First cohort of students welcomed for residency of new Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.
At age 58, after raising a family and having a successful career, Mary Peterson wondered, “What else is there for me to do?”
She had been a hobby writer for many years and dreamed of one day putting the life lessons she had accumulated in a published book. However, although she had immersed herself in writers workshops and other groups, the energy from those experiences didn’t last, and when she would return home, her efforts fizzled out.
Now, Peterson is a member of the inaugural class of the Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in Creative Writing program at Alma College, which met for its first residency in June. Peterson said that in this group, she has found a community that enables her to think about writing in ways she never has before — and creates a path to see her dream through to reality.
“Life is not always so linear. I feel like now that I’m here, I get to live it backward, with the most-enjoyable parts happening closer to the end,” Peterson said. “In the past, when I’ve envisioned myself at this age, I always thought I would be writing. The way I see it, this is my window, to take that writing and turn it into something truly meaningful.”
The MFA program, led by director and award-winning author Sophfronia Scott, is the first graduate degree offered in the 135-year history of the college. The first residency, which comprises 15 students, met for 10 days at the Wright Leppien Opera House in downtown Alma, to take part in intensive lectures, workshops, readings and one-on-one time with faculty.
The faculty features a diverse group of writers with decades of experience and accolades among them; including a National Book Award finalist, Karen E. Bender; the poet laureate of Houston, Texas, Leslie Contreras Schwartz; and New York Times bestselling author Dhonielle Clayton. The program kicked off with a reading by U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, an event that was livestreamed to the public.
The MFA is considered a “low residency” program, meaning that brief periods of in-person class time are sandwiched between much longer intervals of distance learning. The inaugural MFA class will reconvene four more times over a two-year period, and be joined at each stop with a new residency of roughly 15 students. Winter residencies will take place at the Ralph A. MacMullan Conference Center, located on the shore of Higgins Lake in Roscommon.
Scott said the location of Alma has been a big benefit when it comes to recruiting students to join the MFA program.
“When I speak with people about what differentiates our program, there’s a lot about the diversity that Alma offers, along with our place on the map. We are the only low residency program in Michigan, and one of the few in the Midwest as a whole,” Scott said. “I think, as a result of that, a lot of our students come from the Midwest, although our first class has students coming from Massachusetts, South Carolina and Florida.”
Artricia James-Heard, of Tampa, Florida, said she had not been to Michigan for many years before deciding to apply for the Alma MFA program. After learning more about the program and the way it fit into her busy lifestyle, she said, she made a leap of faith — and she’s happier for it.
“I take on a lot of responsibilities at home. I’m a caregiver to a family member, and I work full-time. When I learned I only had to be here in-person for 10 days, I realized it fit my life,” James-Heard said. “I might not have known exactly what I was getting myself into, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised. The people here make you feel like family, and that’s very conducive to the writing process.”
The MFA students and faculty fully enmeshed themselves within the local community during their time at Alma. They proudly wore maroon-colored Alma gear while eating dinners together at Alma Brewing Company, toasting to their success over frozen custard at Serendipity and riding bicycles along the Fred Meijer Heartland Trail. Ballyhoo Books, the local downtown bookstore, even hosted two faculty readings, which were well attended.
Alma College President Jeff Abernathy said the MFA has fit in well with other offerings at the college. Other master’s programs, guided by faculty and administrators, are in the planning phases, he added.
“I am grateful to Dr. Michael Selmon and the English department for their work to develop the MFA program and to Alma’s faculty for supporting the department’s vision,” Abernathy said. “As a liberal arts college, our mission is centered on the humanities and the arts. We can all take pride that this first master’s program is in these core areas. That speaks to the strength and character of Alma College and the values we hold.”