When I think back to my MFA experiences, many of my memories are shrouded in a haze of cigarette smoke.
There are many reasons why, at times, I felt isolated from my MFA community. Some may be my own "fault." But the entirely external factor of smoking--that is, the popularity of smoking among faculty, staff, and other students--was definitely another. Because instead of immersing myself in the clouds of smoke that others created, my ex-asthmatic-lungs-and-dry-and-contact-lensed-eyes-and-I often chose to stay away from the clusters of smokers. (Try as I might, however, I couldn't prevent one classmate from very deliberately approaching me one evening for the seemingly express purpose of blowing smoke in my face. Then he returned to his group of fellow smokers. I am not making this up. I have a witness.)
I don't know if MFA populations truly do reflect higher percentages of smokers than other academic communities, but it has certainly seemed that way to me. Which is why, if I were doing the MFA all over again, one criterion I'd consider, admittedly among many, is whether a given program's campus promulgates a smoke-free policy. (A related consideration would be whether the city/state in which the program is located disallows smoking in bars and restaurants. In my experience, MFA faculty and students sure do spend a lot of time in bars and restaurants.)
I think of this issue from time to time (whenever someone lights up right in front of me on the sidewalk, for example, and I feel compelled to hurry past so that I don't have to inhale all of their trailing exhalations), but it returned to the foreground recently at work when I attended a Webinar for higher education professionals on "Making Your Campus Tobacco-Free." The chief presenter, Ty Patterson, offered an excellent presentation on his home institution and the Center of Excellence for Tobacco-Free Campus Policy located there.
Among the points that especially impressed me:
*"There is growing interest in having the campus culture reflect genuine respect for others and the environment, central themes of tobacco-free policy." Similarly, "a campus culture which reflects genuine respect for others improves teaching and learning."
*There are many reasons why a campus should become tobacco-free. A few that I found especially compelling/resonant given my MFA experience: "exposure to Second Hand Smoke (SHS) is a health hazard," "access for people with disabilities is threatened," "[students should be] prepare[d]...for increasingly tobacco-free work places," and, although it's not the main reason to enact such policies (adults should be free to make their own life decisions), it is possible to "encourage tobacco users to quit via social norming." The presenter noted: "While we do not recommend the purpose of tobacco-free campus policy be to get people to quit using tobacco, it is an ADDED benefit when even one person succeeds in ending their dependency on tobacco and thereby exending their life."
As for resources for potential MFAers: The aforementioned center maintains a list of colleges and universities with 100 percent tobacco-free campus policies. And because fully tobacco-free may be too much of a stretch for some, this site, with its list of smoke-free campuses, may also be useful.
As is the case so often, it's best to check directly with any campus whose program you may be considering for the most up-to-date information. (When I last checked, one of the lists did not note, for example, that the University of Michigan, home to one of the country's most respected MFA programs, is going smoke-free as of July 1, 2011. Maybe the University of Michigan is trying to keep up with the University of Iowa. Just kidding--but it's a fun thought.)
Something to think about.