Life After Grad School: Leo Rowland

Our blog’s new “Life After Grad School” series introduces you to alumni from our Department of English graduate programs who have found professional successes after earning their MFA in Creative Writing or MA in English at Fresno State. The first installment profiles Leo Rowland, an MFA alumnus who has worked for more than 15 years leading international study abroad programs in Argentina, the U.S., and now Italy.

In an email interview, English Department communication specialist Jefferson Beavers spoke with Leo about valuing interdisciplinary education, crossing borders of many kinds as writers and artists, and staying true to your most essential elements in whatever work you choose to do.

When did you attend the Fresno State MFA program, and what genre did you study?

I attended the MFA program from 1997 to 2000, right after it started. My genre focus was fiction and my thesis was a novella, with my exit exam also based on the novella form.

Who were your mentors during your time in the Fresno State MFA program, and what did you learn the most from them that helps you as an arts professional today?

Liza Wieland was my thesis advisor and simply a wonderful mentor. [She now teaches at East Carolina University.] In spending time with her and listening to her and seeing how she made decisions about her work and her life choices, both personal and professional, what I gained was a deep appreciation for the artist as someone who has to be fully dedicated to his or her craft. In her, I saw a keen and strong intellect that was in balance with a remarkable sensitivity — to language and to beauty and to images and ideas — what lies behind the quality of the art.

None of this matters, though, if you do not work. I remember seeing the sheer volume of writing from Liza’s notebooks. She always told me that as a student and budding writer, the volume of production matters immensely. You have to be smart about it, but you only learn to discern what choices to make by putting in the miles. She also was someone who loved her life, and loved to live and laugh and eat good food, surrounded by those she loved. I don’t think I can separate Liza the artist from Liza the friend, and spouse (not mine), and mother.

I also valued John Hales tremendously. Creative nonfiction is a more natural home for me than fiction, and I took a literature seminar with him, something like Wilderness Literature in the American Mind — I can’t remember the title. I have gone on to teach more nonfiction, including a course that I taught for a number of years that was directly inspired by his class.

I’ve always been drawn to the social construction of environments, and John’s class spawned a life-long interest in the nexus between narratives, culture, and politics, and how these converge on “empty spaces” to create ideas and outcomes — which have historically not generally ended in very positive results. I thank John for starting me along this path.

In an abstract, you described your MFA thesis manuscript, “To Another Place,” as a story that concerns “how it is for one to awake from a life of loneliness, and rise above the dissatisfaction of ordinary relationships.” How have you revisited the ideas in this manuscript, in your time after the program? How has your thinking as a writer evolved and changed?

I’m unfortunately not doing the writing that I’d like to these days — I have been in international education for more than a decade now — but this theme is a seed that has always stayed with me.

I grew up as an expat who lived in different geographies and cultures, and I was from a bi-national and bi-lingual household myself. In working with education and culture, including writing and reflection, I am always engaging with students as they grapple with who they are, which can be a frightening or at least uncertain act by the very nature of crossing any kind of borders. We are always crossing borders of many kinds and we do this as individual travelers, whether physical, emotional, or intellectual movement. I think that it is a theme that evolves and transforms as we move forward in life and is unavoidable.

I am the dean of an Art and Design program now, and I see students who are always trying to make sense of the world. I think this has to always start with being alone and making sense of things as you explore and encounter them.

How did you use your background in creative writing to help you in your professional life after the program, and what are some highlights of your time since the program?

It helped me immensely and still does. I have been involved in writing in different ways since completing my degree: as a print journalist, translator, and editor/abridger of books, though mostly teaching a wide range of writing courses, primarily abroad, and working in international education administration.

I studied political science as an undergraduate and I think going on to work on and receive my MFA is reflective of what is a natural dispensation in me toward the interdisciplinary, toward thinking across different types of knowledges and organizations. In other words, I strongly believe in the value of not turning away from science or business or social sciences if you are grounded in the arts, and vice-versa. I am delighted to see the growth of STEAM as a reflection of the incredible value there is in approaching ideas or possibilities from entirely different positions for problem solving and, in the best of cases, positive social change.

I have led international education programs in Argentina, for about 12 years, the United States, and now in Italy. I have had the great fortune to work as a faculty member and administrator in higher education on four continents and have had the chance to discover so many wonderful places and people in the process.

You are just starting as the new Dean of Art and Design at Studio Arts College International (SACI) in Florence, Italy. What led you to this job, and what do you hope to accomplish there?

I was visiting SACI as part of their annual consortium meeting. I spent a few intensive days speaking with members of the board, the president, other faculty and staff visitors from art schools and universities throughout the U.S. Some of my ideas attracted the president, who later reached out to me about the dean position opening and encouraging me to consider applying. It was a long road, but I did apply, and here I am.

What fascinates me about SACI is it’s a studio art and design program on the one hand, but a study abroad program on the other. SACI offers both undergrad studio abroad and a number of MFA and post-bac programs, in a very international context. I want to help SACI leadership and our faculty and students really explore the convergence of art, design, and culture and what this could mean in terms of mission, learning goals, and the core experience for students and critical value in an education of this kind.

Art, similarly to many fields, must increasingly consider its social value and social vision and mission, and this excited me in thinking about our programs and development.

What advice do you have for current MFA students in terms of a career path, especially for those who are trying to imagine a professional life that may or may not involve publishing their own writing work?

It is an interesting time to have arrived in Florence as there are year-long celebrations of Leonardo da Vinci, marking 500 years since his death. There have been a few exhibitions and various conversation about the genius of da Vinci and the idea of the single artist producing work versus the actual role of the artists’ studio and all the many apprentice involved in artistic creation.

While this is specific to large studios of production and not to the poet or novelist’s work, what it makes me think of is the role of the artist in society and what is most valuable. Artists are most valuable, in my view, when they are engaging with society and the larger community around them. My advice would be to work as hard as you are able to at your craft, endeavor to make a living as a creative writer, as difficult and possibly as unlikely as that is. Don’t lament the balancing act you will likely have to make, whether it is balancing writing with teaching (should that be your path) or some other route you opt for to sustain yourself.

I think that it is in carrying the ideals and the optics of the artist with you as you create art, as you make your way through the world of friendships and relationships, and as you engage with the important questions of the day, which you must do, that you will find the right line and the right balance. Everyone has to find their own way, and there is no right or wrong way when it comes to finding the role that writing and art will take in your life.

Do stay close to what is essential to you, though. As students who enter and graduate from an MFA program in creative writing, it isn’t too hard to guess that holding on to the pleasure and magic of writing will always remain with you, as it should. It is merely a question of to what degree, and to each their own.

Jefferson Beavers works as the communication specialist for the Department of English. He is a former journalist, and he is an alumnus of the Mater of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.

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