Current MFA Students

Summer Awad

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, Summer is a Palestinian-American poet, playwright, and proud "social justice warrior." Summer is joining the CWE MFA after four years of welcoming Congolese and other refugees to her hometown and gaining proficiency in Swahili along the way.

Summer got her poetry roots in Knoxville's spoken word poetry scene and believes strongly that poetry is meant to be read aloud and shared in community against a backdrop of snapping fingers. Summer turned her penchant for the spoken word into a monologue-driven play, WALLS: A Play for Palestine, that premiered at the Clarence Brown LAB Theatre at the University of Tennessee in 2016. The play was produced at The New York International Fringe Festival the same year.

Summer continues to write about Palestinian struggle and resistance while also giving voice to her Appalachian and Southern roots. Summer is excited about the environmental component of the CWE program which will allow her to explore issues of place, diaspora, and migration more deeply. Summer is moving to Ames with her cat, Sappho, who is a force in her own right.

Julia Bilek

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]
Julia Bilek traveled the circumference of the globe for forty days in 2001. En route, she discovered the crimson-sapphire-gold-leaf icons of Russian cathedrals, meditated with Mongolian Buddhist monks, and watched endless fields of wildflowers scroll by her window on the Trans-Siberian Railroad. She wondered, for the first time, what it meant to be a pilgrim.
In the years since, Julia has earned a bachelor’s degree in world religions and art history, as well as a master’s degree in cultural anthropology. She writes creative nonfiction and ethnographic accounts of American religious spaces, including urban religious architecture, traditional Native American cosmographies, wilderness as sacred space, transnational religious placemaking, and pilgrimage practices.
Her work as appeared in the blog Pilgrim on the Potomac, CRUX literary magazine, as Teachers’ Guides for the Smithsonian’s Discovery Theater, and in stage productions by Germantown Stage, Landless Theatre Co., and Figure-Ground Arts Collaborative. She is a poet, playwright, curator, photographer and lover of nature, culinary enthusiast, teacher, and wanderer.

Jessica Brock

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Jessica Brock is a multigenre writer and MFA candidate in the Creative Writing & Environment program at ISU. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Film & Media Studies from Arizona State University, where she was also a writing mentor in the Writers’ Studio. Her writing tends toward the genres of speculative fiction, magical realism, and horror, covering such topics as motherhood & gender studies, mental health, socioeconomic & environmental issues, and the natural world.

Born in the Mojave desert, Jessi has roamed around North America and still isn’t ready to stay in one place. She is a recent transplant from Pasadena, California to Ames, Iowa, where she lives with her family. Her work is forthcoming in the Roadrunner Review and others; more information, music, and writing can be found at:

Hanna Burr

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Hanna Burr is a first year MFA student specializing in Creative Nonfiction. She was born in Nashville, TN, and caught the travel bug when her family moved to Ecuador for a year when she was sixteen. Since then, she has reflected on the effects of travel and immigration on identity, celebrated the deep connections that can be formed with strangers all over the world, and grappled with the isolation that comes with the personal transformations that travel and dislocation trigger.

She fell in love with Madrid when she undertook a research trip there to study women’s empowerment in Spanish Classical Theater. After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University with a double major in English and Spanish, she moved to there to teach English. In her free time, she learned to dance salsa, became an avid podcast listener, and continued to explore poetry as a second genre.

Hanna is fascinated by the blurry lines between foreign/familiar and natural/unnatural, and her pieces often tussle with unresolved ideas and the liminal spaces. She is obsessed with food, both as a sensory experience, a site of cultural fusion and expression, and as a fundamental aspect of addressing climate change. She hopes to explore foodways in her writing over the next three years.

Zachary Calhoun

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Zachary Calhoun is an author from the high-desert mountains of New Mexico. He received a PhD in Philosophy from Tulane University (New Orleans, Louisiana) after receiving a BA in Liberal Arts from St. John's College (Santa Fe, New Mexico). He is now an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University, where he regularly teaches courses such as Public Speaking, Fiction, and Creative Writing.

His doctoral research in philosophy focused on the development of historical-materialist and environmentalist ways of thinking—from Rousseau, Kant, Toussaint, and other actors in the Haitian Revolution and the French Revolution, all the way up to later modern philosophers like Marx, Goldman, Fanon, and environmental philosophers like Hans Jonas. His research has been published in The Review of Metaphysics and Pli.

