Creativity Can’t Wait: CoAS Graduates First Class of Creative Writing MFA Students
By Gina Myers
June 30, 2021
A new group of talented writers has entered the literary world. Earlier this month, the College of Arts and Sciences graduated its first class of Creative Writing MFA students. The low-residency program launched in the fall of 2019 and has quickly become known as a program with a strong community where the students’ support of one another and their creative reach is inspiring and uplifting.
While the pandemic may have affected the shape of the program, the cohort still developed a powerful and supportive bond with one another as they worked on their craft and learned the nuts and bolts of getting their work out in the world. They also launched Paper Dragon, an online literary journal.
The director of the MFA program, Nomi Eve, notes how remarkable this first graduating class is. “I’m proud of [this class] because they are extraordinary writers, whose words and ideas will surely make an impact far beyond Drexel,” she says. “I'm proud of them because they are outrageously and extravagantly kind and supportive of each other and have been since day one. And I'm proud of them for being trailblazers at Drexel. They took a chance on us, and in doing so, they set the bar high and have left an indelible mark.”
Roger Kurtz, PhD, department head for English and philosophy, also notes the mark this class has made. “This is a special group of students not only because they are pioneers, but also because of their accomplishments. They are a close-knit and supportive group. They are writing and already publishing. They have produced an innovative literary magazine, Paper Dragon,” he says. “Some of them have been teaching with great success in our first-year writing program. One of them, Angel Hogan, was selected to deliver a magnificent commencement address at the CoAS ceremony. Above all, they have embraced the notion of community engagement and of the role of art in promoting positive social change.”
Demonstrating their commitment to these values, the graduates donated a class gift to the MFA program. The cohort raised over a $1,000, which will serve as seed money for a fund to promote equity and inclusion. Kurtz explains, “We will be work with Alumni Engagement and Institutional Advancement to grow this fund in order to strengthen our civic engagement mission and provide access to the MFA degree for those who would not otherwise be able to join.”
The Drexel MFA Class of 2021 has proven itself to be passionate, talented, caring and committed to equity and inclusion. “The inaugural group of MFA screenwriters represented a remarkably wide range of interests that was reflected in the tone and content of their work. That, in turn, allowed their individual voices to shine in their scripts,” says Matt Kaufhold, program director for screenwriting and playwriting in the Westphal College of Media Arts and Design. Now that the students have graduated, he hopes they “continue to pursue their writing, engage the world around them and take up the reins as the next generation of media storytellers.”
Eve is also excited to see what the Class of 2021 does next. “I hope they stay in touch and continue to be sources of encouragement, wise critique and support for each other,” she says. “And I hope that they will invite me to their premieres and book parties!”
Meet the 13 members of the graduating class through brief biography notes they wrote prior to graduation and through comments on their experiences in the Creative Writing MFA program.
Beth Ann Downey, fiction
Beth Ann Downey is one of those annoying people who always knew she wanted to be a writer, hence a decade-long journalism career and new foray into fiction writing as a graduate of Drexel University’s MFA in creative writing program. Beth Ann is also currently a staff writer for Drexel’s Department of University Communications and acted as founding editor-in-chief of Paper Dragon, the online literary journal of Drexel’s MFA. She draws from her background in music and feature writing to make her words and spunky characters sing.
On her experience: “I've learned that although many think of fiction writing as a solitary venture, you likely won't find success in this industry in a vacuum. It takes a village to become a better writer. You need others to lift you up, to tell you what you're doing right and wrong, and most importantly, to tell you you're not crazy. The MFA program at Drexel has provided me this writing community. Though it's low-residency and my cohort has been affected by pandemic distance, I've still had so many meaningful touchpoints with my cohort over the last two years. We are peers, we are friends, and I don't think that will change even as we head toward graduation.”
Read Downey’s article on the course “Black Women Writing: Short Stories.”
Sal Gugliotta, fiction
Sal Gugliotta grew up in South Jersey, got a BA in literature in South Carolina, and received his MFA in fiction from Drexel in Philadelphia. He’s spent the past 12 years as an expatriate spreading roots elsewhere around the globe while writing and teaching literature to international high school students in China and Korea. His work has been featured in The Battered Suitcase.
On his experience: “For me, it was all about having a community of writers to throw ideas around with and grow in a myriad of intended and unintended ways. I attended the program from the other side of the world and was able to gain access to a group of people whose writing, thoughts and comments made me feel at home.”
