Fairfield University Graduates Its First MFA in Creative Writing Cohort

Submitted by Lisa Calderone MFA '11 on January 7, 2011

On the evening of Tuesday, January 4, 2011, Fairfield graduated its first student cohort from the University’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing (MFA) program. The ceremony was held in the Chapel of Our Lady of the Assumption on Enders Island, where the 25 graduates formed a processional line in and out of the same stone and stained glass building that hosted nightly faculty readings throughout their residencies. Family, friends, fellow classmates, MFA faculty, and school administrators were in attendance, including Paul J. Fitzgerald, S.J., Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs, Dr. Robbin D. Crabtree, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Dr. Michael C. White, Program Director and Professor of English, and Chris Belden, student speaker – all of whom addressed the Class of 2011.

Photography/B.K. Angeltti

Dr. White, Founder and Director of the program, delivered an anecdote about being the son of a gifted storyteller, and the importance of community in the art of storytelling. He then turned to the graduating class and recalled the “dark and stormy night” two years ago, “when Mark Doty read to our small band of pilgrims. How frail – how frail indeed – did our program’s start appear back then, and how naïve we all seemed that we could pull this off, not only grow and become skilled individual writers – which you all have very much become – but meld our individual talents and individual selves into a ‘community of writers’…”

In December 2008, Fairfield joined the approximately 35 academic institutions nationwide offering a low-residency MFA in Creative Writing, selecting the location of picturesque Enders Island in Mystic, Connecticut for its inspiring and rigorous 10-day residencies held twice a year. 27 set sail straightaway, eager to workshop, learn, dine, read, write, sing, and soar together as writers and poets; two will graduate at the next residency.

“I will deeply miss you, all of you. I will miss your intelligence and talent, your passion and compassion, your depth and wit and humor. You came here as students, and you leave as colleagues and friends. Above all, you leave as friends,” continued Dr. White. The inaugural class was then asked to stand. “I am extremely proud of all that you have accomplished as writers thus far, individually and collectively, but even more, I am keenly hopeful that you will go forth to write brilliant novels and books of poetry, life-affecting memoirs and essays and stories that will deepen and illuminate, provide solace for and understanding of our humanity – in short to make your mark as writers.”

Dr. Crabtree’s opening remarks acknowledged the graduates as the inaugural cohort of the program. “Your hunger for an experience like this one, your ideas as it unfolded, and your experiences as a group as we observed and learned from you have informed the continuing evolution of this new – but already signature – Fairfield University graduate program,” she said. “We hope to see many, many cohorts through, but you will always be our first!”

Many from this first cohort were Fairfield alumni who based their decision on their previous experiences with Fairfield’s exemplary and dedicated faculty. “I wanted my MFA and immediately signed on when Fairfield offered this program,” wrote Tina DeMarco M.F.A.’11, B.A.’00, a fiction writer, in her review on GradInsider.com. “As the first class, [I felt] we had a chance to create a program of writers who would come together to share and grow with each other, bonding as the family we have come to be.” Anne Hasenstab M.F.A.’11, a poet and publisher of Honey Land Review, wrote that she was drawn to the program for its strength of faculty and innovative program design, and appreciated having access to faculty who teach full time at NYU, Penn State, Columbia, Rutgers, and others, along with professional writers and agents. “This diverse combination delivers a virtual smorgasbord of literary talent that simply cannot be matched by any other program,” she wrote in her review.

Faculty support of students was referenced in the address by student speaker Chris Belden M.F.A.’11, who jokingly shared best-selling author Da Chen’s advice that “All you need is one person in this world to love your writing and publish it, so that a million will get to read your book. Of six billions of earthlings, sooner or later, you will find that one…It’s that simple.” Belden contemplated the odds of six billion to one, then added, “Still, I like to think it can happen.” Belden, who devoted his third semester project to teaching creative writing to inmates at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown, Connecticut, suggested that the convicted criminals might “stand a better chance of getting a book published these days.”

Nevertheless, Belden encouraged his fellow graduates.

“What are you going to do when that blank page stares back at you, taunting you with its vast white space until you go snow blind,” he said. “…I’ll tell you what you’re going to do: you’re going to keep on writing. And you’re going to remember this: … somebody has to tell the truth, whether it be in the form of a sonnet or a short story or a memoir or a screenplay – especially now, when words matter so much less than they used to, when whole countries are run by semi-literates, when elections are decided by lies and fear and ignorance.”

After receiving a verbal commitment from each of his fellow graduates to “Keep on writing!” Belden quoted Stephen King from his book On Writing: “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, or making friends. In the end it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”

Fairfield’s MFA in Creative Writing has a current enrollment of 71 graduate students from across the country, and is the fastest-growing new graduate program at Fairfield. Applications arrive steadily, and plans are in place to establish invigorating overseas residency options in Galway and Sicily.

Still, at the core of the program is the Enders experience. “I am confident that, having found your community here, you will never really leave it, despite how far away you may go,” said Dr. White. “I am confident you will return again and again, either in person or in spirit, through your work and your thoughts … This – this little island – is your home and will remain your home forever.”

All Fairfield MFA alumni will be invited to return to Enders twice a year, in May and October, for concentrated 4-day weekends of workshops, seminars, and continued mentorship and camaraderie. The hope is that this and future cohorts will join the wider literary community through its written works, teachings, and continued passion and commitment to the literary arts – and to “the truth” about the human experience.

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