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From Numbers to Nouns: Saint Leo Grad Student Finds Strength through Writing

Saint Leo creative writing grad student Deb DuffinDeb Duffin of Reston, Va. has spent over 30 years working in the accounting field and became a CPA in 2000. While working with numbers has been her forte, she realized that writing could help her overcome some of the challenges she’s faced in her life.

“I have always dabbled in creative arts,” she says. “I kept a diary and wrote poetry when I was younger. I took art classes in junior high and high school and initially thought this could be my career. But when I saw the high tuition costs for design schools, I was pretty much scared away.

Educational Background

Later on, she did get an AA in commercial art with a focus on graphic design. But it was her bachelor’s degree in accounting from George Mason University that led her to a more stable professional path.

“I knew I could make a living doing bookkeeping and accounting work,” she recalls.

The Power of Words

Now, the Saint Leo University graduate student, who is enrolled in the school’s online MA in creative writing program, has her sights set on a potential career as an author.

“Journaling has really helped me get through some traumatic experiences in my life,” she confides. “I was in an abusive marriage that I was able to get out of, and then my father took his own life a few years ago. Writing his eulogy helped a lot in my healing process.”

Eventually, she noticed something about the regular writing she was doing.

“I discovered that my journals were starting to turn into the chapters of a book. I then started a blog to help me practice regular writing on a certain topic. So, it’s been a really nonlinear, slow-building journey for me to even get to this point.”

While working on her graduate degree, she currently holds a part-time job with George Washington University as the director of endowment operations and administration

“I was working full-time hours but told my employer I wanted to cut my hours in half so I could also focus on the master’s program,” she explains. “I presented my business plan to them, and they were very supportive.”

Duffin lives with her boyfriend of eight years and two rescued cats – a 7-year-old Maine Coon female named Newt after the girl in the movie Aliens and a 2-yr-old Tuxedo male named Lando, who is named for a Star Wars character.

Along with her writing realm, she describes herself as a “will work for food photographer” and has done freelance work snapping photos at weddings, for a New York senator’s political campaign and even aerial photography while flying in a small Cessna aircraft.

And what does Duffin ultimately hope to accomplish through the written word?

“I want to write this novel about my life experiences and maybe even more books in the future,” she says. “But I’m also considering the idea of teaching writing for trauma therapy to help others who have dealt with similar challenges in their lives.”

Landing on Saint Leo

Duffin’s story proves how social media can open unexpected doors.

“Steve Kistulentz and I went to high school together. I found him on Facebook and later learned that he is the director of this master’s program. One thing led to another, and I wound up enrolling in it just from that connection.”

Not only was engaging with a former classmate appealing to her, but she also was intrigued by the unique aspects of what the program offers.

“I was looking for a small, hands-on, customized program with a one-on-one approach. I also wanted something that would be transferrable to a real-world situation.”

She says the online approach was another huge selling point for her.

“I’m not sure if I would’ve done this in a traditional classroom setting,” she says. “I’ve teleworked for many years, and I think I’m pretty self-disciplined, so it’s a great fit. I know the program is structured this way to mimic a true lifestyle of being a writer, which makes for an easier transition later on.”

She enjoyed her first weeklong residency this past summer in which all students in the program met on Saint Leo’s main University Campus in Florida.

"I didn’t know what to expect, but I found the breadth and depth of the experience both inspiring and challenging,” she says. “As an introvert, I was hesitant to spend eight days in immersive interaction, but the group felt like family - a place where I could let my guard down. I was immediately comfortable, and learning about everyone's varied goals, age ranges and life experiences was fascinating. We all seem to be enrolled for different reasons. On the instructional side, the faculty presenters and guest lecturers were excellent – and completely accessible for interactive Q&A. There was so much packed into the week. I was afraid I’d be exhausted, but I was actually energized. I have found my tribe.”

As for anyone considering the program, she says it’s all about taking a chance.

“You just have to go for it. Remember that it is possible to have a job and also be a writer.”

Saint Leo’s Master of Arts in Creative Writing Program

Duffin is just one of many students who are enrolled in Saint Leo’s unique MA in creative writing program. Learn more about this low-residency curriculum in our Q&A with Dr. Steve Kistulentz, the director of the program.

Photo credit: The photograph of Deb Duffin included in this article was produced by Rob Cannon Photo and is used with permission.

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