Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Travel versus Graduate School: A Fork in the Road

Before I left for India, I applied to eight graduate writing programs.  Pending acceptance, I imagined returning to America and writing my heart out for 2-3 years.  Travel changed everything, including my ideas about what constitutes an education.

Growing up, my parents encouraged me to value a formal education.  They assisted me with homework, and praised every "A."  They never said it, but I understood the expectation:  I would get a bachelor's degree and a master's degree.  I came to associate an education with an institution.

From the first day, it was obvious that travel rivals a formal education.  I had thousands of light bulb moments about politics, religion, and geography.  The world became a classroom and every person I encountered was a teacher.  (In retrospect, I learned more in 19 weeks than a year at university.)    

In India, I was accepted to four writing programs.  The news thrilled me.  But I couldn't help but ask, "Could I get a better education from travel?"

I've always been a realist when it comes to writing.  I know that a Masters in Fine Arts is not a requisite for a writer.  I know an MFA does not guarantee publication.

I don't even believe that people can teach you how to write.  You teach yourself. Still, I applied to eight graduate writing programs because I believed that an MFA could give me the resources I needed to teach myself.  It could provide me a writing community - something I've found valuable as an artist.  It could help me make contacts in the publishing world.  Above all, I believed I could improve more in two years of concerted, focused effort than six years of working full-time and writing on the side.  

When it came time to accept or decline my offers of admission (April 15th), I was in the Middle East.  I was seven weeks into my trip, travel fatigue hadn't set in, and I wanted to travel indefinitely.  The alternative to an MFA was this:  come home, cancel my cell phone, sell everything (including the car), and buy a one-way ticket to southeast Asia or Africa.

From there, my plans were vague.  I figured I'd go where I pleased and find employment along the way.  People I met on the road extended their travels by teaching English, working at restaurants and hostels, and volunteering in exchange for room and board.  I believed that I could pull it off - I still do.

I'm single, childless, and debt-free.  This may not last long.  The conditions may never be this stellar again.

At the same time, I knew the opportunity to get an MFA might not come along again, either.

MFAs are surprisingly competitive.  The schools don't care if you have a 4.0 GPA from Harvard - at least not much.  Ninety-percent of the admissions decision involves the writing portfolio.  Even if your portfolio is excellent, it may not be what the school is looking for.  When faced with two excellent portfolios, a school may choose the portfolio that most closely mirrors the type of writing that the faculty themselves are doing.  Really, it's a crapshoot.

And the stars aligned this year:  In 2010, I took a writing course at the University of Washington and had a polished portfolio.  A writing instructor and Army supervisors agreed to write me letters of recommendation.  My GRE scores hadn't expired yet!  

April 15th loomed and so began a series of sleepless nights.  Wavering, wobbling, and weighing the pros and cons.  To MFA or not?  To travel or not? Being decisive has never been my strong suit.

In the end, I chose the MFA.

It was Sister #2 who talked me down from the ledge by suggesting a compromise:  extend your trip by six weeks, then do the MFA.  That's what I did. I spent another six weeks in eastern Europe and north Africa.  Travel fatigue set in.  By the end, I was exhausted and ready to come home - at least temporarily.

Everyone's had a moment like that in life.  A moment at the fork of a road.  A moment where both paths are appealing.  Yet, you're cognizant that choosing one over the other will radically effect the rest of life.

I think I made the right decision.  I believe that formal education will improve my writing and I tell myself that when I graduate, I'll go back.  But so many things could change between now and then.  Kids, spouse, loans.  All the things that make travel difficult.

In the end, I realize that nothing is guaranteed and uncertainty is the only certainty.  Yet, I'm certain of this - travel changed me.

I can now name all 196 countries of the world.  I'm learning French.  Yesterday, I read an article about Bahrain with interest.  Bahrain!  Last year, I didn't know Bahrain existed.    

I sense that travel will be an important part of my future, an important part of my continuing education.



  1. I'm 30 years farther into my life than you, Lori, and now look back over some of my own major decisions and wonder sometimes what would happen if I had made a different choice. But then I realize that there's just no way of discerning what will happen along any chosen path. The most important thing is to stay tuned to the promptings of your soul and follow them. In my experience, doing this doesn't necessarily lead me to a place of nirvana, but it most assuredly dishes up some important life lessons to learn - over and over until perfected at times. Good luck with your schooling!

  2. Thanks Megan. One thing I've learned is that any decision is better than no decision. I also felt like if I didn't do this MFA I'd regret it for the rest of my life. I really appreciate all the advise you've imparted to me this year. It's been so helpful. :)