Angel Hogan, fiction
Angel Hogan is an activist, poet and filmmaker. She has performed as part of the Black Women’s Arts Festival, Literary Death Match, Moonstone, First Person Arts and the Philadelphia Fringe Festival. Angel is interested in storytelling as a vehicle for visibility and community building. Her film, By Law, By Love: A Documentary about Family, Race and Identity, was completed in 2019. Angel is a Drexel MFA graduate and full-time employee at the University. See more at: www.angelhogan.com.
On her experience: “After years of actively writing and performing, pursuing an MFA was a natural next step for me. This dynamic community of writers and mentors helped to push me to another level. I’m incredibly grateful for the experience of growing with my cohort, as well as the many connections to established writers. The support and mentorship from Program Director Nomi Eve will remain impactful well after graduation. Her dedication, passion and talent appear in every part of this degree.”
Read a full interview with Hogan.
Daniel Nathan Horn, fiction
Daniel Nathan Horn has been a farmhand, a US Marine and an engineer. His short stories have appeared in several publications, including the cult hit Pulp Modern and Into the Void’s We Are Antifa anthology, and was shortlisted for the 2019 Into the Void Fiction Prize. He is a founding editor of Drexel University’s MFA journal, Paper Dragon, for which he currently reads fiction.
On his experience: “I think many writers start from a place of wanting to emulate a favorite storyteller, and that was certainly the case for me. At a certain point in a writer’s development, however, this emulation becomes more of an impediment to telling new and interesting stories than an aid. The Drexel MFA program helped me clear that hurdle, allowing me to find my own authorial voice and recognize that my writing is at its best when I’m freely channeling that voice.”
David J. Lowe-Bianco, screenwriting
David Lowe-Bianco is a filmmaker and screenwriter living in Philadelphia. His credits include award-winning short films, an Emmy-winning documentary and hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube. In 2014 he received a bachelor of science in digital filmmaking and video production from the Art Institute of Philadelphia, and he recently completed his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Drexel University. Professionally, he works as a video producer in the pharmaceutical industry, creating innovative training tools for the biggest pharmaceutical companies in the world.
On his experience: “The Creative Writing MFA program gave me the motivation I needed to take my writing to a new level. I'd spent years struggling to write and come up with new ideas, and in less than two years as a Drexel MFA student, I've built up a portfolio of work including short stories, short screenplays, a television spec script and two feature-length screenplays. This program was built to help each and every one of us succeed. From day one we were given a support system of mentors and peers that kept us moving forward. I couldn't have asked for a better experience.”
Adele McKenna, fiction
Adele McKenna is a writer, artist and freelance content creator working out of Philadelphia. Her work has been featured in Root Quarterly magazine, and she was a semi-finalist in NYC Midnight’s 2020 Short Story Challenge. Adele graduated with an MFA in creative writing from Drexel University.
On her experience: “The lessons and experiences I will take away from this program are that it takes a village to write a story. I never knew how much I needed an honest, supportive writing community around me to get this work done. I walked into Drexel with an idea, and I'm leaving with a full draft of a novel and a writing family I know I'll continue to work with for many years to come. I never would have been able to do this alone.”
Leah Mele-Bazaz, fiction
Leah Mele-Bazaz is part of the inaugural cohort of MFA students at Drexel University, where she teaches English. In 2020, she was selected as a finalist for the Southampton Review Nonfiction Prize. Her nonfiction has been published by the SF Creative Writing Institute, Macro Magazine and Barren Magazine. She’s currently writing a memoir about perinatal loss.
Crystal Mills, fiction
Crystal Mills is a fundraising and communications professional with a lifelong interest in literature, and a dream to one day be in constant community with other lovers of words. After pursuing a bachelor’s of professional writing from Elizabethtown College, she spent the next 24 years in various positions within the corporate and nonprofit sectors, culminating this spring with an MFA from Drexel University. She lives in Lancaster City, Pennsylvania (where there is traffic and rarely any Amish), with her husband, filmmaker Brad Kenyon, and two-and-a-half dogs.
On her experience: “I am leaving the Drexel MFA with more than a more consistent writing practice, which in and of itself is worth the investment. I now have a deep knowledge of the publishing industry—what it takes to actually be a working writer, how to get your work out there and where my voice may fit within the literary landscape. I’m also equipped with a cohort of talented writers who I’m hoping will continue to serve as ‘early readers’ in years to come. Thank you, Drexel, for this wonderful experience!”
