I wasn’t being offered a stipend to simply attend school. At University of Arizona, I would teach three to four courses a year. The majority of the time, I taught composition to college freshmen and occasionally, undergraduate creative writing classes ranging from introductory to more advanced workshop style courses. In exchange, I would receive comped tuition and a yearly stipend of 16,100 (this number was raised to 20,000 in 2022). How different is this than tenure track professors teaching the same classes? The standard formal course load for faculty in colleges of arts and sciences at research universities across the country is four courses per year. It depends on the university, but on average an Assistant Professor in Humanities makes $77,000 a year.
I was aware that surviving on 16,000 a year would be difficult. I also knew that my experience would be easier than so many others in my program—I didn’t have children or caretaking responsibilities. Since I was under twenty-six years old when I applied, I could stay on my parent’s medical insurance. In comparison to the dire situations of students who had what I considered “adult responsibilities,” I was straight-up cruising. But in comparison to the world outside of academia, I was broke.
The plight of graduate students is well documented. Graduate students are the American university system’s backbone, often teaching a significant number of courses at a fraction of the cost of hiring full time faculty. Some universities attempt to evade providing health insurance and other benefits to graduate students, even if they are doing the exact same type and quantity of labor as those considered full employees. I knew this in the vague way one knows about a political crisis on the other side of the world—vaguely, and with the dark ambivalence of the unaffected. It was 2018, I was twenty-two years old, and like most people in their early twenties, incredibly naive, so when I was accepted, I genuinely thought the hardest part was over.
Before I got to Tucson, a few former MFA students gave me varying pieces of advice; to prepare myself for an extremely frugal lifestyle, to save as much money as I could before moving, to get a secret second job while I was teaching and attending school full time, to suck it up because it was only three years and people would kill for this opportunity. They also told me horror stories of six figure hospital bills, food insecurity, being outed for doing sex work by colleagues, and getting consistently harassed by collection callers. But nothing truly prepared me for the feeling of free fall, the desperation of always, always not having enough.
This wasn’t necessarily a new feeling. I don’t remember a time I wasn’t aware of money and how I didn’t have enough of it. Growing up, I watched my parents with their side hustles, teaching Spanish to home-school groups and selling antiques on eBay. I learned there is always a way to drag your way through another month of rent. Like so many other children of immigrants, I watched their incredible sacrifices and promised my mother I’d buy her a house one day. I thought I was on my way to that future. Like so many other children of immigrants, I did federal work-study through college, applied to hundreds of scholarships, took out loans for the promise of a good, stable job. Like so many others, I believed academia was the path forward.
I’m no stranger to financial insecurity. I just didn’t think I’d feel it here, at a prestigious MFA program. I was foolish for that, because that is how this system is fundamentally designed. The stipend from fully funded MFA programs act as a shrug, a “we know this isn’t enough, but it’s something, right?” And you should be grateful for something. My MFA stipend was considered livable (if not uncomfortably so). My program was in dusty, affordable Tucson, so I didn’t have to scrap for a terrible, closet sized apartment in New York or San Francisco. There were so many writers that would never have this opportunity, that were denied or discouraged from it because of so many institutional hoops, the recommendation letters and application fees and requirement of an undergraduate degree. But there was an extreme cognitive dissonance to all this: I knew I should feel lucky to be here, and at the same time, I couldn’t pay my soaring electricity bill.
It was a horse-sized pill to swallow: that all the time I supposedly had for writing and reading and teaching and forming a community would be cut into byMaslow’s hierarchy of needs. The fear of an emergency was stifling because any little catastrophe, any broken ankle or fender bender, felt like the end of the world. And financially, it would be. Graduate stipends seem to operate under the illusion that there will be no vet bills, or defunct car engines, or visits to the ER at two in the morning with a burst appendix. They do not account for the summer, the financial blind spot on the academic calendar, three long months of no paycheck. A stipend gives you no room to save, no room to exhale. The more I thought about what I owed, the less I could sit and write. I wasn’t making art; I was counting. Bills and dollars and ticks on my car’s gas meter indicating satiation.
