Graduate School Scars — MFA Edition

In Response to:

Graduate School Can Have Terrible Effects on People’s Mental Health by Alia Wong

Just because its tradition or laughed off as a right of passage does that make it correct? Does that mean we encourage, support, or perpetuate the problem? Because everyone does it or had the same experience can we even identify as a problem?

I went to graduate school 2 years after undergrad. Though your article references all graduate programs I would like to support it by sharing my experiences as a recent graduate student in an MFA program. I just have a feeling that unless you or someone you know was an MFA candidate, than art school kids probably did not come to mind when you read the article I’m referencing.

I know I’m preaching to the choir. I know my graduate cohort and the ones before me and after me sing similar varying woes of strife and the struggle of graduate school. And I am sharing my story as a way to say don’t count out any grad program. All grad programs, art included have their own share of hurt, pain, and/or stress. I’m also sharing to point out that mental trauma can happen to anyone, no matter how resilient and strong you think you are.

I question the consideration academia puts into crafting challenging, rigorous yet obtainable curriculum for students to go through. I wonder how they assess the number of years in the degree program x [the number of classes + assignments] + [the number of holidays — the family emergencies and emotional break downs]. What does that equal??

I wonder as degree programs shift and change from 4 yrs to 3 to 1.5 and then to 2, how are “decision makers” adjusting the course load and n expectations? Are they adjusting them at all?

I wonder if “decision makers” consider the financial stress students carry on their shoulders. Or the generational stress of being first generation graduate students. And don’t forget those with full or partial scholarships, I wonder if academics realize the bills they came to school with that their scholarships don’t cover or the extra added stress of meeting the expectations of your funders who honestly took a chance on you by sending that acceptance and appetizing offer letter. You don’t want to let them down and therefore you carry that weight on you as well. I know I did.

I am not a sob story kind of gal. I believe in hard work and working creatively yield results we aspire to achieve. I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe in thinking outside the box. I believe where there is a will there is a way! But what happens when your will stops giving a fuck?

I grew up in rigorous academic programs and honestly I thrive on them, I seek them out. I love to be challenged and manage multiple tasks and events all while preparing and planning for my future. Long papers don’t make me cringe because when I finish it I feel like a boss! Those dearest to me know this about me. They trust me to be reliable and push them the same way I push myself. I have always proudly played the mom role for my friends supporting them and being an example I would want for myself. I even have a sweet dear friend that used to joke that, “Stephanie’s super power is that she can create time” because of the amount of things I would accomplish and be on top of all at once.

I have been in a gifted program since 2nd grade and magnet programs since the 6th grade (shout out to my fellow IB/AP kids). I started taking college courses after school in 11th grade and took supplemental classes in photography and drawing at night in my community to better my portfolio to attract my dream art schools. I graduated from undergrad in three years instead of four, not because I planned it but because financially it was more affordable to finish early. I don’t share these life facts to brag but to set the stage for what I am about to share with you…graduate school pushed me so far that I broke in ways I never thought I could.

I could cry but get it done. I could vent, watch tv, or visit home then “get back on the saddle”. But my 2nd and final year of my two year MFA program followed me each day with a dark cloud. I took psych classes, I was open about mental health awareness and I knew my symptoms where borderline depression. But I was Stephanie, super strong and able, I got this, I had this, but I didn’t.

Often times I have trouble sleeping because I can’t turn off my brain. I’m a list maker, so I would make a list as to what I needed to tackle the next day and glance over my agenda to make sure I considered every class and overarching project.

About a month away from my thesis exhibition, I found myself in bed one night just frozen. My brain was so heavy! It felt like a million people running a marathon in my brain. My heart felt so far away I couldn’t even feel it beating, was it even in place? I was crying slowly but couldn’t feel the tears. My body was increasingly getting numb. The fear of Failure had arrived. Surrounded by deadlines and not enough hours in the day I was tired of choosing progress over sleep. I was so close but something just did not feel right about this form of stress that arrived with the fear. This form of stress had never introduced itself to me, and if it had a year ago or even before I arrived to the steps of graduate school I probably would have said “No Thank you.”

