Rachel Barton and Kaitlyn Gaffney both graduated within the Rowan Writing Arts Department in Spring 2019. I didn’t know them very well during the brief window where their tenure as seniors overlapped with my tenure as a freshman, but I remembered seeing how hard working and professional they were during the several Avant Magazine meetings that I attended. When I got the idea to write an alumni spotlight article, their two names were the first that popped into my head. Rachel is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at NYU, and Kaitlyn is currently working as a teacher’s assistant in France, helping the students learn English.
Interview With Rachel Barton
What drove you to pursue an MFA immediately after graduating?
I chose to go right into a graduate program for a few reasons. First, I thought I could get the best recommendations and support with applications while I was in school. I also felt like I was already in a school mindset; I was used to going to class, sitting in lectures, and maintaining a schedule for my work. The summer before senior year, I had been working in DC and really broke out of all my school habits and mindset. The semester that followed was a little more difficult than the others had been. When I was graduating, I thought it would be best to take my comfort with school and academics and expand upon it, rather than cutting it up by just working or taking a gap year. That being said, lots of people, even in my program, took time between undergrad and their MFA. Different things work for different people.
Can you talk about what the application process for graduate school was like? What prior experiences have you had that you think prepared you for the application process?
I am disgustingly into applications. I think they're organized and make sense; I like figuring out how to best present my experience and interests to fit a position or program. I had experience with applying for countless jobs, internships, scholarships, and fellowships. Once you do it enough, it stops being scary. Failure or rejection becomes like a drop in the ocean. Who cares if you get rejected from one job, if you've also applied to 50 others? (The scariest applications I've ever done were for the Fulbright US-UK Summer Institutes and for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife & Cultural Heritage. They were scary because I cared about them. And if I can get those, I can get anything, right?)
I think the process of applying to grad school starts way before you begin an application. First, you have to think about what kind of program you want (e.g. shifting from publishing to writing) and where you want to be. I interviewed so many of my professors to ask them about their experiences with the process. I also split my applications between fiction and nonfiction programs (I ultimately ended up in a nonfiction program). I knew that I wanted to stay on the East coast, but I also randomly picked some Midwest schools to keep things interesting. It helps to know what you want, but I would recommend trying out anything you feel interested in. None of this is set in stone; after all, they're just applications. Do research into the programs you find. Try to talk to alumni or current students. Check out their social media to see what kind of events they have.
Once I had the programs I was interested in, I made a thorough spreadsheet of basic information as well as application components to keep track of everything. I organized it by deadline—or actually, by weeks before the deadline to make sure everything was in on time. I also gave my recommenders plenty of advanced notice and chose different individuals for fiction vs nonfiction programs (my reportage experience was less important for fiction apps, etc). The whole thing can be daunting, but the spreadsheet helps break it up into bite-sized pieces.
Just a few other tips about applications: Applying to grad school is expensive, but always apply for a fee waiver from the school—the worst they can say is no. You may also be able to get your application fee paid by your current school; for example, the Honors department offered to pay for the fee to Columbia (which doesn't have a fee waiver and therefore hates poor people). Have people read your essays!!!! I used to work in the Rowan Writing Center and they have fabulous tutors to check out your essays and writing samples (in fact, you can take basically anything there).
Here are a couple articles I wrote about the process:
Your Grad School Application Checklist
Grad School: Researching, Applying, & Funding—Oh My!
What have your experiences at NYU been like so far? Do you find yourself using skills learned within Rowan’s Writing Arts Department in your day-to-day life?
I was incredibly nervous to start at NYU. It was one of those situations where you know it won't be a big deal once you're actually there, but that knowledge does nothing to relieve your current stress. After all, so much of the faculty and alumni are not only writers but they are also notable writers. I've read and been blown away by their books. It felt like moving up onto a completely different playing field than Rowan. I was just a kid from a state school in South Jersey; I knew the students in my program and my professors and everyone involved would be... different than me. Maybe even better. But that's all imposter syndrome and doesn't matter. Once I got there, things obviously went way better. I love everyone in my cohort; we're making friends slowly but surely. I even met someone who is from South Jersey and went to Drexel for undergrad. In that room, everyone is so different. They're all different ages, work different jobs, have been published different amounts, and write different things. The things that I thought would make me so blindingly less than actually just made me different in the regular way that we are all different from each other. (I think this understanding happened a bit quicker than it otherwise might have because we were all writing memoir … We learned a lot about each other very quickly.) There are definitely still moments where it hits me how weird this all is or something particularly pretentious happens at school, but it's less of a big deal now.
I think the biggest way RWA comes up in my daily life is through the readings it exposed me to. I thought I would show up to grad school and be dreadfully behind everyone else's reading knowledge, but that wasn't the case. Drew Kopp is going to be absolutely thrilled to hear this, but everything he ever made me read has come up in class or in conversation. I regularly talk about Barthes and semiotics. Someone will mention something I think I have no idea about and out from my mouth comes all of this stuff I learned with him. Similarly, Leslie Allison's assigned texts come up quite frequently—in fact, we just did a John Berger text in my craft class. Those readings, usually theory-based and meta literary, have shaped the way I talk about writing, which makes it far easier to participate in a workshop.
