The Chicagoland MFA You Haven’t Heard of… Yet

Many Chicagoans have been heading back to school of late, to either move up the ladder in their field or to pursue a new profession altogether. If you are looking at a foray into the filmmaking world, there is an MFA program you may want to add to your radar…

If you can make the cut, that is.

This MFA program is capped at 15 students.

Governors State University, located just south of Chicago, has had a small but dynamic MFA in Independent Film & Digital Imaging (IFDI) since its development in 2007. 

The program calls itself the “Little MFA That Could,” and is centered on a philosophy of small crew authorship and social conscience rather than large crews, commercialism, and studio production. Let’s take a look…

Chicago Tribune’s ‘Filmmaker of the Year’ Leads the Charge

At the helm of the program is one of the stalwarts of the Chicago independent film community for the past decade. Daniel Nearing is both the original creator of the MFA-IFDI and its current program director.

Daniel Nearing leads the Governors State MFA. Photo: DCASE

Nearing, who was named the inaugural Filmmaker in Residence for the City of Chicago in 2016, and Chicagoan of the Year for film (2017) by the Chicago Tribune, says, “Our MFA program is excited to offer ARRI Alexa training beginning in Spring 2022. This camera is used in the making of a staggering proportion of films screened at Cannes and TIFF, not to mention multiple Oscar winners, and will help to provide our students with the advanced skills needed to enter and succeed in the current film landscape.”

What’s New for 2022

As Daniel mentioned, a recent equipment support windfall has helped GSU to secure an ARRI Alexa Mini LF to complement its in-house media lab. 

Also new this year, the MFA-IFDI program—a 60-credit hour, terminal degree—has begun consideration of Advanced Standing for students who possess a bachelor’s degree and strong experience in the film industry. Students joining from the industry will have their prior work assessed in a way that may facilitate putting a significant dent in the number of credits needed for completion.

“The Independent Film and Digital Imaging path to the MFA at GSU is centered on authorship, not on below the line experiences,” Nearing shared with SCREEN. “We try to guide each of our students through all phases of individual and small crew development, production, post, and delivery. We want you to focus on conceiving your thesis from the very beginning, so that your classwork dovetails in the writing, directing, and producing of a beautiful doc or drama. Our production class sizes are capped at 12 and there’s strong emphasis on getting to know and nurture the development of each student on an individual basis. Our students range in age from their 20s to their 70s, but the majority are mid-career and looking for the opportunity to blossom in creative ways that they have never experienced before.”

Notable Alumni from Governors State

The MFA-IFDI has graduated accomplished filmmakers such as Seth McClellan (King in Chicago) and Mercedes Kane (Today We Touched the Face of God). Its students have been involved in the making of films like Chicago Heights, named to Roger Ebert’s last list of Best Art Films, and Hogtown, which the Chicago Sun-Times‘ Bill Stamets called the most original film made about Chicago in Chicago

Here’s a quick peek at that acclaimed feature Hogtown:


Several of GSU’s students with academic ambitions have gone on to tenure track positions at regional and national colleges, including McClellan and Aaron-Daniel Annas, who is now running the film path at SUNY Buffalo. 

Let’s Talk Dollars and Sense

For recent IFDI students who have come from Harvard, DePaul, and Columbia College, the low sticker price for an MFA at Governors State, a public Illinois university, has been a shock… in a good way. It is perhaps the most affordable MFA in Illinois at $353 per credit hour. 

The IFDI program is seeking students who desire a nurturing, creative space, including students who want above-the-line experience after perhaps working for years in supporting crew positions in the film and television industry.

The MFA program is now accepting applications for Fall 2022.

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