His fiction—typically set in the American Southwest—brings those same intellectual histories to life in speculative stories that center working-class struggle, climate change, queer identity, and the strategies of survival and resistance that allow communities to find a space for happiness and freedom in their collective existence. His stories often feature non-textual forms of writing (photography, music, illustration, and archival documents) while foregrounding questions of time, class politics, and environmental history.

Christal Campa

A first year MFA student, Christal Campa double-majored in English and Sociology at Boise State University before migrating to Iowa. She is enthusiastic to join a creative writing program fused with environmental imagination and research. While studying at Boise State, she took all of the classes available to her related to environmental writing and research. She even created a few independent studies for herself, researching ecological grief and the genre of cli-fi to learn how they relate to motivating (or demotivating) activism. Fascinated by the way writing can separate people from the natural world around them or inspire and connect them to it, she is excited to spend the next three years learning and teaching in the Creative Writing and Environment Program.

John Carter

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

John Carter is a current student in the MFA in Creative Writing and Environment program and Midwestern to his bones. Born, raised, and educated in East-Central Indiana, he received both his BA and MA in Creative Writing from Ball State University where he also taught, both as a graduate assistant and later as a contract faculty member.

His writing is primarily influenced by his experiences as the fifth generation to live and work on his family’s Indiana farm and aspects of the Midwestern Gothic genre. His work focuses on using creative writing to help others see the beauty he sees in the rural American Midwest, haunted by its empty cornfields, skeletal barns, and collapsing homesteads. More information about him and his work can be found at his website ( ) or by following him on Twitter (@jekcarter).

Jordan Castinado

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Jordan Castinado is a first-year student in the Creative Writing and Environment program, and a Pearl Hogrefe Fellow for 2019-2020.

Jordan earned his BFA in creative writing at Prescott College in central Arizona, where he fell in love with the high-desert forests, dark skies, and red-hued rocks of the liminal landscapes between the Sonoran Desert and the Colorado Plateau. Prior to attending university, Jordan served in the United States Marine Corps as an infantryman, completing two deployments to Afghanistan's Helmand Province near the end of Operation Enduring Freedom.

A nonfiction writer and memoirist particularly fond of the lyric essay, prose poetry, and other dances betwixt prose and verse, Jordan seeks to integrate —and interrogate— his combat-zone experiences while engaging the existential implications of an American age marked by anomie, uncertainty, rapid change, and alienation from self, environment, and the divine.

In addition to literary pursuits, Jordan enjoys sunny days, forest strolls, long-form discursive rants, white tea, road trips, the company of animals, and winding dérives through interesting spaces.

Natalie Deam

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Natalie Deam is an Ames local, happy to be back in the Midwest after studying in France and California. She received a PhD in French literature from Stanford University in 2019 and completed her BAs in French, English, and Comparative Literature from the University of Iowa in 2013. Her work on the intersections between science, literature, and visual culture focuses on queer ecocriticism and critical gender, race, and sexuality studies to challenge the limits of the natural. Across her creative and academic work, Natalie explores the ways that nature and the environment upset notions of literary genre, gender, and the human animal. She is currently working on a collection of short stories examining adolescent experiences of rural ecology and technology and is especially interested in connections between children, robots, and animals. In addition to pursuing writing and teaching, Natalie is a mixed media artist who works in oil and acrylic paint, wood burning, and photography.

Benjamin DuBow

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Benjamin DuBow is a first-year MFA candidate in CWE. An obsessive reader his whole life, Benjamin only realized in his second year as an undergrad at Columbia University (Class of '18) that he could actually major in books (shout out to LitHum!). With nary another thought, he threw his half-baked ideas of studying chemistry or astrophysics to the wayside and dove head-in. His favorite writers and thinkers and literary inspirations include: Virginia Woolf, Toni Morrison, Chuang Tzu, Leslie Marmon Silko, Patrick Rothfuss, David Abram, Frederick Nietzsche, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Michael Pollan, and, of course, Shakespeare.

Even more recently, he came to understand that he could even write the books (he is only first learning, however, that this part is not cake). Benjamin is interested in exploring the stories humans tell themselves about their place in the world and the nature of relationships--with the planet, with each other, and with themselves--that result. (He tends to think we could use some new ones.)

Aside from bookish things, Benjamin likes to hike, walk, scuba dive, eat, wander in unfamiliar places (he's spent a sizeable chunk of the two years since graduating traveling the world), forage, and cook (which accounts for most of the other chunks). Embarrassingly recently, he learned that music is cool, too.

