Studying Arts & Humanities arms students for success

~ By Lisa Maria Boyles

Arts and Humanities graduates leave Fresno State well-armed for success in the post-college world.

Several national surveys gave Fresno State high rankings this year:

“To be evaluated in the same league as universities like Princeton, Harvard, Yale and Stanford speaks to the bold level of educational opportunity and quality we offer the students of the Central Valley,” said Fresno State President Joseph I. Castro. “The leap we took into the national rankings is like moving into the academic equivalent of the top athletic conference. Student success is one of the priorities in our new Strategic Plan, and it’s clear that academics and athletics are rising together at Fresno State.”

Several alumni and faculty from the College of Arts and Humanities gave us their perspective on these national rankings of Fresno State.

“Our college offers a beautiful array of experiential learning opportunities grounded in critical, big-picture thinking,” said Betsy Hays, a professor with the Department of Mass Communications and Journalism. “These are the keys to success in life – and the keys to a productive citizenry.”


Jeff (pictured filming in a Louisiana swamp for National Geographic Channel) and Andrea Phillips met while they were both Arts and Humanities students at Fresno State. Jeff Phillips, a freelance camera operator who has worked on the TV show “Survivor,” graduated in 2011 from the MCJ department. Andrea Phillips majored in English (class of 2010) and will start as a teacher librarian at the Reagan Educational Center in Clovis Unified this fall. She is also pursuing her master’s degree in library and information science. Both Jeff and Andrea were in the Smittcamp Family Honors College during their time at Fresno State.

“I think one of the biggest advantages Fresno State offered me was affordability. As a member of the Smittcamp Family Honors College, I was fortunate enough to receive a full tuition scholarship,” Jeff Phillips said. In high school, he had hoped to attend film school in southern California, but the Smittcamp scholarship opened another – less expensive – door. “I am extremely grateful I received the Smittcamp scholarship to attend Fresno State. Even if I had been paying full tuition, I would have saved so much money while still receiving a quality education.  I know a lot of people who work in the film and television industry who went to an expensive film school and have major debt from student loans.”

Phillips’ career has given him an opportunity to work on reality television productions and documentaries, productions that air on CBS, NBC, ABC, Discovery Channel, History Channel, National Geographic Channel and the Food Network.

Several of the students interviewed spoke highly of the caliber of their instructors in the Arts and Humanities disciplines.


“The quality of education at Fresno State is excellent,” said Cesar Perez-Villegas (pictured). After graduating from the MCJ Department in 2012, Perez now works as a remote truck engineer for CMAC, the Community Media Access Collaborative. “You will learn not only about the tools you will need to survive but how those tools can work for you. What I appreciated most about our College is the people are real. They treat you like the adult you are. They are leaders, both peers and educators.”

Hazel Antaramian-Hofman started and finished her journey in higher education at Fresno State, with several other stops (and degrees) in between. In 2010, she earned her master’s degree from the Department of Art and Design. She teaches art at Fresno City College, exhibits her artwork at Fig Tree Gallery in downtown Fresno and took part in an international exhibition in Yerevan, Armenia, at the Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art in July 2016 (pictured below).

painting-and-hazel-in-armenia“If we just consider the legacy of the Art Department with early feminist and abstract painter, Mary Maughelli, who was teaching at Fresno State many years before the beginning of the national feminist art program by Judy Chicago, then we are just scraping the surface,” saidAntaramian-Hofman, “or if we consider the award-winning faculty and alumni of the creative writing program, such as U.S. Poet Laureate Philip Levine, who was also a Pulitzer Prize winner, and distinguished alumni writers, such as Larry Levis and Gary Soto, we are again just scraping the surface of the educational quality that has enabled the talents and intelligence of many who have worked or graduated from the College of the Arts and Humanities.”

Another important factor is being able to take classes that are not impacted and overcrowded, both in the relationship that develops between faculty and students as well as allowing students to graduate on time. Maggie Srmayan, a double major – theatre arts design/tech and fine arts painting, is now working on the ABC TV show “American Housewife” after graduating in 2015.

