What We Talk About When We Talk About MFA Debt: An Interview with Jamie Agnello


Jamie Agnello is a poet and theater artist living in New York City. 

You are somewhat unique among MFAers because you hold two MFAs, one in poetry and one in theater, which you earned concurrently. Before we get into a discussion of the financial aspects of getting these degrees, tell me a little bit about how you decided to combine these fields.

I originally started at Sarah Lawrence in the fall of 2009 as an MFA poetry candidate. Since I’ve always been very active in both fields, I had asked during my application process if it was possible to be a member of the campus theater community even if I wasn’t officially part of the program. Everyone that I had spoken with was extremely encouraging, so that was pretty thrilling for me. Through some friends, I ended up meeting with a director in the theater program (Dan Hurlin) who needed some more cast members for his upcoming show. I ended up joining the cast, as well as taking some theater courses for my first year electives in the poetry program. Halfway through the semester, I decided that I wanted to audition for the theater program as well. After many meetings with advisors and the dean and financial aid, it was approved. I ended up being the first student to graduate with MFAs concurrently. The programs remained separate, so I hold an MFA in each.

What does your creative work situation look like now that you’ve graduated? Are you doing more of writing or theater?

I was just remarking about how absolutely thrilled I am about my creative work situation these days. I’m definitely doing much more theater than writing, but my poetry has definitely become a larger part of my theater work. I have worked as a non-traditional dramaturg/script editor, where I adapt found text (existing story, writings from the cast, my own writing) and compile it into a “script” in collaboration with the director and the cast. I love that. I’m also creating a poetic/highly image-based short film/solo piece based on the life of Rosemary Kennedy, where I really feel like my work with poetry has greatly informed the structure of the product.

As far as theater goes, I recently finished up a new show for 2-5 year olds called Off the Map (about the NYC subway system, devised in collaboration with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company and the preschoolers of the University Settlement on NYC’s Lower East Side). I’m working as a puppeteer for a piece entitled Chimpanzee as part of the St. Ann’s Warehouse Labapalooza! Festival this weekend, and also gearing up for a residency at the Park Avenue Armory with Trusty Sidekick Theater Company this summer/fall for a new immersive theater piece for young audiences.

How do you support yourself?

For the past year, I’ve been working as a server in a lovely restaurant in the East Village called Calliope.

Do you like your job(s)? Why or why not?

I was particularly lucky to work in a restaurant that I wholeheartedly believed in. I feel like this is a rarity, especially in New York, where there’s a new place opening every day. Calliope is co-owned by a husband and wife, who are also the co-chefs, who have taught me more about rustic French cooking and incredible wine than I ever thought I’d know.

I’m currently applying for more permanent jobs in the arts, as the theater work I’m getting now isn’t paying quite enough for the likes of living in New York City.

How did the financial assistance and/ or debt associated with your degree program impact the work you chose to do immediately after graduation? How about a year on?

My debt is large, but there’s something comforting in knowing that I’m not the only one…? I guess? There’s a lot of people from Sarah Lawrence who are also living and working in NYC, so we look out for each other. I don’t have the luxury of being a theater artist without a day job with the amount of debt that I have, but I don’t feel burdened by it…all the time. It’s scary, sure, but I really try not to let it rule my life. I’m on an income-based repayment plan, which is working very well for me so far. I plan to continue with it for as long as I can.

How up front with you and your cohort was the program about the difficulties of carrying debt for a fine arts degree (or two?)

I feel like they were clear, but I do know lots of people who would disagree. Since I was doing two programs, I had many, many meetings with financial aid to work out all my details, which then, in turn, helped me to become very informed about my loans and debt. I did not have to pay full price for the two degrees, which made it possible for me to do it. I also worked for Sarah Lawrence as a Graduate Hall Director, so I had my housing covered by my job, since I lived on campus. I made my small stipend work for me and did not take out any loans to cover anything but tuition. I feel that the living expense loans that students end up taking are the most intense when it comes to repayment after graduation. They may seem like a good idea at the time, but I would recommend looking into working for the school in a residential life capacity or working during your time in your program to offset some costs.

If the program discussed finances with you and your peers, how accurate were they, in terms of the situation you find yourself in now? What could they have warned you more about or not discussed so gravely?

Since my situation required so many meetings to work out, I felt very informed. I’m not surprised by my current financial situation. I encourage others to talk with your financial aid office. They are helpful. They want you to be aware and to be able to be in control once you graduate.

Do you ever have any regrets about getting an MFA, related to debt or not?

Absolutely no regrets. I am working on writing and theater projects that I could have never predicted happening for me. Sarah Lawrence opened my artistic boundaries so widely and so completely that I feel nothing but thankful for my time there.

What advice would you give writers who are thinking about getting an MFA, in the process of getting one right now, or about to graduate?

I’d definitely say to take some time in between undergrad and grad. It was something I wasn’t planning on doing, but then once I did, I was so thankful for it. Be sure that graduate school is what you want. It’s easy to see yourself continuing on with school when that’s all you’ve been doing up until this point in your life. Take time. Breathe. Travel if you can. Spend some time with your family and friends. Work a job you hate. Live somewhere you’ve always wanted to. LIVE. Graduate school is intense. Be ready to throw yourself into it. It’s only 2 or 3 years, so be sure to make them count.

What advice would you give to writers choosing between going into debt for an MFA and not getting the degree at all?

Just be sure that an MFA is what you want, that you’re ready for it. It’s going to be a lot of debt, unless you’re one of the few who are admitted into a fully funded program. The debt is not crippling for me because I’m living a very artist-based lifestyle. Marriage is not on my radar right now, neither is buying a house or having children…If those are things that are important to you and you want them to happen in the near future, just plan for that. Take time to make the decision and seek out how to support yourself while you’re in school so it becomes less overwhelming upon graduation.

Check out Jamie’s Chuck Bass poems and other writing at jamieagnello.tumblr.com. 


2 thoughts on “What We Talk About When We Talk About MFA Debt: An Interview with Jamie Agnello

  1. I appreciate the candor of posts/interviews like this–it gives the audience (writers thinking about pursuing an MFA) a more granular perspective on the whole thing. A lot resonated here with me, as I have been out of school (undergrad) for nearly four years, traveling, working full-time, attending an MA.

    I still owe on my undergraduate debt, which is in deferment while I complete my MA, so the financial considerations with regard to moving on to an MFA in two or three years are very pertinent to me.

    Anyway, thank you for sharing your perspective.

  2. Thanks so much for reading, Anthony. I’m really glad you enjoyed the interview. It can be a tough subject to talk about, so I’m very happy that it resonated with you. –jamie

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