Exterior of the Museum of Art (UMMA) on a summer day.

Something to Write Home About

A landmark gift from a Chicago-based philanthropist made U-M a premier destination for writers

In the early stages of the Victors for Michigan campaign, a landmark gift from Chicago-based philanthropist Helen Zell (AB ’64, HLLD ’13) ensured that U-M’s reputation as a home for great writers will continue well into the future. Zell’s $50 million gift was the largest donation in LSA’s history, and the largest gift of its kind to a writing program in the United States. The donation was made through the Zell Family Foundation, for which Zell serves as executive director.

The Helen Zell Writers’ Program has produced award-winning authors of memoirs, fiction, poetry, and more. Among their ranks: Jesmyn Ward (MFA ’05), winner of two National Book Awards for her novels “Salvage the Bones” and “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” Ward returned to campus in 2017 to deliver U-M’s Winter Commencement address.

The gift permanently funded the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing Program, now known as the Helen Zell Writers’ Program. Zell initially committed $10 million in seed funding starting in 2004. In the 15 years since, the program has become well known as one of the best writing programs in the country, if not the world.

Alumni from the MFA program have gone on to publish hundreds of celebrated novels and collections of poetry. Their work has garnered recognition from The New York Times, Oprah’s Book Club, and countless prestigious writing awards.


“Michigan is serving as a platform from which these talented writers are launching successful literary careers. And, we, as readers, are the ones who really reap the rewards.”


– Helen Zell (AB ’64, HLLD ’13)

“The goal of this MFA program is twofold—to ease the financial burdens of talented budding authors so they have time to write, and to teach them the skills that will help them refine their voice,” Zell said. “Books have the power to inspire and change people, to create action, to generate movements, and to better understand those qualities that are uniquely human. We want to capture important stories that might otherwise go untold.”

The program consists of two years of study, as well as a postgraduate year for qualifying students in the form of “Zellowships” dedicated just to writing. The program provides 22 students with more than $1 million of financial support each year through tuition waivers, stipends, and health insurance.

More than 1,000 students apply to the highly competitive program each year. The curriculum includes writing workshops where students read and comment on one another’s works in progress and the Zell Visiting Writers Series, in which published authors hold individual consultations with students, give lectures, and present readings. In addition, the program brings in agents and editors to provide students with exposure to the publishing business, and a stage from which they can showcase their work.

Zell, a 1964 graduate of U-M’s Department of English Language and Literature, is pleased that her bookshelves are now lined with works generated from the MFA program.

“What a prized collection,” Zell said. “The caliber and volume of product are amazing. Michigan is serving as a platform from which these talented writers are launching successful literary careers. And, we, as readers, are the ones who really reap the rewards.”

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Interested in learning more about Zell Writers’ program? Visit lsa.umich.edu/writers.

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