To get by as best as I could, I used any skill available to me: I cut coupons with all my raised-in-a-recession tactics. I’d spend hours playing the Grocery Game on the Safeway app and I got so good I could make like, 30 dollars of coupons per session (I really should have been nationally ranked on some kind of Safeway leaderboard). I graded senior projects for the local prep high school, and spent the check on my internet bill. I wrote articles, some about things I was interested in, some about, well, foot fungus. When I had medical bills, I hand-painted and sold Lotería cards, mostly to my friends and other writers via Twitter. I took surveys and put my name on any and every class action lawsuit I could file for (do not do this: the most I ever got was four dollars of “sorry we sold you moldy yogurt” money from Chobani). I took any opportunity I had to make extra cash, something that made me feel a deep, lingering shame. I didn’t want to be seen as desperate, even if I was.
But this wasn’t, as you might have imagined, enough. Eventually towards the end of my program, I needed to borrow from the big bad: the federal government. I took out a student loan and watched it grow like cancerous cells: slowly but certainly accruing interest. When I couldn’t cover the university fees in my final year, the administration put a block on my account and wouldn’t let me enroll in classes. The private shame from my financial situation translated to my relationships as well. I reluctantly called my parents and they leant me the funds so I could start classes. This by far was the worst; I was now twenty-five years old, and I’d promised them so much more. When I saw them working such intense hours as a kid, I told myself when I was older, I’d ensure they would never have to work this way again. I blamed myself for not providing this, for choosing writing as a career. I’d chosen my own happiness over stability—that’s why I was doing this, right? Writing made me happy, happier than anything else—and here I was, sticking my hand out to the two people who got me this far. And here they were, faithfully providing for me.
I knew I should feel lucky to be here, and at the same time, I couldn’t pay my soaring electricity bill.
This is something many students who come from historically marginalized backgrounds and go into the arts feel. Like they made a terrible and egocentric choice by following their dream instead of something more certain. Many MFA programs are pushing for diversity in writing, especially since conversations were cropping up about the subject more and more (such as the viral reaction to an article detailing that eighty-nine percent of books published in 2018 were by white authors). There’s been much brainstorming and trouble-shooting and other buzzwords said in meetings with Deans about the lack of diversity in the field. But what seems to not have been considered by these institutions is that acceptance to these programs does not equal access to them. And let’s face it: efforts to recruit and accept students of historically marginalized backgrounds are lipstick on a very ugly pig. It makes it sting all the worse, when these students arrive, tentatively hoping academia is finally ready to welcome them, only to struggle desperately for the years in which they are in attendance.
It makes these students think: why can’t I hack it? The reality is, the only writers I know who haven’t struggled financially in an MFA program are the ones heavily supported by either inherited wealth, a family member’s funds, or enough experience in a high paying career path that they have enough saved up to supplement their stipends.
I’ve been told that I’m exaggerating, that everyone struggles in school. Told if I wanted it bad enough, I could make it work. I was told this so often and with such persistence, I started to believe it. This is a common tactic for misplacing blame: the more it becomes the individual’s fault, the less the responsibility lies with the system. And the system has gotten worse every year—paying less and less, demanding more and more. Can’t get a job with your undergraduate degree? Go back and get a Masters, and after, you can fight your classmates for a 30,000 a year adjunct gig. Can’t get a job still? Go back for your Ph.D., give it five more years. Not enough? Tenure barely exists at this point? Well maybe you should have chosen a different profession, ten years ago, when you were eighteen years old.
The thing that made me question why the institution wasn’t providing what it should be instead of placing the blame on myself was the same thing I had come to an MFA program for in the first place: the community. In my program, I wasn’t alone in struggling financially. When a writer in my cohort’s internet went out, she drove DoorDash for eight hours until she made the required sixty-eight dollars. I had friends that did sex work and landscaping, who worked as farm hands and waitresses and DJs, who sold their stereos and iPads. I had a running system with two friends from the program that we called our chaos savings account: emergency mini-loans of ten, twenty dollars so we wouldn’t overdraft. My friend Emma and I sent money to each other to hold onto so we couldn’t use it unthinkingly, so that no matter what, we’d make rent. I, like many other MFA students I knew, sold my plasma. While writing this essay, I tweeted asking other MFA alums to share the odd jobs they had in order to survive. The response I got was astounding: some hilarious, some horrifying, all affirming that it wasn’t just me. I wasn’t lazy or “bad with money” or unprepared. I was like everyone else scrambling for survival in my field.
