Individually tailored MFA program provides unique experience for Matt Pearl

Individually tailored MFA program provides unique experience for Matt Pearl

July 22, 2021

Studying in a graduate program while working a demanding job is no small undertaking. Add the demands of becoming a first-time father, and for many students, that would be a recipe for disaster. But, not for Matt Pearl.

“That’s one of the advantages of this program, because it’s so individually tailored, you really get the experience that you want out of it,” Pearl said of the MFA in Narrative Media program, from which he graduates Aug. 3.

Instead of taking on an extensive research project that semester of his daughter’s birth, Pearl channeled his assignments into writing about his time as a new father.

“That’s a time you want to document everything you’re feeling because you know how quickly time moves. Not only was I able to develop as a writer and produce work that I am proud of, but it also gave me a memento of an incredible time in my life.” Pearl’s final project is a collection of writing about first-time fatherhood that he plans to turn into a book.

By many standards, Pearl already has a very successful career from which many would not make the time to pursue another degree.

Pearl has worked as a reporter for WXIA-TV since 2009, during which time he has won numerous awards, including six regional Emmys just this past June. He has received accolades from the National Press Photographers Association, including being named the Solo Videojournalist of the Year in 2015. He has written a guidebook called “The Solo Video Journalist,” as well as regularly posting to a blog and producing installments of his podcast, Telling the Story.

Matt Pearl during the 2016 Summer Olympics. (Photo: contributed)

So, what motivates someone like Pearl to go back to school?

“From a craft perspective in terms of print writing, I want to take on far more ambitious goals as a writer, and this program offers the perfect marriage of my goals” Pearl said.

Another benefit is a degree that would allow him to teach, something he has thought about doing in the future.

Pearl began considering the MFA at Grady College at the recommendation of a friend, Emma Lacey Bordeaux (MFA ‘17), who was in the first cohort. The fact that UGA was close to his home of Atlanta and was relatively economical were advantages, as was the fact that the MFA program was connected with a journalism college, unlike many other MFA programs around the country.

With his interest piqued, he met with the program narrative nonfiction director, Valerie Boyd.

“Valerie was very honest about the program, and I knew I would be in good hands,” Pearl said.

One of the biggest considerations in going back to school while working is the time commitment, but that has not intimidated Pearl. He admits that it is a huge work load, but managing the extra work load is preparation for the future, and he sees it as an asset and not a distraction.

“I think it’s good that there is a program that gets you working and reading and thinking critically, and forces you to do all of that in a condensed period of time,” Pearl said.

“There is never enough time, but this program gives you deadlines, while at the same time it gives you permission to experiment as a writer and take chances.” — Matt Pearl

The biggest take-away for Pearl is the way he looks at his broadcast journalism differently after taking these classes. Many of his favorite video stories that he has produced over the years were those he crafted in scenes, however he has a more nuanced way of looking at scenes now and plans them with increased intention.

Pearl also admits that he pays more attention to small details.

Pearl explains: “With video, you are letting video tell the story; you don’t have to tell what color the sky is because you see it. With writing, you need that attention to detail. It’s nice to be reminded of how detailed you can be with that attention and how essential that can be to great storytelling.”

The MFA in Narrative Media is a non-residential program, where each student spends two weeks a year on campus, and the rest of the time is spent online and via electronic contact with mentors and peers. Pearl is in the MFA track studying narrative nonfiction, while other students study screenwriting. Over the course of the narrative nonfiction program, students read an average of two books a month and write pieces to contextualize what they have read. They also write their own pieces, during which they are in regular contact with their mentors.

The commitment and dedication of the mentors is what makes the program special, according to Pearl. The narrative nonfiction program has an impressive list of mentors including James Beard Award-winning author John T. Edge, CNN’s Moni Basu and Jan Winburn, writer and filmmaker Lolis Eric Elie and professor emeritus Patricia Thomas, just to name a few.

“I don’t think any program like this works without instructors who are dedicated to it and continually push you to get better,” Pearl concluded. “In each case, the mentors challenged me, forced me to ask questions about my writing that I haven’t thought about, and offered a different perspective based on life experience, based on background, based on their own paths as a writer. These mentors have very busy, busy lives, but they carve out this time for people who have that same passion and have that same desire to use writing to make the world a better place.”