Flower and bee by Nicole Wreyford
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Aliens Brought Me to the MFA Program

How a New Yorker Article Lit a Path to an MFA

Andrea Lynn December 20, 2017

I credit The New Yorker's Joshua Rothman for illuminating my path to an MFA education at CIIS.

The magazine's archive editor and frequent contributor Rothman wrote, "The Man Who Speaks For Earth," in June 2014. In the article, he interviewed Douglas Vakoch, a scientist at the Search for Extraterrestrial Institute (SETI). SETI scientists explore possibilities for interstellar communications, and Vakoch helped design messages humanity can send to extraterrestrials.

Interested in learning more, I found that Vakoch was a professor of clinical psychology at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS).

I did some research on CIIS and learned that the faculty is filled with world-renowned educators, thinkers, outstanding luminaires, activists, and authors. The University, situated in the heart of San Francisco, skyrocketed to the top of my deeply researched list of institutions at which I hoped to pursue an MFA.

I pictured myself with my notebook and pen, seated beside the Bay at sunset watching the ships come in, the city's Haight-Ashbury "Summer of Love" vibe, my writing inspiration, and the city's diverse and active communities my motivation. I immediately filled out and submitted my application to CIIS.

Access to Art

Artistic hearts have always yearned for San Francisco. The "City by the Bay" is so central to the concept of arts education that finding its equal is a tough task. Add the ideal integral program, like the MFA in Interdisciplinary Art and Writing at CIIS, and it's no wonder many aspiring artists are willing to sleep in shared studios, live in their cars, or even camp (the legal way ... I did this) for the chance to be immersed in San Fran's artistic heart at Tenth and Mission Streets, where CIIS is situated.

Accessing San Francisco can feel daunting. It's no secret that housing here, according to Zillow, ranks among the most expensive in America; the median price of homes is $1,199,000, while the median rent price is $4,450. Getting around isn't easy either, no matter how many new rails, ride-shares, buses, and bicycle-sharing depots are added every day.

CIIS' MFA Program Chair Cindy Shearer understands the challenges that keep many people from the unique experience of learning at CIIS. To help make the University's MFA program, and the city, more accessible, Shearer worked with CIIS faculty, staff, and administration to transform the MFA curriculum design so students can do much of their work online.

"Live where you, live but come to San Francisco for your art education," Shearer says. "I think of CIIS as an oasis within San Francisco where all artists-from writers to interdisciplinary artists-learn to articulate their work in an environment where conversation across the arts absolutely matters."

The New MFA

Rolling out in Fall 2018, the new MFA in Interdisciplinary Art and Writing is a low-residency, hybrid program. Students come to San Francisco twice a year for a six-day residency, then work online for the rest of the semester.

"The six-day format provides an intense and intensive experience in which students affirm who they are as artists while also pursuing the question, ‘What kind of art-maker do I want to be?'" Shearer said.

Under the new format, MFA students will be able to work with local artist mentors and have the opportunity to study abroad during summer intensives in the U.K. and Greece.

For MFA graduate Adrienne Reiter, it was the faculty that made her choose CIIS. "You should pursue an MFA studying from artists who speak to you," she advises. "Learn from your heroes."

Integrating the Arts

According to Reiter, CIIS' integrative approach, which introduces students to the arts across disciplines, prepared her for her work as an artist, writer, and communications specialist in San Francisco. "With CIIS' integral education, I now wear many hats that don't all fit the same, and I'm comfortable with this because of the exposure I've had to performance, text, and image," she says.

"I'm a writer by trade. Thankfully, being a writer isn't just about writing." Reiter writes mystery, speculative, and literary fiction, and is a compulsive blogger.

My own amazing experience at CIIS was affirmed recently by an accidental encounter with a stranger in the CIIS library: "I used to think MFA degrees were all the same until I came to this place-it's still my sanctuary," The man's thick eyelashes over large, round brown eyes fluttered as he pulled a book from the library shelf where you'll find a hefty lineup of CIIS authors. He hurried away before I could ask his name.

A student sitting nearby with her computer in an oversized chair, noticing my quizzical expression, whispered, "He's famous alum-great reviews for his performances at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. I can't think of his name right now but searched the festival's past performers. You'll see."

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