On Saturday, Dr. Benjamin B. Bolger will earn his first Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from Ashland University and his 12th graduate degree, setting a record for the most number of graduate degrees from the most number of graduate schools in the United States and England.
Originally home-schooled, Bolger began college at age 12. He graduated from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, while still a teenager and went on to complete graduate degrees at Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Columbia, Teachers College, Harvard, Brown, Dartmouth, Brandeis and Skidmore. He earned his doctorate from Harvard.
But because of his severe dyslexia, Bolger has only read at a grade school level of reading proficiency for most of his life; relying on his mother to read to him and using books on tape and other compensation mechanisms.
So how does someone like this who lives in Grand Haven, Mich., and Cambridge, Mass., end up in the MFA program at Ashland University?
A number of years ago, several news and media outlets profiled Bolger’s story of being severely dyslexic, yet still pushing forward with his higher education goals. “At that time, it was suggested to me that I should consider writing a memoir about my struggles with dyslexia and my unique educational experiences,” he said.
“To become a good writer takes focus and refined skills. When I discovered the innovative, low- residency model used by Ashland’s MFA program, I immediately found it appealing,” Bolger said. “The Ashland MFA program offers an accelerated learning experience and features a time efficient and well-structured, limited residency model. The Ashland MFA program has enabled me to refine and hone my creative writing skills while also maintaining an active professional career.”
Bolger also discussed the similarities between Ashland’s program and other celebrated learning models.
“When I was at Oxford and Cambridge, I often met with faculty on a one-on-one basis or in small group context,” he said. “Likewise, the Ashland MFA program also emphasizes close, personalized interaction between faculty and graduate students. At Ashland, my courses have contained five or fewer students. Without question, the incredible amount of personal attention that I have received at Ashland has significantly contributed to my growth and development as a writer.”
Each summer, the Ashland MFA program offers an on-campus residency, which features appearances by leading creative writers.
“When I began the program, Andre Dubus III (author of House of Sand and Fog and Townie) richly impacted me. Last summer, Cheryl Strayed (author of Wild which is being made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon) spoke at our residency. This summer, we have had Kristen Iversen, Judith Kitchen, Rosanna Warren and David St. John,” he said. “What is special about the residency is that high profile writers come in to not only read their celebrated works, but also lead candid, thoughtful and impactful craft focused seminars and workshops. The Ashland MFA program has built up an outstanding reputation for bringing in leading writers to campus who directly interact with students in the program.”
Bolger said Dr. Stephen Haven, the director of the MFA program, has assembled a remarkable and unique collection of creative nonfiction writers and poets. “Each of the faculty mentors has special skills that benefit students,” he said.
“The alumni of the Ashland MFA program are ambitious and unique as well,” he said. “Some of my colleagues who graduated a year or two before me have already published incredible creative writing pieces that reflect the talents that they have developed and refined while in the program. I hope that I’ll eventually fo8llow in their footsteps.”
Bolger, who runs his own private consulting business in Cambridge, Mass., said he has been “absolutely delighted” with his time at Ashland. “Ashland has a world-class, innovative MFA program and I’ve been thrilled to have been a part of it,” he noted.
Bolger’s life story is as interesting as the number of schools he has attended and the number of degrees he has received.
“In Michigan in 1978, my family was hit by a drunk driver at 90 miles per hour. As a two-and-a-half year old, I was almost left without parents. Following the accident, both my mother and father were rushed to the emergency room and placed in intensive care, where doctors gave them limited hope for survival,” he said. “However, in time, they found the strength and perseverance to overcome serious and permanent physical injuries. Nevertheless, as a child, I watched my parents suffer through extensive physical rehabilitation. I also learned a much broader lesson: life is fragile and fleeting.”
Bolger was diagnosed with severe dyslexia. While he had the good fortune of being correctly identified with a serious learning disability at a young age, his parents and he experienced the crucible of trying to locate a school that could help students with special needs. This search was particularly problematic in the early 1980s because information about special education was often confusing and contradictory.
After attending a number of public and private schools that offered initial promises, his mother, who was a retired teacher, volunteered to school him at home. Using a model of hands-on learning that Thomas Edison’s mother used when the creative youngster was removed from school due to his dyslexia, Bolger’s mother took him to a wide array of museums, historic sites, cultural events and conferences.
“Providing me with as many special custom-tailored learning opportunities as she could, my mother was a wonderful teacher. However, I realize that not all parents have the ability or the resources to follow her example,” he said. “Today, countless children continue to face the difficulties I encountered and I remain dedicated to the proposition that America’s public schools should serve everyone.”
