Interview With Hollins University
Author: Elisabeth Aroneau
Let’s start by talking about the culture at your program. What’s the location like? What are some local hangouts for writers?
While Roanoke is a city of about 250,000 it feels more like a big small town. It has everything you need: coffee shops, fun restaurants, a beautiful regional art museum, farmers’ markets, an amazing art-house cinema, a co-op that features local produce, funky thrift stores, and various places to shop. Most days you’ll find students huddled over their laptops at one of the favorite coffee houses, Cups or congregating in the grad lounge on campus. You’ll find other students at work in the state of the art Wyndham Robertson library on campus or settled in a rocking chair on one of the many porches. Once a month you can hear students reading at the open mic as part of our student run reading series downtown. When the weather is particularly lovely, students hop on the greenway for a bike ride or go for a late morning hike. The Blue Ridge Mountains and mild seasons amplify the area’s natural beauty and the Hollins campus itself is breathtaking. If you’re looking for the hustle and bustle of a big city, you won’t find that here. What you will find is an area conducive to learning, working, and staying inspired.
Tell us about your experience in class. What’s the focus of your workshops? What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?
In workshops we focus on everything from line edits to broader conversations about the writer’s voice. We are encouraged to notice and develop the distinct things that make our work entirely ours. We are asked to approach each other’s work with a lens concentrated on elements of craft. We are taught to articulate what it is about a specific piece that moves us or leaves us with questions.
Hollins is constantly pushing you to write outside of your comfort zone. This is a program that believes in the value of multi-genre writing. You will be expected to experiment with all three genres within the first year and I guarantee this will force you to evolve as a writer. As a poet who has now gained much experience with fiction and creative non-fiction, my work is more and more focused on storytelling and I’m finding ways to break open the subjects my work revolves around. In a more traditional sense I’ve become determined to make work that demonstrates the art and power of the line. I’m intent on making sure each line is infused with energy, movement, and intention.
What sort of funding opportunities are available? What are you teaching? How easy is it to balance your teaching and writing?
Hollins offers significant financial aid for all who apply as first year students, with some receiving full-tuition remission and merit-based Graduate Assistantships and/or Teaching Fellowships with stipends. Additionally, the school offers full-tuition remission for ALL second year students who apply and show need based on their FAFSA applications. The Graduate Assistant workload averages 10 hours a week in program support and/or community outreach. Graduate Assistantships are renewable for year two. Teaching Fellowships are for second year students only and are determined by application after the first semester of work in the program. All first year students are eligible to apply. Outside of the Teaching Fellowships all students have ample opportunities to gain experience working in a college classroom as course assistants for a variety of undergraduate English classes.
All Teaching Fellows run a section of English 141, an introductory course to both poetry and short fiction. As a Teaching Fellow I strive to engage my students with both genres through extensive reading and writing assignments, class discussion, and weekly creative workshops. While teaching is both demanding and deeply rewarding, I make sure to remind myself that I am here first as a student. I am expected to produce a significant amount of new work each week and knowing this keeps me in balance.
What’s been your best memory of working with faculty?
I’ve had the opportunity to work with the same professor each year for tutorial, a course that sits at the heart of the MFA at Hollins. Tutorial is a 3-5 person workshop made up of first and second year students and one professor. Your group meets each week all year. This workshop experience is highly rigorous and involved. While it is unusual to have the same professor for this course in your first and second year, this has allowed me to work with a faculty member who truly knows my work, who can track its progress, and who can push me outside of the constraints I tend to work in. I feel grateful to be working closely with a faculty member who responds so actively to the projects I’m developing.
What’s been your greatest struggle in graduate school thus far? How has this program shaped your view of craft?
Creating and sticking to a regular writing schedule is still something I struggle with. However, week by week I continue to get better at prioritizing my work and utilizing pockets of time on a daily basis. This program has taught me the power and importance of self-discipline. Additionally, my understanding of craft has expanded through courses and conversations that continually examine the techniques at work in a piece of writing. I’ve learned to articulate how these techniques enhance the work. I’ve learned that craft can be taught and practiced and that through this focused practice our work inevitably grows.
What’s your next step? What sort of steps does your program take to prepare you for your post-graduate experience?
I plan to apply for teaching positions at both the high school and college level in order to stay immersed in academia while I work on sending out my own creative work for publication. Hollins makes it a priority to bring renowned authors and editors to campus for readings and discussions each month. We have the opportunity to attend question and answer sessions as well as small lunches with these visitors. These events offer invaluable insight and foster connections to the different fields we’re interested in pursuing. Additionally, there is a career center on campus designed to assist student with post-graduate plans.
What tips would you give a prospective student who is considering attending your program?
Plan a visit. I’m a firm believer in seeing a place before you commit to it. Walk around campus. Sit in on a class. Meet with a professor and current student(s). Grab a bite to eat somewhere downtown. If there’s absolutely no way you can visit I’d suggest getting in touch with at least two current students and a faculty member through e-mail. Ask them questions.
The Hollins MFA is a studio program. You will be expected to write intensely each week. You’re going to be asked to write more than you ever have before. Embrace this idea and run with it.
Come here with a car. Public transportation is extremely limited. You want to have the freedom to explore the area and get around easily.
Consider living downtown or in the Grandin village area. While campus is twenty minutes away, there’s much more going on in these neighborhoods. It’s nice to be able to walk to restaurants, bars, boutiques, grocery stores, coffee shops, a movie theater, and more.
Get to know your classmates and professors. Community is one of the great benefits of such a small program. The faculty here cares about your concerns, questions, ideas, and growth. Reach out to them. Make friends with your peers. They’re going to be your support system. You’re going to need each other as you navigate through this wonderful whirlwind.