Maggie Srmayan

“I enjoyed being in a department that was not overcrowded,” said Srmayan (pictured). “I could get into the classes that I wanted easily, and I had the opportunity to design shows and expand my creativity with the full support of dedicated faculty and staff. I got to know my mentors and professors individually who helped me tremendously throughout my five years as a student.”  

Hands-on experiences in the area you plan to pursue is an invaluable part of the college experience. Students in CAH departments get plenty during their education at Fresno State.


Robert Thissen (pictured) is an editor and filmmaker in Hollywood.

Robert Thissen, now an editor and filmmaker in Hollywood, receive a bachelor’s in 1997 and a master’s in 2002 from the Department of Mass Communications and Journalism in the area of television production.

“Fresno State gave students the freedom to learn and experiment in all aspects of production,” said Thissen, who has worked for 20th Century Fox, Universal, Paramount and Disney. “During my undergraduate studies, students produced various projects which included live talk shows much like the format of ‘The Tonight Show.’ The shows aired on local television, which gave students the opportunity to work together as a team in a real-world environment and gain job experience.”

Class sizes also factor into the student experience and success, said Faith Sidlow, an assistant professor in broadcast journalism:

“The class sizes [in College of Arts and Humanities classes] are small, unlike some of the larger public CSUs and UCs, and that allows for more interaction between the student and professor.”

abiam-alvarezAbiam Alvarez (pictured) was an art major (emphasis in ceramics and sculpture) who graduaged in 2010. He now teaches ceramics and art at Sobrato High School in Morgan Hill.

“I feel that I was able to get some good quality teaching in the art department at Fresno State, because classes were small and professors were able to offer one-on-one attention to students, working closely with us and helping you develop as an artist. “

Sidlow also pointed out the opportunities the College of Arts and Humanities gives to students who might not otherwise pursue a college degree.

“In the College of Arts and Humanities, students from the Central Valley are learning from world-renowned professors, whether it’s music, theater, philosophy, language or journalism, and they’re able to do this without leaving home, making college affordable and attainable. A large percentage of our students come from low-income families. If Fresno State wasn’t available to them, many of these students would not be able to college.”

Two alumni who received Masters of Fine Arts through the English Department mentioned how much they value the experience they gained working on The Normal School literary magazine.

Poets&Writers Connecting Cultures event

“Having The Normal School literary magazine on campus and working as an editorial assistant for three years gave me publishing experience that has been invaluable,” said Brandi Spaethe, a 2013 graduate (pictured). Spaethe now works as the program associate for the California office of Poets & Writers, and also teaches composition at CSU Los Angeles.

“The opportunities we had at Fresno State’s literary magazine, The Normal School, let us all be creative, begin to work on projects, contact writers and artists, and see projects through from beginning to end,” said Jeffrey Gleaves, a 2015 graduate now working as the digital manager for The Paris Review in New York. “This early hands-on experience in publishing and editing began to give me the tools that I still use today in my job.”

Both Spaethe and Gleaves also credited the opportunities they had in the Fresno State MFA program to travel and attend writing conferences as contributing to their professional success.

“Fresno State offered funding to attend the [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] Conference every year, where I met and networked with people from all over the country,” Spaethe said. “Funding was offered to attend summer writing retreats and conferences, which enhanced my contacts. Having those connections is invaluable in the literary world, and I wouldn’t have been able to go without the funding provided by Fresno State.”

Gleaves said: “The college was very good about giving us travel grants to professional conferences, writing conferences and other gatherings of like-minded people — it enabled us to see what was possible in the world, meet famous artists and writers in our fields, and make professional connections with peers in the national community, as well as put Fresno State on the map as a place that values this kind of national community of academics, writers, publishers and artists.”

Another key element of a college education is that what students are learning must be relevant to today’s job market.

The MCJ Department offers programs at the forefront of today’s most popular jobs, said Professor Betsy Hays. Public relations and digital media, in particular, are consistently noted as among the fastest growing professions in the nation and world.

