Coming to Chicago: How on Earth Did I End Up Getting An MFA?

Until about halfway through junior year of college, my motto was, “I am never going to graduate school.” I studied English, with a concentration in creative writing, and when I told friends and relatives my major they always asked one of two questions:

Are you going to teach?

And…

Where are you applying for grad school?

I would inform that I had no plans to teach or to further my education and then list a series of vague, not-so-well-thought out plans for the future, things like AmeriCorps programs and internships abroad. I would tell them I was excited about finishing school, and having the opportunity to read and write on my own time. I told them I had no desire to attend a two or three year program to get my Masters, that the ivory tower of even higher higher education was not for me.

It was a lie. All of it.

I loved school, the rush of turning in assignments on time, gaining approval of professors, spending my time reading and writing and then discussing these things. It was a challenge that motivated me like nothing else in my life. And I was good at it, better at being a student than I was at most things. I would have loved to get an MFA in my chosen genre, nonfiction prose, and then go on to teach at a university while working on my writing. This was my dream and I always knew this was my dream. I wasn’t bored with my education at all. The problem was that I was terrified.

The thing about grad school is, it’s competitive. It has always been competitive and the fact that humanities-based departments are shrinking more and more each year means it’s more competitive than it’s ever been. I did not want to face the humiliation of rejection letter after rejection letter, especially considering a friend of mine, who had a far higher GPA than I did, had just been rejected form 8 schools. At age 22, I was already prepared to give up on my dream and get a day job.

I can’t tell you how I changed my mind although I remember the day I did decide to go for it vividly.

It was a Saturday afternoon, spring semester of my junior year. I had been studying for a Spanish exam for about an hour and a half and decided to take a break. I goggled, “MFA Programs—Chicago, New York City.” I spent the rest of the afternoon reading about different schools, their applications processes, the GRE, and other grad school related information. I still cannot tell you why I decided to seriously consider the application process then. It was an impulse, more than anything, something I did with little thought or consideration. A sudden flicker in my mind said to me, “We’re doing this. End of story.”

I wish I could tell you where this came from, because such a lesson is an important one. Everyone wonders how to overcome their fears and pursue what they really want out of life. Some of us, in fact, never learn how. I don’t know where that drive came from, but I know that it sustained itself for the entirety of that summer, which I spent the bulk of sitting in a diner in Lansing, Michigan going over GRE flash words and working on my writing sample.  And I know the drive continued through my first semester of senior year, which I spent bothering professors for letters of recommendation and drafting statements of purpose. And I know it all paid off last March, where I received an acceptance letter to Columbia College Chicago as well as a fellowship that covered the bulk of my tuition.

Now, when I tell people I’m working on an MFA in Chicago, they don’t ask what I will do with it. They assume I will teach college. Instead, they ask, “How did you decide on that?” And I give them an honest answer.

“I don’t remember, but I’m sure glad I did.”

Anyone else getting an MFA? How did you feel? What made you decide to apply? Let us know in the comments!

 

Erin Wisti

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