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How to Lose Focus in Ten Days

At Camp Hope, NOLA, I looked up. This is what I saw on the ceiling tiles above.

By Kristen Thompson, Associate Coordinator, Bluegrass Writers Studio

     When you’re looking into MFA’s, all of the talk is about “the program”: Should I attend a residency program or a low-residency program? Which program should I apply to if I write crime novels? Once in the program, we submerge ourselves in our courses and workshops, and finally narrow our attention to own thesis. We can easily forget to look up.

     At Bluegrass Writers Studio, Eastern Kentucky University is our larger home on this planetary hunk of rock that is a wider home to all of us. The Office of Student Life at EKU organizes week-long service trips for students every fall, winter, spring, and summer, that do most of the work in reuniting us with the outside world. Groups travel to volunteer with partner organizations like Habitat for Humanity, The Nature Conservancy, GMHC, and the St. Bernard Project. Since I started studying at BGWS two years ago, I’ve been able to travel with EKU to Manhattan, the Outer Banks in North Carolina, and New Orleans, working in the diverse fields of HIV/AIDS education, wetland forest and salt marsh preservation, and homebuilding for people displaced by hurricane Katrina (yes, it’s been almost nine years, and yes, they still need help). This year, EKU has also sent groups to Rockaway Beach, New York, to help with cleanup from hurricane Sandy and built Habitat homes in Charleston, South Carolina.

     Because students are volunteering, and there is so much outside support from the organizations who are already providing these services at our destinations, the trips are dirt cheap. I won’t look up actual dollar amounts, but consider the cost of a 6-day, 7-night stay in New Orleans including three meals a day, transportation to and from the city from Kentucky, afternoon and evening outings to the Katrina Museum, the French Quarter, and Café du Monde for beignets, among other local culture. Then consider the EKU student cost of $315. Three-hundred-fifteen dollars. For everything. No typo.

     Best of all, during that week, we get to help out people who have been waiting for help for almost a decade. It’s an amazing experience to sit in the Lower Ninth Ward, hear about the extent of the destruction from the levee break, and then push back at it with your bare hands. Twenty-three students and faculty on the trip learned how to tape and mud drywall and swarmed a duplex like a SWAT team with their drywall knives.

     As writers, we seek audience. For that, we have to be connected to other humans; we need to close the laptop lid, just once in a while, and work out our distance vision. It has influenced my writing greatly to be part of BGWS ("the program"), but also to be an EKU student, being reminded to look up from my pages. Widening the scope of my consciousness has been the best writing exercise by far.


For more information on Eastern Kentucky University's Alternative Break programs, go to

Contact Information

Kristen Thompson

Published on May 12, 2014

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