“We train journalists to navigate through the changing world of news, as well as advertising professionals who are built to succeed in today’s converged marketing environment,” Hays said. “The future is media, and that is what we teach!” 

Erika Castanon, a current MCJ student who hopes to graduate in May, agrees.

“I can’t believe all the different directions I can go in with a major in public relations,” Castanon said. “Sports, nonprofit, education, government.”

Carlos Perez – a 2011 MCJ graduate with an emphasis in PR – now works as an account manager at Jeffrey Scott Agency, a Fresno marketing and advertising firm.

Perez said the Fresno community, as a whole, offers an advantage over other cities or states.

“The public relations program was exceptional, teaching me real-life lessons and using live examples in the classroom,” Perez said, “so the transition from school to the real world was a much smoother one.”

He also benefitted from his CAH professors’ ties to the community beyond the campus.

“The professors in the College of Art and Humanities were all so well connected that my networking base during my time at Fresno State and afterward grew quicker and stronger than it would have been, coming to Fresno from a different school,” said Perez. “Making those connections, which many professors in the College helped facilitate, really proved to be a benefit that I don’t know I would have reaped from another school”

joshua-steinJoshua Stein (pictured) was a 2012 graduate of the Philosophy Department and a runner up for the College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Medal that year. He said he values different things with several years of perspective than he did when he was a student here:

“Originally, I was motivated by the class structure and opportunity to work closely with professors, something that I took enormous advantage of while I was a student in the Philosophy Department. In retrospect, one of the most impactful things about the University was the commitment to serving the immediate community. While I was an undergraduate, I had the opportunity to work on interfaith issues in the community, and to interact on a regular basis with people who were passionate about service to their community. I have come to recognize that is not the case everywhere, and I appreciate all the more.”

Ranking well in comparison to other colleges is an important win for Fresno State, “extremely important,” said Ryan Dirlam, a 2011 graduate of the music education program.

“In the teaching profession, we have the unique ability to help students make the decision on where to attend college,” said Dirlam, who is in his fifth year teaching music in the Firebaugh-Las Deltas Unified School District. “I often take my students to Fresno State music events, receive clinics from the Music Department Professors, and tell stories about all of my positive experiences in the Bulldog Marching Band. It is a redeeming moment to tell your students about how wonderful Fresno State is and then have National documentation to back you up.”

It isn’t just a win on campus, Hays added: “It’s also good for the community of Fresno to feel proud about its hometown university.”

“When we are ranked well, our students, faculty and staff feel increased pride,” Betsy Hays said. “When folks feel proud, they are more loyal, which helps with retention … Externally, rankings can help with recruiting, and can sometimes make a difference for people who are comparing Fresno State to somewhere else.

Working in his chosen field in our community with CMAC, Cesar Perez-Villegas says, “The education I received helped to mold me into the person I am today. … My schooling was the pinnacle of my success. I had good foundations from which to build in my career thanks to my education.”

Dirlam was recently named Teacher of the Year for the Firebaugh School District, and is a nominee for Fresno County Teacher of the Year: “Every student has access to a high quality education when attending Fresno State. The faculty on campus are generally prominent members in their respective fields,” he said. “I have heard many positive comments over the years about the educational opportunities offered to the student body.”

As a new member of the College of Arts and Humanities Advisory Board, Hazel Antaramian-Hofman is excited about what it still ahead for the College:

“The enthusiasm and commitment exhibited by our Dean, Dr. Saúl Jiménez-Sandoval, and Associate Dean, Dr. Honora Howell Chapman, make all things seem possible. … As a student, for me it was more about the world opening up; now, as a member of the AHAB, for me it is about the giving back and igniting the wonder in the hearts and minds of students in the College of Arts and Humanities.”


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The College of Arts and Humanities provides a diverse student population with the communication skills, humanistic values and cultural awareness that form the foundation of scholarship. The college offers intellectual and artistic programs that engage students and faculty and the community in collaboration, dialog and discovery. These programs help preserve, illuminate and nourish the arts and humanities for the campus and for the wider community.

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