Well-Versed: MFA Student Returns to Classroom with Lifetime of Writing and Teaching Experience

By Tom McLaughlin

All around her home office, says Arlene Edmonds, there were half-completed writing projects – poems, songs, scholarly articles – tucked away in filing cabinets.

She has never been short on her passions, says the Rutgers University–Camden graduate student; just short on the time to pursue them.

“Life gets in the way,” says Edmonds, a student in the master of fine arts (MFA) program in creative writing. “I would take them out and work on them, and then one day I said, ‘You know what I need? Time to sit down and finish these.’”

To that end, the Philadelphia resident was drawn to the creative space and the opportunity to workshop her writing in the MFA program.

“You get a lot of critique from your classmates and professors, and the opportunity to share your insights as well,” says Edmonds, who earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Temple University and a master’s degree in writing from St. Joseph’s University.

Arlene Edmonds receives The Philadelphia Claver Award for her contributions to the Philadelphia community from the Knights of Peter Claver.

Suddenly, those writing projects are seeing the light of day.

Edmonds is currently one of five MFA students enrolled on an interdisciplinary fellowship, which enables them to pursue their interests in topics outside the traditional course of study. Interdisciplinary MFA students complete two independent studies under the tutelage of Rutgers–Camden scholars, while earning a stipend between $10,000 and $12,000, and have the opportunity to teach composition for approximately $6,000 per class.

A longtime piano and music teacher, she plans to study piano and musicology further – in some instances, attending classes at Rutgers University–New Brunswick – in addition to exploring her passions for poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction.

But don’t tell her that one interest comes at the expense of another.

“People want to separate everything into their own disciplines – this is dance, this is music, and this is science,” she says. “But if you look closely, there is mathematics in the acoustics of music. Or think about the rhythm of writing; how you read it changes the meaning. You see that everything is interconnected – that’s why I love the idea of an interdisciplinary fellowship.”

In many ways, life has now come full circle for Edmonds, whose childhood education allowed her to explore a wide range of creative interests. Growing up in Brooklyn and later Long Island, she attended sixth through ninth grades at a performing arts school that she says was much like the high school depicted on the TV show Fame. She says that more than half of her classmates actually went on to attend that high school.

Edmonds on the beat.

“When you think of all the music and dancing, it was just like that,” says Edmonds. “We were all honors students and creative people, and we had that creative energy feeding off of one another. Here, it’s like that all over again.”

The self-described “polymath” would go on to chart a successful career path that fittingly merged one discipline into the next. Every step of the way, she had the adept ability to recognize an opportunity – however new and different it was – and seize it.

As an undergraduate at Temple University, Edmonds began a long, illustrious career as a freelance journalist, covering the local music scene. She later parlayed that experience into a public relations job working for legendary songwriter-producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff at Philadelphia International Records.

She then continued to take on more and more freelance work when a new opportunity landed – literally – on her doorstep. As she recalls, she opened up her community newspaper, The Leader, and saw that the paper was looking for a reporter. So Edmonds grabbed a few writing clips and she and her young daughters walked to the publisher’s office in Cheltenham, located just around the corner from their Northwest Philadelphia home. She was hired on the spot and has been a correspondent for the newspaper ever since.

All told, Edmonds has written more than 10,000 bylined articles appearing in a variety of newspapers and magazines, including The Philadelphia Sunday Sun, Philadelphia Tribune, The Catholic Standard & Times, Philadelphia New Observer, and The Metro. She has also written for The Philadelphia Inquirer, Music Magazine, Heart & Soul, American Visions, Sojourner: An African-American Visitors Guide to Philadelphia, and the former Tribune Magazine, among others.

Edmonds with family members at St. Joseph’s University commencement ceremonies in May 2008

Over the years, she has garnered the praise and admiration of both readers and her counterparts in the industry. The Daughters of the American Revolution will honor her for preserving history through her writing at a special ceremony on Oct. 13 at Independence Hall. Among other awards, she received the “Making History While Telling and Writing Our Story” Award from the National Association of Blacks in Criminal Justice in 2016, and three prizes from the National Newspaper Publishers Association from 2015 to 2017.

All the while, Edmonds has been a dedicated educator as well. In addition to teaching private piano lessons, she was a dance instructor and choreographer, teaching more than 500 students ballet, modern jazz, and ethnic dance in the Philadelphia area. She also taught music at St. Barnabas Episcopal School in Philadelphia, leading classes for more than 200 students, as well as directing the choir and coordinating shows. Moreover, she has taught literature and writing as an adjunct professor at Penn State Abington, St. Joseph’s University, Prince George’s Community College, and Eastern University’s Esperanza College.

The Rutgers–Camden graduate student now hopes that the MFA program – and the credentials that follow – will give her the unbridled opportunity to do more of what she already loves doing: writing and teaching.

She affirms that, throughout her career, she has seen – up close and personal – the power of words to explore, to educate, to challenge, and to express one’s thoughts, as well as those of others who share the same sentiments but can’t find the words.

Simply put, she says, writing can change the world – and she loves having a part in that effort.

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