Lexi Reader, fiction
Lexi Reader received her degree in English from Rutgers University and then went into different fields of work. She worked in sales, health care and as a teaching assistant at Camden County College for special needs young adults. She always wanted to become a writer, and when she stumbled upon Drexel’s MFA Creative Writing Program, it was the perfect next step in her career. Lexi is working on a novel for her thesis and works alongside her cohort as a poetry editor for Drexel’s Paper Dragon. She is honored to be a part of Drexel University and to be able to write with such amazing and talented peers.
On her experience: “They say, ‘It’s not about the destination,’ and as I sit here, days before graduation, I would sum up the Drexel MFA Program as my journey to the beginning. Of course, as a writer it’s the goal to publish, but I had a difficult time seeing myself getting there. With the support from this program, that has changed. I never imagined how much I could learn about myself and about my writing style. It’s a tough road as writer’s block creeps in, along with the constant rewrites. With all of that being said, I don’t think I could’ve done it without my cohort and mentors supporting me along the way. I’m no longer afraid of the process, and I’m grateful for the journey I’m still on. I’m following my dreams, and I believe this was just the step I needed to move forward in my writing career. I’m honored to be a part of this community we built together. Thank you all!”
Natalia Torcaso, screenwriting
Natalia Torcaso is a screenwriter, playwright and teacher located south of Atlanta. She is also a part of Drexel University’s inaugural Master of Fine Arts program. After earning a bachelor's degree from a small liberal arts school in Connecticut, she served as a literacy educator at a juvenile detention institution and a youth rehabilitation center. She is published in Willimantic’s Exposure literary magazine, and her play How You Are was produced and performed in 2018. Now, Natalia is teaching literature at a Georgia public high school and working on her two scripts—an adult animated television series and a comedic feature film.
On her experience: “At the start of the MFA program, I was a timid writer. I would hesitate to share work at the risk of vulnerability or not being as skilled as the rest of the cohort. That all changed at the first residency; I met the professors and students who would become my second family. During that time, I was fortunate enough to build strong relationships that encouraged me to have confidence in my work and not fear judgment. I began to share my work with peers, collaborate on scripts and volunteer to read my own excerpts more often. The Drexel MFA program offers amazing opportunities and resources, but the lessons I learned throughout are the ones that will stick with me.”
Bill Vargo, fiction
Bill Vargo works as a film technician in Philadelphia and professor of First Year Writing at Drexel University. His thesis project, The Ghost in the Machine, is a suspense novel inspired by Philadelphia’s industrial past. He is proud to be a member of the first graduating cohort of Drexel University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. He serves as the current editor-in-chief of the program’s literary journal, Paper Dragon, which released volume 2 on May 26 at www.drexelpaperdragon.com.
On his experience: “My most rewarding experience in the MFA program was teaching freshman English. I could pass on the skills and lessons I was learning in my classes and residencies directly to younger writers. Drexel has a very knowledgeable and supportive First Year Writing program, and I am proud to be part of it. The teaching component of the MFA program was one of the major reasons I chose Drexel, and I’m glad I did!”
Rob Zawatski, fiction
Rob Zawatski was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. He has cleaned bathrooms, sold knock-off hip-hop couture and impersonated Elvis. After spending a few years creating corporate communications and marketing materials, he worked as a freelance independent journalist. Today, he teaches writing in and around Philadelphia and lives in Montgomery County with his wife, daughter and arrogantly domineering cat.
On his experience: “When I enrolled in Drexel’s MFA program, I was welcomed into a community of dreamers. I was surrounded by people who cared deeply about developing their craft and shared a passion for telling stories. My teachers and classmates were generous with their time, talent, support and feedback. I studied technique and learned how to read more critically. Getting my MFA at Drexel has allowed me to focus on my writing and develop in ways that would have been impossible without the help of my cohort and instructors.”
Michelle Zimmerman, screenwriting
Michelle Zimmerman is a native Philadelphian. She and her husband, Carlos, have owned the Mexican restaurant Las Bugambilias for 13 years. Recently, her sons have entered the restaurant’s post-pandemic expansion and re-opened in Old City. She is a baker and food writer. She holds a bachelor of business administration from Temple University and has worked for the U.S. Census Bureau. Her thesis submission is a crime drama screenplay, and she is currently working on a novel adaptation of that story. Her ambition is to write in Hollywood and write crime dramas or historical fiction.
On her experience: Even if you're working full-time as an MFA student, try to invest as much time as possible into the program so you can develop as a writer. The program taught the concept and structure of story. Without knowing how to tell a story, it's very difficult—maybe impossible—to get the art across on the pages.
Learn more about the Low-Residency MFA in Creative Writing.