Design your own MFA/MBA/etc. & get over your fear of being what you want to be

I have always wanted to go to art school. When I was choosing my major for college, I simply didn’t think I would be able to do it — my parents expected me to get a job that would support me and I did not see a clear path to do that with a degree in fine art, so I settled and studied communication, something I was also very interested in.

But also, I did not think I was good enough. I took some art classes in high school, but my education was basically geared towards me doing something ‘professional’, and artist was not one of the options. So, my self doubt and lack of access snowballed into me thinking I just wasn’t going to be an artist, even though I knew at an early age that’s pretty much my main objective in life.

I think this is a very common experience for my generation — especially if you come from a middle class, Mexican-American family (in my case, my parents were the first or second generation to even go to college as far as I know). Lots of people have overcome this and ended up studying whatever they wanted. I was not that person. I wanted my parents to be proud of me and though I know now that they would have been equally proud of me if I had studied art (and still found a job to support myself) I did not really believe it then.

So I tried to grab a studio class here, a guitar class there, as many film classes as I could sneak in, but mostly I did art occasionally on the side with my friends and was jealous of all the art students. For like, my entire adult life.

And still, I think, I’m not really like them. I never had that complete freedom at a young age to dive into making and not look back — see — I’m still romanticizing the experience of art school.

Even now, sometimes, people will say things like ‘you’re so organized!’ Or ‘you’re so good at planning’ or ‘you’re so on top of things’ and it makes me think I must not be an artist because I have my shit together. I want to yell at them — I have my shit together because I have to have my shit together! I have to pay my bills and show up on time because I want to keep my job or get hired or not look like a complete idiot because as a woman of color I am not given the benefit of the doubt.

But artists are people and people come in a wide variety of personalities and I think there are a lot more successful artists like me than not, we just have this weird idea of what it means to be an artist.

I am still figuring out who I am as an artist and what it means to even be one. It took me a while to get back to it and now that I am able to focus more on art, it is still hard. I still feel like an imposter. And I still think often that I’ll never do all the things I want to do and make all the things I want to make before I die. I still have to make money and support myself. I still have to motivate myself to like wake up some days.

Which is kind of the point. It doesn’t really matter if you went to art school, that does not make you an artist. It doesn’t make being an artist easy. And it doesn’t make life a breeze that you walk through like a floating goddess. Making art makes you an artist (I have lots of thoughts about what art is, but that’s for another time), it never really gets that easy, and you’ll continue to have to push down walls by shear force of will in order to get to the next step.

Which brings me to the MFA or MBA or whatever master’s or credential you think you need to do what you want to do.

So many people in my generation — after getting a degree in something they probably didn’t really want a degree in — have now gotten graduate degrees because they thought they needed it.

And I get it. In some industries you might need it. But, do you? And, what if you could put yourself in the mindset and arena that the people getting graduate degrees in whatever you want one in are in? Could you possibly achieve equal, if not greater success? Because, one of the key indicators of success is being able to keep going. And you can’t do that if you are saddled with student debt, something that has definitely held me back in a lot of ways. And one of the key indicators of being a thought leader is doing your own thing, which is the opposite of most people I know who have graduate degrees. They are literally doing what everyone else is doing, and hating it.

Some people seem to get graduate degrees because they actually have no idea what they want to do. If that’s you, it’d probably be better to spend a fraction of the money and time on testing out a bunch of things to figure out what you actually like doing and want to focus on. The more time you spend on something, the more opportunities open up in that area. This is how I think most people find jobs—it’s not from emailing a resume. It’s from surrounding yourself with people doing the things you want to do, in the industry you want to be in, until someone has a job open and think, hey! You’d be a great fit! And then they hand over your resume on a gold platter to the person hiring and you get the job.

But, if you are like me and are pining for an MFA, perhaps you could try designing your own instead, which is what I am doing. I may or may not get an MFA at some point, but if I do it will be cheap or free and it will be after I’ve already put in the work to prove to myself that I am, in fact, an artist. Which, coincidently, is the only way I’ll even get into an MFA program.

I think the important thing in planning your own curriculum is having a balance of skill-learning, skill-practicing, critique, and networking. I am in New York so I am super spoiled in the resources I have, but I guarantee you that wherever you are there are classes and networks in the areas you are interested in. And if there are not, they definitely exist online.

Here’s my self-guided MFA course load this semester:

-Intro to Portrait Oil Painting, Thursdays, 10am - 1pm with Manu Saluja at New York Academy of Art

-15 hours a week of studio time (I am not always able to do this but I’m really trying and this is probably the most important thing for being an artist)

-Spanish High Intermediate, Fridays 12:15 - 2pm with Juan Vallejo at Idlewild

-Art Career Monthly, monthly on Sundays, with Hilary Doyle at NYC Crit Club

-Teaching Fellowship, bi-weekly on Thursdays, with Center for Urban Pedagogy

-Creative Community Fellowship, online with an in-person retreat, with National Arts Strategies

-Barre class, multiple days a week, at Shakti Barre

-Intro to Choreography, Sundays when I’m able to, at EXPG

-Self-guided graphic design classes, Mondays, via Skillshare (this has not actually happened yet, but it will!)

This semester is very heavy on the fellowships — one of which is focusing on a project for Distill Creative but is in the industry of art so I’m counting it. I also think extracurriculars and physical education are important, both for my physical and mental well being. All of these classes help me move towards my personal goals. I also attend about one art or music show weekly and have some books I’m reading that supplement that classes.

Am I busy? Yes. But I’m busy focusing on the things that will help me be the person I want to be. And thankfully my good friends and family support me in these endeavors or have similar interest, so it’s easy to still see them on occasion. I realize not everyone has this — so if you need to rethink your social life, that’s normal. Think about all your friends who went to grad school. They probably disappeared for a while, right?

So, happy back to school! I hope you keep going and keep making and keep doing whatever it is you want to do.

What about you? What goals do you have? How could you design your own graduate degree program, at least for one semester?