Meet Jojo Elhassan, Recipient of MFA Scholarship for Marginalized Writers
By Sarah Hojsak
February 20, 2023
Altine “Jojo” Elhassan, creative writing ’24, has always found inspiration around her in everything from nature, to music, to Greek and Egyptian mythology. She was a writer before she ever put pen to paper, subconsciously crafting stories in her head.
An indigene of Yobe State in northeastern Nigeria who grew up largely in Kaduna state, a north-central city, Elhassan was taught to work hard and dream big. But she didn’t see how it would be possible to turn her passion for creative writing into a profession.
"You can't tell your African parents who are paying your tuition and accommodation that you want to do creative writing as a career,” Elhassan explained. “If you're not a doctor, you should be a lawyer, engineer, accountant or an architect. They will look down their noses."
She instead pursued surveying, an occupation that paid well but that she found uninspiring. As an undergraduate student at the University of Wolverhampton, she found herself drawn to more creative outlets and would sneak out of her surveying classes to attend creative writing sessions. She went on to earn a master's degree in environment and sustainable development from University College London, but ultimately realized that she would not find satisfaction in her chosen profession.
“You can be satisfied with your job, but not happy, and I was neither,” Elhassan recalled. “I knew something was missing, and I knew I had to fill the depths professionally. So, I decided to do what I really wanted. I want writing to be my main profession.”
Elhassan’s writing focuses on the socioeconomic realities of life from a woman’s perspective, particularly in her home country of Nigeria. She has published several short stories and plays, is currently working on a novel about the Nigerian Civil Service (as well as its sequel, which explores the state of the Nigerian hospital system) and has also begun writing a memoir.
While applying to MFA programs, Elhassan found Drexel’s by chance. “I think we stumbled on each other,” she laughed. “I used to get mail from Drexel, and I ignored it for a very long time. One day, I thought, ‘Let me just see what the program is all about. Let me just apply, because you never know.’”
Not only was her application accepted, but she was also selected as the inaugural recipient of a full tuition scholarship from the MFA Gift Fund for Marginalized Writers. The scholarship aims to support diverse literary voices by funding writers whose personal experiences of marginalization—including but not limited to race, class or disability—inform their work.
When director Nomi Eve was developing the MFA program, which launched in 2019, it was important to her that the program align with Drexel’s commitment to civic engagement.
“President Fry has put such a wonderful emphasis on Drexel becoming the most civically engaged university in the country, and I really wanted to infuse our MFA with that spirit,” Eve explained. “We wanted our students to know that writing is a superpower, and you can use it to make this world a better place. Writing is a uniquely impactful tool to move the needle on important subjects, to build bridges and community.”
The program’s first graduating class took that message to heart. Upon their graduation in 2021, the cohort of 17 students raised money to give back to the program, with specific instructions to use the gift to further its civic engagement mission.
“That was such a magical thing because it came from within our community and really started the ball rolling on the MFA Gift Fund,” Eve said. Eve worked with the College of Arts and Sciences to establish a special giving fund for the program and began to seek more donors. The second graduating class continued the tradition of giving back, and a generous gift from author and entrepreneur Zibby Owens provided enough to fund the first two full scholarships.
Eve’s goal is to build a self-sustaining fund that will continue to provide a full scholarship for a marginalized student in each cohort, as well as help cover other special projects and initiatives. Eve looks at marginalization broadly, through the variety of challenging circumstances a person can experience, in order to amplify as many diverse voices and perspectives as possible.
“There are so many ways in which people face extraordinary headwinds,” she explained. “We want to find those people and hear their stories, and we want them in the Drexel MFA to put tools in their hands so they can tell their stories to a wider audience.”
The program’s low-residency format, where students work primarily remotely, makes it possible for writers across the globe to enroll. Geographical distance hasn’t stopped Elhassan, who currently lives in the UK, from building community with the other students in her cohort—even though her classes sometimes fall in the middle of the night.
“The most exciting thing is that you meet people that truly support you,” she explained. “I’ve really felt welcome, because you don’t get this everywhere. We’ve come to be like an online family, and I really enjoy that. The support is something I haven’t previously received.”
Being a part of this supportive environment has allowed Elhassan to fine tune her writing. “The feedback I’ve received on discussions and assignments has put my writing in better shape compared to when I started,” she said. “I’m producing better work.”
Even Elhassan’s mother has come to accept creative writing as a suitable career. “I’m glad that I got the scholarship, and happy my mom got to see that, because she knows I’ve always wanted to do creative writing.”
Eve is seeking donors to make the MFA Gift Fund self-sustaining so that it can continue to make a difference in the lives of marginalized writers for years to come.
“This is a way to make a huge impact,” Eve explained. “The MFA Gift Fund is an example of how our president’s social consciousness and mission-driven leadership not only strengthens our university community but can make a tremendous impact in individuals' lives. Committing ourselves to social justice and weaving our civic engagement mission into our academic work makes us better, stronger and more impactful.”
As she looks toward the future, Elhassan is still dreaming big. “I try to remember that what’s in front of me is better than what’s behind me,” she said. “I’m extremely ambitious—I really want it all. I want my novels to be adapted into movies, my plays to be acted out in major theaters, and all my short stories to become bestsellers, which I hear is quite impossible for anthologies of short stories. But I think there’s a first for everything, because I know if you work hard and work smart, the sky’s the limit with God crowning your efforts.”
Make a donation to the MFA Gift Fund for Marginalized Writers here.