Jordan Dunn

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Jordan Dunn is the author of several chapbooks including Common Names (Magnificent Field), The Greek Herbal of Dioscorides (Oxeye Press), and The Land of Little Rain (Well-Greased Press), as well as various pamphlets and broadsides. A full-length collection, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, is forthcoming from Partly Press and the Lynden Sculpture Garden. His writing explores landscape history, ecology, and the public domain. He is the founding editor of Oxeye Press, which publishes limited editions of handmade books and assorted ephemera. He lives with his family in Ames, Iowa.

Zoë Fay-Stindt

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Zoë Fay-Stindt (she/they) is a queer, bicontinental poet with roots in both the French and American south. Her poetry has appeared in museum galleries, on the radio, on the streets of small towns, in community farm newsletters, and other strange and wonderful places. Their work has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and has been featured or is forthcoming in Frontier, SWWIM, Muzzle, VIDA, Ninth Letter, and elsewhere. She holds a BA from Emerson College, and has been invited to writing residencies through Sundress Academy for the Arts and Art Farm.

Zoë has also served many joyful non-academic roles: translator, grape picker, river dog, voter registrar. Writing has offered many of these, including Texas Book Festival moderator, teaching artist for The Austin Library Foundation’s Badgerdog program, and community liaison for Clemente-affiliate Free Minds, coordinating community writing workshops and helping adult students find renewal through the humanities. In all realms, her priority is building community and finding levity, strengthening her delight radar à la Ross Gay.

Kelli Fitzpatrick

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Kelli Fitzpatrick (she/her) is an author and editor from Michigan who writes fiction, screenplay, essay, poetry, and game content. Blending the literary and the speculative, Kelli’s writing often explores the intersection of class, gender, and human rights, and the synergies between labor and landscape. She is a candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University, where she is a 2021-2022 Pearl Hogrefe Fellow. A former high school teacher, she is a strong advocate for public education, the arts, and gender rights and representation.

In 2016, her story “The Sunwalkers” won the Star Trek Strange New Worlds contest and was published by Simon and Schuster. She has short stories in Flash Fiction Online, KYSO Flash, Crazy 8 Press, and others, and her essays on sci-fi media appear at, Women at Warp, and in print from Sequart and ATB Publishing. Her screenplay “Broken Hot Mess” placed fifth in the NYC Midnight Short Screenplay Challenge. Currently, she writes and edits for the Star Trek Adventures tabletop role playing game line from Modiphius Entertainment, and proudly serves as an assistant editor for The Dunes Review.


Emily Golden

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Emily Golden is a Seattle native with a Bachelors from Willamette University in English and Theatre. She splits her time between fiction and playwriting, attempting to tantalize readers with dark and intriguing premises, psychological exploration, and a little bit of humor – all things which she also brings to a DnD game. Her plays have been produced all over the country including Bethany Sees the Stars, which was included as part of Theatre 33's summer of new plays, Lobstermen in Love, which was produced by Gadfly Theatre Productions, and most recently Basic Accounting which was included as part of Theatre Cedar Rapid’s 2020 Underground New Play Festival and was awarded runner up for both best script and most creative use of the prompt. Most importantly, she is the dog mom to the world's sweetest german shepherd, Magnolia Champion.

Peter Haleas

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Peter Haleas is a writer and Iowa State University MFA student from Western Springs, Illinois. He spent the last four years living in Mizokuchi, Tottori, Japan as an English teacher on the JET Program. His favorite writers are Herman Hesse, Romain Rolland, and Leo Tolstoy. He loves reading, camping, traveling, and astronomy.

Fred Johnson

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Fred Johnson is an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment and a 2021/2022 Hogrefe Fellow. A slightly startled Brit, Fred completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Liverpool, England, and his MPhil at Trinity College Dublin, Ireland. Between then and now (decades! Centuries!), he's worked in trade and academic publishing, most recently as Senior Editor for Heroic Books and Copy-Editor for Medicine Anthropology Theory (MAT), an international academic journal based in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he’s rooted. Primarily a poet eager to awkwardly squeeze into the great 20th-century Midwestern tradition, he also sometimes (rather more uncertainly) attempts short-form fiction. A long-distance father to two dearly missed transatlantic cats, Fred plans to return to Scotland after his studies, gather his books and a zoo’s worth of animals, and disappear into a Highland croft.