When I’m asked if I’d go back and do it again, I think about the individuals at Arizona’s MFA who provided the social support and safety networks when institutions failed. The weekly meal exchanges, when friends dropped off soup at my door. The way countless writers in my program commissioned or bought art from me, paying far more than necessary. The way my professors texted me to check in, made dinners and dropped off care packages. The friends outside the program that, aware of our income situation, settled our bar tabs. There were endless GoFundMe’s for workshops, funeral expenses, medical procedures, and academic research trips. There were trades of resources: childcare, borrowing vehicles, couch surfing in between leases. There was a distribution of opportunities, with friends reminding me that yes, this conference offers financial aid or let me help you with the application, I won the fellowship last year. It was a difficult three years, in which I became a sharper, more confident writer. Most importantly, my MFA program taught me a lesson about the importance of solidarity between artists. I remember everyone who helped me, from rent advances to paying for my Time Market sandwich, and I swore a long time ago that I’d do the same, and really that’s how these communities are formed.
This isn’t a sob story about how poor I was in grad school. This is a story of resilience, the same resilience I watched my parents employ as they kept us fed and housed, sometimes against all odds. This is recognition that it shouldn’t be like this, that we deserve a livable wage, even when we’ve made the self-flagellating choice to continue our education. This is so more graduate students feel they can join the growing movements to unionize or go on strike, demand more from the institutions that treat them as disposable.
Mostly, this is so that the next MFA candidate like me knows: there will be a time soon, where you need to ask someone for money. Don’t hesitate. Your financial struggle is not a reflection of your writing, your worth, your employability, or your work ethic. You are fighting for survival within a system that feels like it is trying to crush you under its heel. It’s not your fault.
No advice will negate the fact that graduate school can be gut-wrenchingly difficult and unfair. But on the practical side of things, the “okay great, but I have to make rent” side, I can offer a few suggestions from experience. All incoming students should absolutely make a budget before starting a program. Get that Excel sheet going right away so that you’re not blindsided. Ask your program director if there are any additional funding available, such as hardship funds, and if you would qualify. Ask other students what their side gigs are and share your resources too—remember the mutual part of mutual aid. Get that group chat going where your cohort can post opportunities, organize clothing or furniture swaps, or create food chains. Apply to everything that has funding: poetry prizes, writing contests, additional pedagogy training (for example, I got paid a few hundred dollars for getting certified in online instruction). Apply in genres that aren’t your primary one. There will be a voice in the back of your head that doesn’t want you to send that application or packet because you think it’s not good enough. Tell that voice that you will have plenty of opportunities to agonize about the caliber of your work; this is about your credit card payment.
My mechanic Billy calls me back. He said he doesn’t suggest the repairs, that it would be smarter to junk the car and get a new vehicle. I tell him that isn’t an option and couldn’t he just get it to drive? Okay, he responds and warns me not to get caught with my expired registration. I use my bloated credit card to pay him eighty-five dollars for the diagnostic. Drive with the windows down, he insists as I pull out. That shit is toxic.
I pick up the car and go through a drive through for a coffee. I am broke, but today was awful and I need something, anything to savor.
There are two dollars and twenty-eight cents in my bank account.
I text my friend Emma that I am having a chaos savings account emergency. Ten minutes later I get a notification: Emma has sent you twenty-five dollars. I don’t overdraft, today.
Katerina Ivanov Prado’s multi-genre writing has been published in Brevity, Passages North, The Rumpus, The Florida Review, The Nashville Review, Iron Horse Literary Review, The Pinch, Joyland and others.
She has won the John Weston Award for Fiction, the 2019 AWP Intro Journals Award, The Pinch Nonfiction Literary Award, and the Florida Review’s Editor’s Award. She most recently was awarded a LitUp Fellowship by Reese’s Book Club.
She obtained her MFA at University of Arizona and is a Ph.D Candidate in Creative Writing at University of Houston.