CUNY attracts diverse future authors

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The class for the creative writing master of fine arts program at City College of New York this past spring was its largest yet -- enrollment jumped from 120 students in the fall to 140 this spring. There were 105 students enrolled in fall 2019.

The program has grown so popular that the college is canceling its spring admission cycle this year because it cannot accommodate more students.

“This is amazing, and nobody knows why it’s happening,” said Michelle Valladares, director of the program, which is the largest of the creative writing programs within the CUNY system. “I can’t grow it anymore. Literally we don’t have seats available.”

Valladares said there were only about 65 students when she took the helm of the program in 2016.

The CUNY System has creative writing M.F.A. programs at four of its institutions: City College, Brooklyn College, Hunter College and Queens College. Enrollment this past academic year held steady at three of the programs and grew at City College despite enrollment declines systemwide related to the pandemic and funding cuts by the city and the state, which forced leaders of the individual colleges ​across the system to slash their budgets.

The strong reputation of the M.F.A. programs over all were apparently stronger than the economic forces of the pandemic. The track records of relatively recent alumni and faculty members also didn't hurt -- several of them have won prestigious awards for their books and garnered media attention over the years, bolstering the prestige of the programs, administrators say.

Among those gaining literary acclaim are Brooklyn College alumnus Robert Jones Jr., whose first novel, The Prophets, was reviewed on the front page of The New York Times Book Review in January. Missionaries, the debut novel of Phil Klay, a Hunter College graduate and 2014 National Book Award winner, was on former president Barack Obama’s 2020 list of favorite books. Kaitlyn Greenidge, who also earned her M.F.A. at Hunter College, this year won a Guggenheim Fellowship, a competitive award for art and scholarship, and her second novel, Libertie, was also reviewed in The New York Times Book Review. Maisy Card, a 2010 Brooklyn College graduate, won an OCM Bocas Prize this year, an annual award for Caribbean writers.

Félix V. Matos Rodríguez, chancellor of the CUNY system, said students are attracted to CUNY M.F.A. programs because of their affordability, the diversity of their students and faculty members, and New York City’s “rich” literary history.

“I think we’re in the perfect place to harvest this talent, and then you bring in the motivation, the inspiration you get from top-notch faculty members who are writers themselves and then the students who are around you,” he said. “It just creates a very powerful sort of community and a powerful nest for students to thrive.”

Terry Tom Brown, who just finished his second semester in the City College program this spring, said he looked into many M.F.A. programs, including at New York University and his alma mater, Columbia University, but he chose City College because the curriculum lacked some of the elitism of other programs.

“What I noticed from other programs is there’s sort of a high-nosed approach of high literature and high literary writing, that I personally love but didn’t love for myself 100 percent of the time,” he said. “So going to a place like City College, I have the opportunity to explore science fiction or fantasy or young adult or anything that’s kind of commercial, which appeals to me as well. I’d love to have that balance of literary prowess and commercial writing that allows me to reach a lot of different readers. They clearly state that in their mission that all kinds of writers are accepted there.”

Valladares believes the pandemic also possibly had something to do with the surge of interest in the program. After all, the city was the epicenter of the public health crisis in the first several months of the pandemic as New Yorkers stayed under lockdown and their fellow citizens died by the thousands. The past year was a reflective time for people to “re-examine their lives,” she said. “People wanted to tell their story.”

The speedy growth of the program is nonetheless surprising to Valladares given limited formal advertising. Word of mouth has been a bigger driver as students refer others to the program and alumni win awards and fellowships and become more recognized in literary and academic circles.

Card, who was born in Jamaica and grew up in Queens, said she chose Brooklyn College over a private university partly because she knew of other Caribbean writers who cycled through the CUNY program. She was able to take Caribbean literature courses as electives at City College. She said she workshopped her writing with a diverse cohort, including students who, like her, wrote about their own histories and employed literary devices, such as magical realism, historically used by authors of color.

“I wasn’t the only student writing Black stories,” she said. “I wasn’t the only student writing immigrant stories.”

Card also appreciated the personal touch of CUNY faculty. When she was accepted into the M.F.A. program at Brooklyn College in 2006, she received a call from Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Michael Cunningham, who was the director of the program at the time.

“It just made me feel like my work was being appreciated and considered a little bit more closely,” she said. “It felt a little bit more intimate, I guess.”

Before enrolling in the M.F.A. program, “I didn’t know anything about how to become a writer,” Card said. “No one in my family is really an artist or a writer, so I just wanted to immerse myself in that kind of environment and take the next step and make it like a real career.”

Valladares said many students who go through the program are first-generation college students and are the first in their families to study an art form like creative writing. She noted that the program also draws older students, including those who have full-time jobs and children, in part because it’s designed to accommodate their schedules and outside responsibilities and obligations. For example, classes don’t start until 4:45 p.m. because nearly 95 percent of students in the program work full-time.

Rodríguez, the chancellor, said he expects more CUNY M.F.A. graduates to become recognized and successful authors, especially in this national moment of racial reckoning after the killing of George Floyd and mass national protests last summer. He believes the publishing industry will be looking to highlight the works of diverse CUNY graduates.

“These programs are well-known and there’s a thirst for these stories to be told,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a moment of a lot of attention and a lot of scrutiny and opportunity for some voices that have been sort of sidelined … I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those come from the faculty and students that we have in our programs.”

Walter Mosley, the prominent crime novelist who attended City College in 1986, describes CUNY M.F.A. programs as the “blue-collar Harvard” because they have “excellent” faculty members and low-cost tuition. The cost of attending full-time is $5,545 per semester, according to the university system’s website.

Mosley never finished the program because he got his first book proposal accepted during his time as a student, but his relationship with the college continued. Many years later he approached the institution to start a publishing certificate program designed to prepare minority students for the publishing industry. Meanwhile, Mosley has written more than 60 books since his time at City College and won the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation last year.

Mosley said he wants to see more people from historically underrepresented backgrounds entering the publishing field, in addition to more writers of color in the spotlight. He believes CUNY is playing a significant role in that effort.

“CUNY … it’s one of those places where you can make an intellectual life for yourself without the extra baggage of exclusivity,” he said. “Because knowledge is not exclusive. Knowledge is what we all bring to the table.”

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Michelle Valladares, director of the creative writing M.F.A. program at City College of New York, speaks to students.
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