From the day she won a poetry contest in second grade, Elizabeth Kelso had an inkling she could write. However, it wasn’t until 40 years later, when the Bronx native enrolled in The College of New Rochelle’s Master of Fine Arts Program to pursue a degree in Creative Writing, that she realized her true potential.
“I definitely found my style,” said Kelso, 51, who completed CNR’s new 2-year MFA program this May. The mom of two is among 14 writers in the program’s first graduating class.
An executive assistant at an investment bank, Kelso’s path to a Masters in Creative Writing has been unconventional. However, she is in good company at the program, making a name for attracting students from diverse backgrounds.
“From day one, the mission of the program was to create a space for underrepresented voices and welcome a wide variety of perspectives, experiences, and writing styles to the workshop table,” said Steven Hobbs, director of CNR’s Creative Writing program. “Now more than ever this is essential, and I think writers want to be a part of a diverse community of storytellers. There’s so much to learn from one another.”
The program’s inaugural all-female class includes a mix of domestic and international students hailing from countries as far away as Australia, China, India, and Pakistan.
Among the graduates are many working adults who completed the MFA program while raising families and holding down full-time careers as occupational therapists, high school teachers, and non-profit directors, among other occupations.
While for students like Meher Manda, the program’s cultural diversity was refreshing, the artistic variety she found among classmates was more impactful.
“Nobody seems to write like the other person,” Manda, 25, said.
A journalist who came into the program as an international student from Mumbai, India, Manda read several poems at the graduating class’ final reading in mid-May.
The event, held at Langston Hughes’s Harlem brownstone, was co-sponsored by the I, Too Arts Collective, a community-based organization partnering with CNR’s MFA program to nurture emerging writers.
In the soft-lit parlor of Hughes’s historic home, under the watchful portrait of the Harlem Renaissance great himself, CNR graduates read from their capstone work.
The reading was a kaleidoscope of genres that showed off the spectrum of graduate work. The graduates’ prose sang, seared and even sizzled in the parlor space where faculty, family and friends sat close. As each graduate took center stage, she flaunted the depth and range of writing the program inspires. Readings took a wide arc from fantasy, to poetry, to queer romance, to sci-fi, to immigrant story, to young adult narrative, to period piece, to contemporary play.
“I had been impressed all year with the collective talent of the program and also the variety of influences and curiosities of the writers in it,” said MFA faculty member Mitchell Jackson. “Their performances seemed to me a testament to their confidence and growth.”
Jackson, a Whiting Award-winning writer, mentored several students through their final theses.
It is this range of student work that’s far-reaching and different, if not edgy, that’s propelled the launch of the program’s literary magazine.
“We wanted to publish work that was daring in what it did, that was audacious in form, structure and content, and was just in many ways genre-pushing,” said Manda who spearheaded the magazine, The Canopy Review, and serves as its first editor-in-chief.
Manda said the response to the biennial magazine, which accepts free online submissions from around the world, has been overwhelming. Over the period of a few weeks, the magazine received an avalanche of nearly 1,000 admissions for its inaugural edition set to be published this July.
While the opportunity to publish in and work on a literary magazine, or learn from noted writers, is a draw for many CNR MFA students, it’s not the only thing that attracts them to the program.
“What intrigued me about the program at The College of New Rochelle was the social justice component,” said recent graduate Renee Flagler.
A published romance novelist, Flagler wanted to pursue a terminal MFA degree to teach at the college level. However, Flagler’s background as a teaching artist— leading workshops for at risk groups—gave her a deep affinity for the CNR program, which requires its writers to serve in their local communities.
“I’ve taught writing to youth in drug treatment centers, detention centers, jails, group homes as well as K-12 kids,” said Flagler who while earning her MFA has also coordinated volunteer opportunities for fellow classmates.
Ultimately for graduates like Kelso, the MFA not only fills a need in the community, it fulfills a lifelong aspiration.
“Looking back I would not have gone to another program,” said Kelso calling it, “a labor of love.”
Reflecting on her MFA journey, Kelso challenges others, who like herself may have buried the call to writing in pursuit of other ventures, to go for it.
“You do have to sacrifice, but if this is something you want to do as an adult, and if you have a full life, you just have to find the time,” said Kelso who juggled taking evening classes three nights a week after work to earn her degree.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Kelso, currently finishing her first novel, “but it was rewarding.”
This article was written by MFA student Tana Mfuni.