Monday, January 31st, 2011

A Tale of Two Residencies

Student Parents

A residency is a chance for facetime with teachers and peers, and a time of focused learning.

I can admit it now. I almost didn’t make it through my first residency of my MFA in Creative Writing program at Pine Manor.

Determined to find the perfect balance between going to school and parenting my two children, I was a constant blur of running back and forth between campus and my home (an hour away), trying to keep constant awareness of class times, deadlines, and a patched-together plan of revolving caregivers for my 3-year-old.

I was close to tears a lot of the time, and on the ninth day of classes, when I had to leave campus precipitously at a critical time to respond to a household problem, there was no “close to” about it; I cried all the way home.

My dilemma was painful and clear: I cared deeply about both my kids and my learning, and though I’d thought that choosing a low residency/distance learning format would make it possible to do both, now I wasn’t so sure.

Fast forward to the winter residency, which I just completed. Due to an offer by my out-of-state and saintly parents to watch the kids at their home for 10 days, I embarked on a very different kind of residency.

Dogs in boarding? Check. Kids with grandparents? Check. I went to campus this time with a suitcase, picked up my dorm key, and didn’t leave campus for longer than an hour until the residency was done. How did this make my second residency different from my first one? “Let me count the ways…”

For those of you who don’t know what a “residency” is, or who think (like I did) that a residency is a grueling regimen for doctors in training, here’s the story. In the Solstice MFA program, a residency is a 10-day on-campus learning experience with a jam-packed schedule. It’s a chance for facetime with teachers and peers, and a time of focused learning to bookend the months when you are working primarily alone and communicating primarily by email.

Our program director, Meg, begins each speech by urging students to “Be here!” Advice aimed especially at commuter students. This residency, I learned why she says it.

When I was trying to do my residency with one foot off campus last summer, I was constantly in overdrive, and less than my best both at school and at home. Because my schedule was packed with important learning activities, many of which were required, I left campus for home whenever there was “downtime”.

It turns out, that downtime was when my classmates got to know each other. They got to laugh and vent and bond over the MFA experience. I was always turning down invitations to hang out in a dorm, Starbucks, or a nearby club. As a result, I felt somewhat like an outsider despite being surrounded by some of the friendliest people you’d ever find.

During this winter residency, I worked hard, went to workshops and classes and evening readings. But I also let my hair down. I hung out with friends in a dorm basement, cutting out snowflakes for decorating an upcoming graduation reception. I got to know which classmates had kids, spouses, dogs.

It was like an archeological dig where, underneath all my layers of roles I assume in my day-to-day life, I struck my personality; quirks and all. I found out my classmates all had personal lives and interesting characteristics too! Who knew?

I won’t say it was easy to be away from my kids for ten days, or that I wasn’t in frequent communication with them by phone, email, and text while I was gone. Even if they could’ve handled such a break in our day-to-day connection, I’m pretty sure I couldn’t do it.

But yes, I went away this time. I immersed myself fully (thank you again, Mom and Dad!). And you know what? It made for a much calmer, happier, more productive residency.

Susan Lemere
Author: Susan Lemere
Susan Lemere is mom to two children and lives in Massachusetts. She obtained three college degrees on her way to becoming a therapist in 1994, and is now in the midst of earning her Masters in Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing.
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