for me, the transition back to school wasn’t difficult. I’m a nerdy Gemini – I love learning, I love exploring, I love seeing where my curiosity takes me. In my time off, I built a studying, reading, and writing schedule that kept engaged the skills I developed in undergrad. Not only that, but my previous job was fast-paced and detail-oriented, so I learned how to efficiently do my work and juggle multiple, sometimes competing, priorities. Graduate school is demanding, but none of the short-term work is that high stakes, and so I’m finding myself less stressed, more in tune with myself, and more engaged with my environment.
TP: Was there any advice you were given about what your time off would be like or what you should do during that time? Was it accurate?
SL: I’ll never forget the advice I received when I told two professors at my community college that I would be taking a year off in between my sophomore and junior year of college. One professor told me that it would be the best year of my life. She reminded me of all the time I’d have to dedicate to things I couldn’t as a full time student with a part-time job. She made it sound magical – like the world would be mine. The other professor was not so positive. Her first question to me was to ask if I had ever been depressed. I remember I laughed uncomfortably because I couldn’t understand why she’d ask me that, especially after hearing such a glowing review from my previous professor. But I’m grateful that she asked the questions that she did because I needed to hear what she had to say. She warned me that there would be days when I wouldn’t feel like getting out of bed and moments I’d feel lost. Both professors were right. I had some great moments and some very low moments, some of the lowest I ever had, but that year defined who I am as both a person and a student so I have no regrets.
SL: Were there any key people in your life that helped/supported you during any hard times while away from school? Any people that doubted/brought you down during your time away? How did either/both affect you and your time off?
TP: My family, by choice and by blood, are the reason I’m here. My parents, in particular, have always supported me even when I didn’t know how to support myself. They believed in me when I switched from majoring in the hard sciences to English and Philosophy; they believed in me when I moved to D.C. without any job leads; they believed in me after I came out as gay and again as trans; they believed that I can do anything if I put my mind to it. My family, in addition to some of my best friends, push me to keep expressing myself. My good Judy, Brian, who I lived with during my time in D.C., kept me sane, read all of my work, and was my biggest cheerleader. My other good Judy, Fritz, who also read all my work, inspired me to apply to Virginia Tech, and is the main reason why I still have balance in Blacksburg today. Of course, there were always people who scoffed at me for wanting to write, let alone pursue, poetry. But they just made me work harder.
TP: Would you advise other people to take time off in between degrees or even during their undergraduate years? Why?
SL: Yes and no. It depends on if it’s something they actually want to do. If it’s something that they feel they need or want to do, then by all means go for it. There’s nothing wrong with taking time off. I know that there’s a negative stigma around time off from school but it can be just as helpful as hurtful. I think people just need to go into their time off with a clear plan of what they’ll be doing with their “free time” and what they plan on doing after. If you go into taking time off with zero ideas, you might not be too happy.
Sonya Lara served as the Associate Fiction Editor for The Madison Review at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she received her BA in English-Creative Writing. Currently, she is the Co-Founder, Poetry Editor, and Social Media Manager for Rare Byrd Review; an Editor-at-Large for Cleaver Magazine; the Managing Editor for the minnesota review; and an MFA poetry candidate at Virginia Tech. Her work has appeared in Prairie Voices, Wisconsin’s Best Emerging Poets: An Anthology, Trestle Ties, and Heavy Feather Review.
Taylor Portela is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing at Virginia Tech and serves as blog editor for the Minnesota Review. They graduated from the University of Michigan in 2014 with a B.A. in Philosophy and English Literature and Language. From 2014 to 2019, they lived in Washington, D.C., working in the tech policy nonprofit sector and performing in drag. You can find their work online at Esthetic Apostle, PIVOT Literature, and Rise Up Review; in print at Sonder Literature and Trash Rag; and on Instagram @LavenderScare16.