By David Hicks
Last fall, my wife and I suffered a devastating loss. We were living in Colorado, and while flying back and forth to the East Coast—for the wake, for the “Celebration of Life,” and so on—the distance between us and our families never seemed greater.
For years, we had been talking about moving back east to be closer to our families. But now, we decided, it was time.
In Colorado, we were in a good situation: good jobs and a beautiful home, with the kids living nearby. I was a tenured full professor at Regis, a Jesuit university in Denver, and I had co-founded and co-directed a new MFA program there. So I didn’t want to take just any job to justify a move to the east.
What the hell, I thought, I’ll look for my dream job. I googled “MFA Director position.”
And there it was. Just one position. At Wilkes. About twenty blocks from my in-laws’ house. A two-and-a-half-hour drive to my mother’s, brother’s and sister’s houses in New York.
“This is too good to be true,” I told my wife. “I’ll never get it.”
Aaaaand . . . I got it.
When the offer came, I had mixed feelings. I was excited at the prospect of living close to our families and taking the reins of a nationally renowned creative-writing program. At the same time, I had been at Regis University for nineteen years, and my son and most of my closest friends were in Denver. And, in contrast to Colorado’s three hundred days of sunshine, I knew how gray and cold NEPA could be, having lived there in the late 1990s.
I spoke to Mike Lennon and Nancy McKinley, two of the faculty members of the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing. Mike, the former Academic Vice President of Wilkes University, encouraged me to call him, anytime, for advice on negotiating the program and the University. Nancy told me about all the new friends I would soon make, including herself—there was a real writing community in Wilkes-Barre, she said. I would be able to meet up with them as soon as I moved there.
I happily accepted the job.
I was in Prague at the time, on a Fulbright scholarship, and as the virus spread and the city went into quarantine, and fewer and fewer flights were departing for the U.S., and as news about the U.S. government’s slow reaction to the virus filtered in, I realized this was not going to be an easy transition. Either from Prague to Colorado or from Colorado to Wilkes-Barre.
But then, three months later and back home in Colorado, I “sat in” on the Wilkes program’s first-ever online residency. Despite having worked tirelessly to put everything online, and despite having to teach, participate in, or preside over so many classes and events per day, Bonnie Culver, the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing’s Co-Founder and Director, met with me (via Zoom ) and chatted with me every day. This was to be the first of, what would become, many fruitful conversations, and the beginning of a new friendship. And I saw, via Zoom, the faculty and the students in action. I saw, even on screen, the extent to which the faculty and staff cared about the students, and I felt the students’ commitment to their writing and their instructors. It was exciting.
Afterward, in July, I came to Pennsylvania. Harold Cox Hall, where my office is located, is a gorgeous old building, and the Wilkes campus is beautiful. The Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University is every bit the storied program I thought it was, with an all-star faculty and warm, energetic, intelligent students. There is much work to be done here—among other things, the program needs to be more diverse and more fiscally sustainable—but here’s the thing: I don’t feel alone in this new venture. Many of the faculty members have called or written to voice their support, and I’ve already had many engaging, heartbreaking, and funny conversations with our students. I’ve never felt more welcomed into a new job, a new community.
The Mile-High MFA program at Regis, and the Maslow program at Wilkes could not be less similar. The Regis program is simply structured, offering one degree, inclusive of three main genres and a common curriculum across all cohorts, whereas the Wilkes program offers with two degrees, houses several presses and magazines, offers seven genres; Wilkes’s program includes agents, editors, and film producers, and requires a unique curriculum for each cohort. But the two universities are, thankfully, quite similar—and I’m not just talking about their school colors. (In case you can’t tell, I am wearing both universities’ face masks in the photo.) Regis and Wilkes are both small, liberal arts colleges that emphasize an involvement with their communities; both employ hard-working, underpaid, and really nice people; and both emphasize social justice and issues of equity and fairness.
And that ethos is right up my alley. As a student, I attended two small liberal-arts colleges (Nazareth College of Rochester, NY for my BA, and Saint Bonaventure University for my MA), then earned my doctorate at a large university (NYU). But I always knew I wanted to teach at a small liberal-arts school.
Last month, I spent my first few mornings at my new job walking through the Wilkes campus (which was completely empty), getting to know the buildings, and searching the city for the best breakfast sandwich. (It was a short search that ended at Circles on the Square.) And now that the students have arrived for the fall semester, I’m enjoying seeing their (masked) faces pass by Cox Hall on their way to the student center. It’s a familiar and wonderful feeling—the feeling of renewal. Of new beginnings.
So although the impetus for this move was, and still is, quite devastating, I can already feel that some good may come of it. Last week I had dinner with my beloved in-laws every evening, and I just returned from a weekend visiting my mother and sister. They are all excited and happy to have us back in the area. At the same time, I am (slowly but surely, with Bonnie’s help) learning the ins and outs of this complex and fascinating program, and am beginning to see that serving as its director will be not only manageable but exciting and fun. And I am enjoying meeting new friends in Pennsylvania, while treasuring the friendships I made in Colorado. I’m not shedding one life and beginning another, in other words. I am instead allowing our loss to reshape my life—into one that is certainly emptier for that loss, but which may yet be fuller and more meaningful as a result.
David Hicks, PhD grew up in New York and earned his doctorate in Early American Literature at NYU. He first taught at Pace University in New York, then at Marywood University in Scranton for two years, before moving to Colorado in 2001 and teaching at Regis University in Denver. He began his writing career in his forties by publishing dozens of short stories, then published his debut novel, WHITE PLAINS, in 2017 with Conundrum Press (now Bower House Books). WHITE PLAINS was named the #1 book by Colorado authors by Westword Magazine, was one of three finalists for the Colorado Book Award, and was the 2018 “Village Read” for Arapahoe County (with over 600,000 residents). At Regis University he founded and directed an MFA in Creative Writing, and he is very proud to be the new director of the Maslow Family Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Wilkes University.