Monday, April 18, 2011

Unfunded in the MFA

I haven't posted in a long, long time. In fact, I haven't written a single post since I've actually been in my MFA program. Why? In the beginning, it was because I was so busy trying to get my footing that I never had a moment to post. The first few months were a dream: I met so many new and enthralling writers (both my peers, professors, and writers from outside the Mason community), I took engaging and wonderful classes, I wrote 79 poems in one semester for my "79 Works" class (no big deal), and I felt like I was in the right place.

Then, winter hit. November, December, the dark months. In the flurry of getting ready for the semester end, I started thinking about what was coming ahead. I had to prepare for another difficult process. Having come to George Mason unfunded, I knew that a long-and-hard battle for funding was coming up.

George Mason invites it's continuing students the chance to apply for a teaching assistantship in their second year. For those of us who are unfunded, we know it's going to be a painful, uphill battle. Dissatisfaction sets in. Fear sets in. We start to panic and wonder whether we'll be able to stay in the program for two more years without funding. Back-up plans are made. I started hoarding all my money, trying not to go out as much. I stopped buying unnecessary books, clothing, food, etc. I started to think about getting a full-time job and going to school part time. This process does terrible things to a person. I started to think about leaving, moving back home, starting over again.

And then the TA officially process began. In a desperate bid for an unknowable number of spots, about a dozen of us applied. We interviewed, we worried, we got ulcers, we had panic attacks. We cried about it, we wrote about it, we drank about it. And now, finally, after weeks of waiting, we know.

I was offered my TA position over two weeks ago, and since that fateful Thursday afternoon, I have existed in a state of sun-drenched relief. Next year, I'll be tutoring in the Writing Center and preparing to teach Composition and Literature in my third year. I am delighted. And for once I am free from the worries that come with finances, the insecurity that comes with not knowing how I'm going to continue on this path. I will no longer have to work roughly thirty hours a week on top of my class load. Starting in the fall, I'll be a fully-funded MFAer. I can't believe it.

In accepting my TA position, I exchanged several emails with the program director. In one, he thanked me for my "great bravery" in coming into the program unfunded. I know that right now there are many students about to enter MFA programs without funding. Some people would call that decision stupidity, but I agree that's it's bravery. We can go on and on about how MFAs should be funded, how this degree should cost nothing. And yes, holding out for funding is an option. But for so many others, accepting an unfunded spot can be the RIGHT CHOICE. If I hadn't taken the spot I did, I'd be miserably unemployed in a state (Michigan) whose education system is failing and whose economy is still degenerating. But instead, I'm in a vibrant place with several jobs I love, and the job I've always wanted starting in the fall. And I'm getting the time and support I need to write. For those of us who decide to take the leap, financial consequences be damned, this is an act of bravery, an act of faith. We are making an investment in our lives, our selves, and our futures. There is value in that.

I'll admit, it's easier to say all this from the position of financial security. It's easier to believe it. But that doesn't mean it's any less true. I felt like someone needs to talk about being unfunded: not about the struggle (although it is one) or the stress (lots of that, too), but about the benefits of taking the leap. You're welcome to disagree with me, many do, but for those of you who are out there and unfunded, know that it can one of the best decisions you've made.


  1. Thanks, Amy! I'm very excited. Icing on the cake? Several of my friends got funding, too!

  2. Thank you, Chrissy, for posting this - I am facing this conundrum as well. There are lots of second year funding opportunities, some of which are actually fully funded (which isn't well known in the general population), but admittedly, there are more students than there are funding opportunities. While fully funded positions are quite wonderful and lucky, there will always be more MFA students than funded spots in general. No one owes us a free graduate education; it is a privilege. We know what we're getting into with non-fully funded programs, and it's an individual decision. Is it tough? Of course. But in the end, it's a choice we make for ourselves. Thanks for posting. Like you said, this was brave. :)

  3. Congrats Chrissy! I will be starting my first year as an MFA candidate and teaching assistant at George Mason in the fall, and of course I've read all your posts on this blog. See you soon.


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