I remember calling my fiancé into the room and asking him if I should go see a therapist. I got the emails like everyone else, the emails that remind you that free therapy is available to you at any time by phone or email or in person visits. But when would I have time to do that? Just thinking about making time increased my anxiety. I think I terrified him that night, he just calmly asked, “Are you sure you don’t want to go??” What would I do, go into the office, start from the beginning, tell them what I already know? This is temporary, and this is hard, and it’s okay to feel how I feel…words of encouragement is not what I needed. I’m used to encouraging myself, but this darkness and sadness just sat its fat ass on my chest pushing me under water and I was drowning in it. The thought of graduating and leaving this college town and all its reminders of my dark cloud did not heal me but help me sleep. Even after confiding in a few of my graduate staff friends of my scary emotional episode, how I felt could not be consoled by anyone or anything. It would not be until a few days later that I would realize what caused my emotional breakdown.

I came to graduate school ready and willing to give my all to my coursework. I knew it would be hard and that excited me! The overachiever in me was careful not to pick up unneeded extra-curriculars and I stuck to my program and working easy going part-time jobs to pay for the things my program could not cover. So when I began to feel stress and anxiety and feelings of desperation I knew it was serious. I was truly doing the best I could. But for me the best was mandatory. I’m naturally an over-achiever, I do the best I can at everything no matter how small the task. I don’t half-ass anything because that just is not me. I like to do things right and not skip steps along the way. But I got to the point where, the days left in my program and the amount of things I had to do still would not and could not warrant me the time to my absolute best.

My program put me in a situation where I had to choose between my sanity and doing my absolute best (which to me is like my moral compass). I had to tone myself down. I had to lower my own natural standards which I had lived by all my academic years of school. I had to do less than my best to just get it done. Don’t get me wrong, I did not lie or cheat or do any illegal activity. I simply looked at my assignments and deadlines and did the bare minimum to finish. I had to disregard perfect records and flawless transcripts. (Shoot, my transcripts are a beautiful portrait of my mental health) Eight hundred word paper = I stopped at 801, whether I had more to say or not. Four references required, I stopped at four even though I had researched over eight when originally preparing for the report. I needed to regain as much time as possible to meet deadlines and reward myself with sleep and therefore I cut back leaving lots of ample potential and thoughts behind to die all for the sake of time.

That decision saved me. It got me through my thesis exhibition, my thesis paper, my anthropology final, and my museum studies final, all the way to crossing the stage at graduation. However, even though I made it, I made it with less effort, time, and creativity than I wished for. My thesis exhibition was great but I wasn’t very proud of it I knew it could have been better. My thesis paper was great, the first time around, and it was one of the few things I was actually proud of, but good ole graduate school found a way to take that win away from me too even after my advisers approved it.

Lowering my standards and expectations of myself was like silencing my moral compass, but I knew that I had to see beyond this small period in my long life to live by doing whatever I had to do to simply get the fuck out.

Thinking of the day that I may tell my story or help another MFA student get through made my sad dark cloud manageable. And here I am finally typing it down. Have I come full circle? I left graduate school and it’s city in May but never formally graduated until August. My grad school wounds are still kind of fresh, and I defiantly DO NOT REGRET going. I made beautiful work, met beautiful people, and expanded my network. I got everything I went to graduate school for and for that reason I am truly grateful, I just also left with some dark painful scars I didn’t know would come with it. I try not to ever regret choices I make but truly see them as lessons learned as the popular quote says. I defiantly look back on it and see so many moments where academic “decision makers” could have played a role in preventing my emotional breakdown and those of so many other students before me and for the ones who came after me. But instead they allow the behavior to continue and fail to take ownership of being a part of the problem. How many reports or behind closed door conversations will it take to inspire a change?

To all my people in grad school, and especially my fellow MFA grads and grad candidates. Get what you came for and GET THE FUCK OUT!

-Stephanie Brown



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Stephanie Fleming

I’m an exhibiting artist and learning experience designer. Questioning everything and sharing of myself. AKA Stephanie Brown in those art streets.