I first visited the University of Central Florida during the spring of my freshman year at Tusculum College. As a first-generation, low-income college student, I was a member of Student Support Services, a program funded through a grant from the Department of Education. SSS loaned books, hosted workshops, offered tutoring and counseling, and took members on multicultural enrichment trips, including college visits.
UCF was huge. A city. I didn’t understand why anyone would choose to attend a school so large. (In comparison, the entirety of Tusculum College is probably less than a third of UCF’s campus.) The breezeway had a bank and a hair salon, the student union—three floors complete with a convenience store and self-serve postal station. We passed over long wooden walkways surrounded by trees on a steamy March day as we made our way toward Engineering II. There we listened to our guides discuss graduate offerings and the GRE, a test I’d never even heard of before. (At the time my major was undeclared, and I didn’t plan on attending any graduate program, let alone one in Florida, a twelve-hour drive away from my home in Tennessee.)
Four years and dual majors in English and Art later, I came across an ad for UCF’s MFA program in The Writer’s Chronicle, and I remembered my previous trip to Orlando. I browsed their website, intrigued by the faculty publications and class offerings, especially opportunities for internships with The Florida Review and teaching classes. I wanted to teach (I enjoyed tutoring), but I was shy in front of large groups and much more comfortable with expressing my thoughts through writing. I thought these classes might help me feel more prepared in front of a classroom of my own. So I applied and I waited.
UCF offered me a financial package I couldn’t turn down. Then I found their off campus housing website and searched for roommates. On-campus housing was out of my budget, and I didn’t want to live with freshman or sophomores or any undergrads, if possible. I made phone calls and skyped. I mapped the distance from each house/apartment to campus. Finally, I planned to move in with 3 undergrad females (all seniors) near Avalon Park. I’d only ever seen them and the house on my computer screen. At the time, I didn’t know about the MFA Facebook groups, and I’d only emailed one professor and the program assistant. (Don’t do this my way. I got lucky.) After securing housing, I received an email from another fiction MFA candidate, a first year like me, who was looking for a roommate, but I’d already sent in my deposit. We emailed, added each other on Facebook, and made plans to meet as soon as I moved down. She was the first person I met from my cohort.
In August, a friend drove down to Orlando with me, helped me unpack my car, and then took a flight back home barely two hours after we arrived. I was on my own. My roommates cooked me dinner, and then I blew the breaker to my room plugging in a lamp. Too embarrassed to tell my roommates, I spent the rest of the night unpacking with the room lit by my computer screen and the overhead light in my closet.
That week a roommate showed me how to find my classrooms online and gave me a tour of campus. (She also told me about the $100 parking fee.) And my roommates assured me that the constant rain would end.
My first year in the program progressed. I spent time with my cohort in/outside of classes, writing, reading, and attending conferences and readings by visiting authors. I attended parties at professors’ and friends’ homes and met alumni. I missed Tennessee. I missed the mountains. But over time I grew comfortable here. I found a part time job babysitting for a couple in Oviedo. My daily calls home became less frequent. I learned my way around, prouder every time I reached my destination without GPS. I even bought a Sunpass for the toll roads the following summer.
During the last two of my three years at UCF, I had the opportunity to teach independently, for both the Department of Writing and Rhetoric and the Department of English. These experiences were scary and frustrating and extremely rewarding. (And definitely better than babysitting.)
My friends and mentors live here. I now work here. Orlando is my home, even after graduation.
If you’re from out of state, let it become yours, if only temporarily.
Danielle Armstrong, a Tennessee native, completed an MFA in Fiction at the University of Central Florida in May 2015. She has Bachelor of Arts degrees in English and Studio Art from Tusculum College. At UCF, she worked as an English Department GTA with the Literary Arts Partnership to provide creative writing classes to Orlando area youth and adults affected by mental illness. During the final year of her MFA program, she also helped to create and maintain this blog. Her fiction and nonfiction has appeared (or is forthcoming) online and in print at bordercrossing, riverSedge, Scissors & Spackle, Paragraph Line, and Connotation Press: An Online Artifact. She works in Orlando as a technical writer.