MFA Cry for Help

MFA Cry for Help

Part of my responsibility as the Graduate Nonfiction Ambassador here at Columbia College Chicago is to respond to emails from potential students. Generally, this encompasses offering them advice and answering their questions about the school and the Department of Creative Writing. The other day, I received one with the subject line, “MFA Cry for Help.”

The subject-line of this email struck me in particular because it underscores the seriousness of the decision most of us make when we choose to apply to graduate school. Applying to a graduate program – especially an MFA program – means one is seeking intellectual refinement, the honing of a craft and maturation as an artist. But, when one seeks more, one must often travel from the barren landscapes of the familiar down unknowable paths in the hopes of finding illuminated fields ripe with nurturing fruits.

Yet, confident as we are in ourselves, we are afraid to start.

That is why we cry for help. We still want to find our own way down the path, but we want assurance from the voice of another. We want it to say, “I’ve been there. I was afraid too, but I’ve made it and so will you.” And if that voice is strong and we believe in it as we believe in ourselves, then we will need no more to take our first step.


The graduate students I’ve come to know at Columbia College Chicago come from many backgrounds and many walks of life. There are students mere months out of undergrad. There are individuals struggling with a return to rigorous study after establishing a certain way of life some twenty years distant. And there’s everyone in between. All have fear, I assure you.

There are those among us who struggle each day with the thought that they might not be able to finish the program – not because it is challenging but because it cannot be paid for. Across the graduate lounge from this individual sits another student, fully funded or perhaps with some benefactor. No student can be pitied, and no student should be regarded with jealousy. All have struggle, I assure you.



In speaking with these other graduate students we often hit upon the idea of efficient time management as a survival skill. I can’t think of one of us who doesn’t have a job or family commitments or any number of other worries beyond our academic careers and artistic pursuits. We coalesce as a group because, even though the specifics of our situations may differ, we understand one another’s struggles. We’re under pressure, but it’s pressure we’ve put on ourselves because we want more, because we are all high achievers. We are the ones who walk down the unknown path.

So to the potential student who sent me the email with the apt subject line and to any other with similar concerns, let me say that as you seek to begin that journey called graduate school and you find the need to cry for help, do so. For though your single voice will project across the darkness, there will never be only one voice that replies but a whole chorus of us speaking in unison, saying, “Have no fear. You, too, will succeed.”