The workshop experience I gained at Rowan has also proven helpful—just to be comfortable in that space to talk about other people's writing and listen to them talk about your own. The time I spent with first Avant then Katie Budris and Glassworks has been super helpful as well, since I'm now the assistant web editor for NYU's Washington Square Review. In fact, that experience, combined with the work I did for the Writing Arts internship, got me the position in the first place. I feel like I could go on and on. I'm a big believer in learning from everything and sort of piecing together your current identity from where've you been and what you've learned. I wouldn't be the me I am at NYU without the Rowan Writing Arts department and all of the incredible faculty members that I couldn't possibly list here.
Now that you’re living and learning in a completely new environment, what kind of advice would you give to a Writing Arts undergraduate who also wants to enter a graduate program after college?
Oh boy. I definitely have an advantage with this since I lived abroad twice and moved to DC for a summer but..
Be scared: When I was choosing between my final two schools, one of my professors (Timothy Viator, English department) asked me which one scared me more. Obviously, it was NYU. I think sometimes being scared has more to do with growth so the scary option may just be the best option.
Don't do it alone: Get a roommate. Make a friend. Not only will it make things cheaper, but it always helps to have someone to talk to, especially if you're moving away from all your friends and family like I did. If you do continue to feel especially lonely, don't be afraid to take advantage of your school's mental health services.
Compartmentalize: I'm actually borrowing this from the NYU Masters school orientation. Multiple current students and alum said the same thing—your life can't just be about the program. You need to have friends who have nothing to do with your program. You need to have hobbies completely outside of it. Your program is just a piece of you; don't let it become the whole thing.
Do the math: Lots of (read: all of) my professors told me to not go into debt for grad school. Some programs are fully funded, but some aren't. See what works for you and figure out how working may have to factor into your schedule.
Be yourself: This sounds lame but it's true. When you show up at grad school, you don't want to be the smartest person in the room—you learn a lot less that way. And you don't need to be someone else to do well or to make friends. Your “self” will change through the process, but that's good. The “self” is a flexible thing.
Interview With Kaitlyn Gaffney
For starters, what kind of work do you do as an English assistant for French students? How did you find your way into this opportunity in the first place?
When I was studying abroad in Paris, I met a woman doing this program called Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF), directed by a subset of the French Ministry of Education. The application is open to all Americans and Canadians with a bachelor’s degree. I loved being in Paris, so this seemed like a great way to return! I filled out one application and got accepted, and they placed me in one middle school and one high school in a small town called Sin-le-Noble, about 30 minutes by train from the metropolitan city of Lille in the north of France.
I assist in English classes and split my time evenly between the two schools. “Assisting” entails splitting the class in two and taking one half (of the students) at a time to another classroom for 20-30 minutes each. There, the focus is conversation and oral/listening comprehension; I don’t give written assignments or tests. My goal as an assistant is to get the students speaking English as much as possible, and therefore my “lessons” often center on modern, culture-oriented subjects like music, television and film, fashion, and American culture in general.
As someone who’s already making a name for herself in the working world, I wanted to ask if you see yourself using skills that you’ve learned from your time as a Writing Arts major in your day-to-day working life? If you do, what skills would these be?
Absolutely. One of the most useful skills I gained during my time as a Writing Arts major is genre/communicative adaptability. Language immersion is widely believed to be the best way to learn a foreign language, so, theoretically, I should just speak as I normally would and allow the students to catch on eventually. However, while this strategy might work with an Honors senior English class, it would be counterproductive in my 6th grade classes. I have to remain constantly aware of the language I’m using, evaluating how familiar the students might be with both basic vocabulary as well as with slang (that might even be unique to my own Northeastern American dialect!).
Besides gauging their language levels, I also have to remember that I am not a teacher, I’m an assistant. The students are used to communicating in a certain way with teachers, and by nature of my contract I have to create an altogether different learning space. I have to find a middle ground in communicating, where I conduct conversations in a judgement-free way, while still maintaining professionalism and control of the lesson. I’ll never give these students any sort of grade, and so the learning that goes on in my classroom is not incentive-based in a classical sense. I’ve had to find ways to mediate (a non-incentive based learning experience) so our time together is still productive in a meaningful, and (hopefully) exciting way.
Would you credit any experiences that you had within our department for encouraging your decision to start working after graduation?
My time with the Writing Arts department exposed me to so many different communities within the field of writing, particularly those with global reach and implications. As an associate editor of Glassworks magazine, I had the opportunity to travel to Portland, Oregon for the AWP conference this past March. I met professionals in the field from all over America, even from other countries as well, and got to meet with representatives and students from Literary Translation MFA programs across the country. In addition, throughout my four years at Rowan, I had the privilege of working closely with the editor-in-chief of Glassworks, Katie Budris, who was a fantastic mentor with a background in travel/international writing. In general, as a WA student with a specialization in creative writing, the faculty I worked with had so much wisdom in the way of workshopping, publishing, getting published, etc. from their own experience and I feel really lucky to have had such a hands-on, professional education from the start.
What kind of student do you think a young writer in our department has to be in order to get the most out of their time within the Writing Arts major? What steps can one take in order to become this type of student?
As much as I’m sure you’ve all heard this, forging relationships with your professors is absolutely essential. Our department is a perfect size for this; we don’t have crazy lecture halls and we aren’t just numbers in school statistics. Your professors know your name and they care about your success. Something I’ve always thought was special about writing, both the craft and the professional field, is that many (maybe most) of our obstacles as writers are not really age- or experience-specific. Writer’s block, submission anxiety, creative self-doubt—these are things that we can experience at any point in our studies and our careers. Your professors know exactly what you’re going through, and could be going through it themselves. Talk to them. They’re awesome.