Alana Jones

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Alana Jones is passionate about corn, a gas station pizza enthusiast and eager to try deep fried butter at the prestigious Iowa State Fair. This California native completed her undergraduate degree at the University of Iowa in genetics and also holds a certificate in creative writing. After two years of coaching, a brief stint as a barista, and longer stint as a scientist, Alana decided to see if the grass really is greener in the Reiman Gardens.

She also competed on the University of Iowa’s track and cross country team. Due to an injury, she has taken a break from training, and now enjoys modeling part time (but will probably have to keep her normal job). In March 2018 Alana wrote and published an article on overcoming challenges as a post collegiate athlete for Gymshark’s International Women’s Day campaign. Out of the six women selected to write of the campaign, she was the only writer from the United States.

Alana has a deep respect of nature and draws inspiration from the crossover between science and the arts. She is thrilled to be part of an MFA program that supports both of her loves.

Ginnia Kovach

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Virginia Kovach is a Midwesterner, having lived in either Wisconsin or Iowa her entire life. She writes fiction as well as poetry. She writes to shine a light on the people and other forms of life we tend to forget in the exhausting pursuit of empty, materialistic goals.

Virginia loves being a part of the creative community in Ames. She loves the supportive, inclusive community that is the Ames Poetry Revival, a local group that puts on monthly poetry slams. She and her husband, Scott Kovach, celebrate local music by inviting musicians to perform on their radio show, "Road Trip Iowa," broadcast by KHOI Community Radio.

In all her work, she values creativity, empathy, and community. She draws strength and inspiration from faith and a sense of wonder.

Kentaro Kumanomido

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Kentaro Kumanomido is an artist and second-year MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University.  Kentaro comes to the program with a broad background in the humanities, including a BA in Anthropology from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA in Art Theory and Practice from Northwestern University.  Kentaro's current work in poetry and performance-making addresses ecological issues through the lens of 'critical agrarianism.'

Tara Labovich

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Tara Labovich (they/them) grew up in a small farming town in Germany before moving to Colorado for high school and undergraduate. Tara is interested in the many iterations of the creative process and in studying liminal spaces, reclamative justice, and exploring the boundaries between land and body. Although in the past Tara's studies and professional experience specialized in poetry, their current and future projects include fiction and creative non-fiction as they continue to explore genre and form.

They are a graduate of Colorado College with a degree in Creative Writing with a specialization in poetry and philosophy. Tara currently runs a small business in creativity coaching.

A’Ja Lyons

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

A'Ja Lyons was born and raised in Sunnyside, the oldest African-American community in southern Houston, Texas. She graduated from Iowa State University with a Bachelor of Liberal Studies. A'Ja was a book reviewer and column contributor for Pennsylvania Diversity Network's Valley Gay Press, and an article contributor for Gallaudet University's The Buff and Blue. Her short stories and poems have been published in Sinister Wisdom, Decolonial Passage, Valiant Scribe, and many others. A’Ja is the founder of Griot Gang, a summer writing workshop for Black graduate English students.

In addition to writing poetry and fiction, A'Ja is passionate about reproductive rights and presented on state telemed abortion rights at the inaugural Iowa Undergraduate Human Rights Research conference. A’Ja is one of the lead organizers of Black Lives Matter: Boone County, Iowa. A’Ja is an avid participant in local theater productions. Information on A’Ja’s past, present, and upcoming work can be found at A’Ja is immensely grateful to the women in academia who’ve shown relentless support in her achievements; including but not limited to Dr. Beverly McPhail, Liz Bradbury, Dr. Jennifer Nelson, and Dr. Amy Bix.

A'Ja is the proud mother of an athletically gifted and animal-loving child.

Matt Moore

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Matt Moore is a creative writing student whose work is informed and inspired by his life in rural Northwest Missouri. Matt playfully charts new lines of flight between genres, mediums, and hybrid forms of telling with which he attempts to capture those fleeting dialectical sparks between the frictional and intersectional tectonics of memory, identity, and place. In this pursuit, his interests concern the production of rural space, the metabolic rifts between the human and non-human, intergenerational commodity waste, and the labor regimes of late-stage capitalism particular to rural bioregions.

When he’s enjoying himself most during the End Times, Matt may be found playing music, playing games, or playing cheap yard sports whose participation demands the least prerequisite skills. He is also the proud caretaker (some might say fur dad) of his own veritable menagerie of rats, cats, and dogs, all of which are, yes, indeed plural.

