Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A very long story of my visit to Penn State

I got on the road at 8:40am on Friday. That's early for me, especially considering that I'd been up since 6:30 to shower, breakfast, finish packing, take the dog for a long walk, and then drive 20 minutes to my friend's house whose car I was borrowing for the drive. It was cold in Columbus, about 35 degrees, but sunny. I was wearing my purple wool coat over jeans, a paisley print knit top and a cardigan, flat shoes, sunglasses. I drove the familiar northeastern path of Interstate 71 for somewhat less than a hundred miles, then took 76 east around Akron and toward the Pennsylvania border. I was listening to P. J. Harvey and thinking of my ex-girlfriend when I stopped for gas. I bought a six pack of bottled water and a Special K bar for a snack. I switched to I-80 before leaving Ohio and stayed on that lovely road for 177 miles. I realized I had not driven that highway since my trip to New York City with my then-fiance in 2002. Stopped for lunch around 12:30 in Clarion, took a nice half-hour break from driving, wrote a bit of a poem. Back on the road around 1:00. It was sunny, it was warm enough that my coat lay across the backseat, I listened to The Refreshments, thinking of college, relished the novelty of cruise control as the car sailed easily up and down hills that turned slowly into mountains, I switched to Tori Amos as I watched the mile markers count up to where I knew I needed to exit. When I turned off the exit for State College, I realized I was really going to be there soon. It was scary. I followed a big blue truck for the 11 miles or so until I turned onto College Avenue, and I drove through town amazed at the number of students around and at the number of businesses catering to them. That strip of College Ave was a lot longer than I'd expected it to be. I turned left on Atherton and followed the signs through the alley to get into the hotels parking garage. It was 2:45pm, so the trip took just over six hours, with a short stop for gas and half-hour lunch. Checked into the hotel and went up to my room, impressed at the niceness of everything. I exchanged the purple coat for my khaki jacket and went out for a walk since I had time before our first event. I walked the streets for an hour or so but didn't venture into campus because I was afraid of getting lost. It felt like any other college town - a combination of Bowing Green (my much-loved undergraduate alma mater), Athens (home of Ohio University), Ann Arbor, the part of Columbus around Ohio State, but bigger than any of them. The density of businesses not only on the main street, but in the sidestreets and back alleys, was more than I had expected. I wandered through a couple of shops, but mostly just walked, getting a feel for the landmarks, and stretching my legs after the drive. I got a cup of coffee and sat and wrote down my impressions for a little while, then headed back to the hotel a little after 4:00. Took a shower, then got dressed. I decided to wear the outfit I'd initially planned for Saturday night because it was a little dressier: black pants with a subtle grey pinstripe, and a jade green ruffled blouse, black boots. The hotel room had two double beds, so I kept expecting a roommate to walk in, but I showered alone and dried my hair alone and put on my makeup alone, and then sat on the bed and watched basketball alone until it was five minutes till 6:00. I took the elevator downstairs; I never did find the stairs all weekend. There were some people in the bar when I walked in, but I didn't know who I was looking for so I stood awkwardly just inside for a few moments, then a girl walked in and asked if I was there for the English department. We talked for a few minutes, and then the director came over and we met him, he gave us our folders with itinerary, nametag, map, etc. The assistant director gave us beer. I met a lot of people in a short period of time. The four of the MFAs who were there managed to find each other quickly, which was nice. The fifth had her plane delayed in Texas and hadn't arrived yet, and the sixth was unable to attend the weekend. There were about around 12-15 MA/PhD students as well, so we were outnumbered but not hugely. After 45 minutes or so there, a couple of current graduate students arrived and walked us over to a house where a couple of current grad students live. We all trooped in, someone took our coats and told us pizza was back in the kitchen. The party is a blur of names and faces and crowds and noise. The house was packed, and it grew hotter and louder as the evening progressed. I met several of the current MFAs in poetry, talked to a fiction writer, a nonfiction writer, some lit and rhetoric students. I had wine spilled on my boots. I ate pizza and some veggies and some pineapple. I answered the same questions about myself a million times, asked different ones of everyone. Everyone was nice, and they seemed genuinely happy with the program. Around 9:00, we started wandering in groups over to campus to an MFA reading. It was in this large impressive building I'd noticed on my walk earlier called the University Club. The room was great, and it was pretty crowded when we got there. Not everyone came to the reading, but all of us MFAs were there, and I think at least a few of the new MA/PhDs. I don't truly remember. It was really cool to see the camaraderie among the students, and their readings were good. The reading ended pretty late, and even though some of the current students invited us out with them afterward, I was so tired that I just went back to the hotel. I don't know if anyone took them up on that offer because it had been a long day for all of us. Got back around 11:30 I think, texted a few people, and watched some more basketball, and went to sleep around 12:30.