The success of his mother’s educational strategy resulted in a bold step.
“When I was 12 years old, I began college. In the end, I earned my undergraduate degree from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, graduating with Highest Distinction, an induction into Phi Beta Kappa, a perfect 4.0 grade point average, and I was a James B. Angell Scholar,” he said.
In college, Bolger became active in a number of student organizations devoted to leadership and improvement in the community.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, he began working as an intern for the Clinton Administration in 1995.
“In time, I worked in the West Wing Press Office helping to serve members of the national press, gaining unique experience during moments of great national stress,” he said. “My experience in Washington further impacted my career goals and helped confirm an earlier life decision: that I would not strive to be an architect of buildings, my original childhood ambition, but instead, I would work on improving the architecture of society, concentrating on effective public policy and thoughtful social change.”
At 20, Bolger left America to attend the University of Oxford and the University of Cambridge. He studied in England for three years and earned a degree in sociology from Oxford and a degree in politics and sociology from Cambridge.
“The privilege of simultaneously studying at the two oldest English speaking universities in the world brought excellent opportunities for research, travel and reflection on difficult social policy questions,” he recalls.
Upon his return to America in 1999, he began studies at Dartmouth College that would span five summers. After his first summer at Dartmouth, he attended and graduated from Stanford University’s School of Education, studying in an interdisciplinary program that included courses from the Law School, Graduate School of Business and the School of Humanities and Sciences.
After his second summer at Dartmouth, he moved to New York City in the fall of 2000.
“In one academic year, I graduated from both Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and Teachers College,” he said. “While living in Manhattan, I taught at Queens College, Baruch College and the Pratt Institute. One memorable highlight from the spring of 2001 was the privilege of participating in Vice President Al Gore’s post-Presidential election course at the School of Journalism at Columbia.”
Since leaving New York, Bolger has completed graduate degrees at Dartmouth College, Brown University, Brandeis University and Skidmore College. When he moved to Massachusetts, he began studies at Harvard University.
“Presently, I am pursuing my interests in urban planning and real estate, while incorporating social policy perspectives that have been cultivated and refined in graduate study,” he said.
While in the Boston area, he has taught at Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, the University of Massachusetts, Suffolk University, Emerson College, Lesley College, Quincy College and Bunker Hill Community College. Additionally, he has served as a tutor and an award winning teaching fellow at Harvard.
For relaxation, Bolger said he enjoys public speaking and debating competitions, which have taken him to Europe, Asia, Australia and both sides of North America.
“I have competitively appeared at the European Championships and two World’s Debating Championships. An example of my success includes winning the Princeton University Adlai Stevenson Memorial Public Speaking Tournament,” he said. “Other pursuits have fostered rigorous travel, which has resulted in exploring every inhabited continent. Theater, visual arts and community service are other interests that I regularly pursue.”
Bolger believes his life experiences have shaped who he is today.
“From an early age, I realized that life should never be wasted or squandered and that coping with challenges and overcoming adversity can be a powerful motivation for a life of perseverance and hope,” he said. “My exposure to politics confirmed my interest in the arena of public service, and highlighted the importance of thoughtful, sincere, disciplined and empathetic leadership. In the final analysis, creating a better tomorrow requires a bold vision and recognition of our past experiences.”
So why is Bolger’s 12th record setting graduate degree (for the most number of graduate degrees from the most number of graduate schools in the United States and England) from Ashland University’s low-residency MFA program?
“With the love and support of my mother, I’ve learned how to deal with and overcome the problems caused by my dyslexia. I’m incredibly fortunate to have had a unique and special educational journey. It’s been a story of perseverance. I’m interested in writing about my experiences because they may help inspire others. Of course, because of my dyslexia, writing is something that is very difficult and challenging for me,” he said.
“Ashland’s unique MFA program has tremendously helped refine my writing skills. As a severe dyslexic, I thought it would be very unlikely that I’d ever study for, or complete, a graduate degree in creative writing,” he said. “Without question, this has been one of my most challenging educational experiences ever.
“People have told me that I have a life’s story that is worth writing about. If that is true, because of my learning experiences from Ashland’s MFA program, I now feel better prepared to write a memoir about my life. Without Ashland, I don’t think I’d be able to say that.”
Ashland University, which has been ranked in the top 200 colleges and universities in U.S. News and World Report’s National Universities category, is a mid-sized, private university.