Emily Riley-Smith

Emily Riley has lived, worked, and studied abroad in a few countries (but mostly her own) before joining ISU's Creative Writing and Environment program. In doing so, she was lucky to experience the intersections of language and culture firsthand while simultaneously learning to navigate new places and languages. She brings this spirit of adventurous exploration to her time at Iowa State as she throws herself into the murky waters of her fiction as well as the new friendships she has nurtured with her fellow writers.
Primarily a fiction writer, she's currently exploring Greek society in the Late Bronze Age and the mythologies that followed it to understand the ways many ancient stories reverberate through our world today. Her favorite authors are Margaret George, Jhumpa Lahiri, Madeline Miller, and Naomi Novik. When she isn't reading or writing, you can catch her admiring and attempting art, conducting cooking/baking experiments, and playing D&D with her friends.

Taylor Sklenar

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Taylor Sklenar is a playwright, poet, and theatre artist pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and the Environment.  He received his Bachelors’ degrees in chemistry, English, and performing arts from ISU and his MA in Theatre from the University of Missouri, Columbia, where he served as the managing director of the Missouri Playwrights’ Workshop and the Mizzou New Play Series.  He is the resident playwright at a Minneapolis based theatre company, 2140 Productions, and the founder of Ames based theatre collective, Focal Theatre Lab which explores new and experimental work.  His writing, which explores the intersection of science, poetry, and theatre, includes Of Madness and the Electric Dream, Dead Silence, Baby I’ll Turn the Sky Green for You, Inheritance, Fission, and {AV:VR:RL}, and has been work-shopped or produced at Tallgrass Theatre’s Iowa Playwrights’ Workshop, StageWest Des Moines’s Scriptease, Theatre Cedar Rapids, Focal Theatre Lab, Minnesota Fringe, Scene One Theatre, the Missouri Playwrights’ Workshop, The William Inge Festival, and the Kennedy Center Undergraduate Playwrights Workshop.

Kendra Tillberry

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Kendra Tillberry uses creative nonfiction essays to build connections between our lives and the physical world. In her writing, she braves unforged paths and leans into vulnerability to convey a rich, emotion-filled experience. Kendra has been published in How We Are, the online literary magazine dedicated to telling stories from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Kendra earned an MA degree in creative writing and publishing from the University of Saint Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota and a BA in political science and English literature from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. For six years, she worked as a communications strategist in school public relations where she served two of the top five largest school districts in Minnesota. An avid traveler, Kendra has been to more than 40 states and 15 countries around the world and uses these experiences to enrich her writing.

Usually, she’s writing or reading, but when she’s not, you can catch Kendra hiking or spending time with her beloved gaggle of humans and animals she calls her “geese.”

More information can be found at:

Leah VanSyckel

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Leah VanSyckel is captivated by the notions of moral imagination and re-enchantment and their interaction with outdoor engagement. A candidate for the MFA in Creative Writing and Environment, focusing on fiction, she is entering this interdisciplinary program with pseudonymous publications in poetry, a background in science writing and journalism, and experience as a dramaturg. Broadly inquisitive, Leah is happy to learn whenever possible, from conversations with friends, through texts, or by practicing the liturgies of faith.

Allya Yourish

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Allya Yourish (she/her/hers) is a poet and 2021-2022 Pearl Hogrefe Fellow from Portland, Oregon with a passion for collecting disparate experiences. She studied representations of grief and memory in Holocaust museums at New College of Florida, moved to France to be an au pair, lived as a Tumbleweed in the Parisian English-language bookshop Shakespeare and Company, received a Fulbright grant to teach secondary school in Kuala Krau, Malaysia, and worked as a News Assistant for the New York Times. Everywhere she’s explored, she’s taken a small teal notebook and a navy pen. Her work focuses on building surreal images to discuss the body and its place within art and nature. Her favorite place in the world is wherever she next plans to travel.

Kelsey Zimmerman

Graduate Assistant [ENGL]

Kelsey Zimmerman is a writer and visual artist from Ann Arbor, Michigan currently in her second year of Iowa State’s MFA program in Creative Writing & Environment, where she is concurrently pursuing a certificate in Geographic Information Systems. Her work explores themes of family, loneliness, and wilderness – the wilderness in nature and within ourselves – and she’s always looking for new ways to use image + text together. A 2021 Best of the Net nominee, you can find her work at her website,