On Saturday I got up with the alarm at 8:30 and got dressed more casually for the daytime in nice jeans and v-neck sweater over a lacy top, black flats, ponytail. Breakfast didn't start till 9:30 which made me happy as I am not an early riser. It was held in a very pretty meeting room in the hotel and the food was typical breakfast fare. I ate scrambled eggs, potatoes, and toast, drank orange juice and plenty of very good coffee. We were arrayed around two large tables. I got to sit by the MFA program director and the other prospective poetry MFA (her name is Rachel). Everyone talked around mouthfuls of breakfast, about where we're from, what we do, about Penn State and the surrounding area, about basketball and running and weather and other random things. After everyone had eaten, Dr. Edwards (the Graduate Director we'd met the night before) talked extensively about the program, specifically the PhD. He was both intimidating and encouraging. Then Julia (the MFA Director) talked about that program, and then the assistant director talked a bit about the MA. Some of us had lunches scheduled, so we had to rush out at the end, not sure what, if anything, we missed. Rachel and I met a couple of the current poetry MFAs in the lobby and walked to an Indian restaurant for lunch. All but one of the other current poetry students were there and we had a nice lunch. They are a good group, and we had some decent food and great conversation, then a few of them walked to campus with us, took us through the English building and we got to see the TA offices, then they walked us to our next scheduled event. I think 10 or 12 of the department faculty members were there, and they spoke about their classes and areas of interest, research they were doing, or projects they were involved with. It was fascinating, and again, a little intimidating, and just a dizzying amount of information. Chatted with the fiction professor for a bit afterward, then the four of us MFAs (one wasn't feeling well and had not made it to the session) walked back and talked, and didn't even get lost! Kara and Nick went straight to the hotel, Rachel and I grabbed a cup of coffee and then followed. We'd thought of trying to meet up with the poetry students again but I felt like I'd rather have the downtime than any more information. Got back to the hotel around 4:30 I think, took a shower, then just sat on the bed and watched tv and let my brain rest for awhile, drank my coffee and some water, and then got ready for the faculty party that evening. I wore my tan pants and a pretty black blouse, same black boots. We met our current student guides downstairs around 6:45 and walked to Dr. West's house. It's a beautiful house above the golf course, and it was a lovely night to walk. Commence another blur of faces, names, and conversations. I finally met the other poetry professor (fantastic! loved her!), met someone who once read in Columbus at the poetry series I attend every week, met so many brilliant people, finally got to really talk with the other new MFA whose name is also Emily (she's NF Emily, I'm Poetry Emily). The time went fast, and before I knew it people were getting their coats and leaving. We (the recruits) left in a couple of groups. I was in the last group with Kara and Nick and NF Emily and some MA/PhD recruits. Though we had the option of going out with some current students, I didn't quite feel up to that, but 7 of us decided to get a drink at the hotel bar instead, and ended up staying there until about 1:30. It was a great way to wind down a little after the hectic pace of everything else. I really felt like I connected with a couple people I'd not had the chance to talk with much before, and we had a few beers, and quoted poems and Shakespeare and talked about our pasts and our passions and it was just really great.

Asleep around 2:00, and up for no good reason at 7:00am on Sunday. Laid in bed, trying to go back to sleep, and ended up getting up at 8:00, packed up, drank coffee, and checked out around 9:00. It was another beautiful day for a drive, and the highways there feel like the highways of my childhood trips down to West Virginia, winding through mountains, up and down hills that occasionally pop ones ears, the evidence of their creation scored into the rock that rises above the side of the road... There were a few times on that drive home that I felt like crying, from tiredness mostly I think, but I was also just overwhelmed by the step I was taking. I stopped to visit an old friend for a couple hours on the way home, then chatted with some people once I got back into town, and had to walk down the street to pick up my dog, so it was 7:00pm by the time I was home on my couch relaxing. My brain was so full that I couldn't even put a sentence together on paper for awhile. I got online a bit later, but couldn't compose any sort of narrative of my trip at that point. I've been working on it intermittently at work the past couple days.

The amazing thing is that I feel very strongly that this is absolutely the perfect program for me, and quite uniquely so. The way they are transitioning over to an MFA that really does lead easily to a PhD is so perfect for who I am as a writer and student; not all writers want that or are suited for that, but I am, and the fact that I applied basically at random to a program that is so perfectly set up for that gives me a huge sense that it is meant to be. I didn't know it when I applied, but the more I think about, and the more I heard this weekend, the more I really feel it is what I want. I feel in some ways that the selection committee knew me better than I knew myself when they chose me; they saw things I didn't see, and knew that I would be a good fit. All the reservations I had about the program were very handily put to rest this weekend, although of course I have new worries now. The logistics and finances of moving, and also intellectual insecurity. At 31, I am the oldest of all the recruits( though Kara and NF Emily are 29 and 28 respectively) and I fear that I will come in at a disadvantage, not having the academic things fresh in my mind like the kids who are coming straight from undergrad, but I plan on reading over the summer and trying get myself up to speed. Rationally though, like I told J last night, I can make up for the deficits in my learning much easier than these young brilliant students from Dartmouth and Georgetown and etc can make up for their lack of life experiences.

I officially accepted my offer after letting my brain settle (emailed Julia yesterday, and signed and mailed my offer today), and I declined my other two acceptances. That is the other interesting thing; I got another acceptance on Friday, from the NEOMFA. I didn't feel too bad turning them down right away, but it broke my heart a little bit to tell the director at WVU that I was going elsewhere. I may have even found a place to live out there already, but that's not for sure yet. But I'm really going, and I am so happy to have made my decision.

Go Nittany Lions!

(and now I really should learn what a Nittany Lion is.....)


Reeze said...

That was a great read Emily.
I think you have found your program and I hope you learn and love it more every day...
And poo poo to your age 31 worry- that is just silly- you have something to give and it will be unique from a 27 year old, a 38 year old or a 20 year old!!

Emily said...

Thank you so much for reading, and the sweet comments!

And good luck to you as you visit and make your decisions!