English alumni gather for multiethnic literature conference anniversary

Fresno State alumni Erin Álvarez, Zoyer Zyndel, Lena Mahmoud, Neama Alamri, Leila Alamri-Kassim, Carrie Ayala, and Jeremiah Henry returned to campus to lead an alumni roundtable discussion on how the English Department’s annual UCMLA conference has impacted their lives.

~By Nou Her, graduate assistant, Department of English

The Department of English marked the 10th anniversary of its Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas this spring, celebrating a decade of undergraduate research and scholarship.

The UCMLA conference is organized by the department’s graduate students in both the MA English and MFA Creative Writing programs, along with several faculty advisers. Together, the organizers provide a vital platform for undergraduates to present their work and engage in scholarly discussion and debate.

For most students, it’s the first time they’ve presented their work in a public venue. That experience is deepened by the conference’s focus on multiethnic literatures — particularly the interconnectedness of those literatures across cultures, nations, and languages.

Dr. Samina Najmi, one of UCMLA’s founding faculty advisers, said the conference has been a tremendous example of graduate students and faculty working together, across the English department’s multiple programs, to give undergraduate voices a chance to be heard.

“When we conceived of UCMLA in 2009, we were beset by tuition hikes, salary freezes, and low morale on the part of students and faculty alike,” Najmi said. “We had two related missions: to help professionalize our students in an era when, to many, their academic futures seemed bleak; and to do so by foregrounding literatures that did not have adequate representation in the curriculum at the time. Our pockets were empty, but we had a vision.”

Dr. Samina Najmi, one of UCMLA’s founding faculty advisers
Dr. Samina Najmi, one of UCMLA’s founding faculty advisers

Najmi said it’s the students who continue to make this creative vision happen.

“[UCMLA participants] were the students we had imagined and hoped for,” Najmi said. “Most of them had never presented before and many of them might have wondered why they should bother. But they trusted our call and set an inspiring example for the many who have followed since.”

For the 10th annual conference, the English Department reunited with alumni who were part of the UCMLA journey, as either presenters or organizers or both, by inviting them back to campus for an anniversary reception, and an alumni roundtable and discussion.

Here’s what alumni roundtable panelists had to say about the conference’s impact on their lives.

Fresno State alumni Erin Álvarez, Zoyer Zyndel, Lena Mahmoud, Neama Alamri, Leila Alamri-Kassim, Carrie Ayala, and Jeremiah Henry returned to campus to lead an alumni roundtable discussion on how the English Department’s annual UCMLA conference has impacted their lives.
Fresno State alumni Erin Álvarez, Zoyer Zyndel, Lena Mahmoud, Neama Alamri, Leila Alamri-Kassim, Carrie Ayala, and Jeremiah Henry returned to campus to lead an alumni roundtable discussion on how the English Department’s annual UCMLA conference has impacted their lives.

Erin L. Álvarez

About: Erin coordinates the Writing Center at College of the Sequoias in Visalia. She’s also a Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University in the Chicano/Latino Studies Program, where her dissertation project is on the late Tejano singer Selena.

Conference contributions:

2010 – Presenter: “Finding Identity in Fresno: Contributing to a Chicana Literature”

2011 – Moderator

2012 – Moderator, and presenter: “La Nueva Chicana: Estrella and the Chicana Feminist Movement in ‘Under the Feet of Jesus’”

2013 – Moderator

Erin said:

“I remember when Samina told me about the conference, in the very beginning stages. I was like, ‘Yes! I want to do that. I want to be part of that.’ We didn’t get a lot of space to talk about ourselves and to see ourselves in literature. When Dr. Najmi brought up this opportunity, I was on it. … Being a part of the planning of this conference, being on the panels, going to my first conference with graduate students and doctorates — I was the only undergrad at MELUS — my UCMLA experience created this confidence. It demystified the professional part of what it means to be a professor. It told me that I can be here too, that I do have a seat at this table.

“In the places where we don’t exist, we go into those gaps and we fill them with our stories, and that’s kind of what we are doing with this conference, with these panels. We’re taking gaps in histories where we don’t have a voice and we put our voices there. As a student, that is your opportunity. I took advantage of that every time I could. Anytime I could talk about race, gender, class, or sexuality, I did it, and I’ve done that all throughout my research.”

Zoyer Zyndel

About: Zoyer works as a mental health clinician with Fresno County. They also serve as chair of Trans-E-Motion, as vice president of PFLAG Fresno, and as public relations coordinator for the Fresno Rainbow Pride Committee.

Conference contributions:

2011 – Presenter: “‘The Bluest Eye’ and ‘Native Son’: Effects of the ‘Self-Loathing Serum’”

2012 – Presenter: “‘Passing’: Social Acceptance vs. Cultural Pride”

2013 – Presenter: “Time Will Tell: The Dynamics of Social Change”

Zoyer said:

“I didn’t even know we had literature about marginalized communities. … This conference, it empowers you. In a larger sense, it helps to mobilize a community that may not feel like they are part of the community. I wasn’t a good student. There are several F’s on my transcript. I ditched class. If I had continued going on the same route that my life had been on, I may have not been where I am today. I think a lot of the reasons why I was determined to succeed was because I felt that, for once, I belonged. This conference is more than just sharing stories. It’s rehabilitation to people who may feel that school’s not right for them, or that they are not good enough for school. Having stories that are pertinent and relevant is so key because it reflects the community and never should it be in literature that there is only one segment of the population represented. That’s what UCMLA does, it represents everyone.

“I had the ability to select papers that I had a wonderful writing experience with and got to experience it again at UCMLA – three times! That was just wonderful because all three times I presented, they were books that resonated with me and have shaped me greatly. So, I got to experience it again, which was really validating. … I still remember the thesis for one: ‘Discrimination and oppression is perpetuated by feelings of shame and self-loathing by members within a minority group.’ It was basically talking about how sometimes we oppress each other within the minority group. Everybody was so receptive to hearing that and could relate. If I had never done this, I would have never known there were so many other people who relate to that experience. It was life-changing.”

Lena Mahmoud

About: Lena works as a library services specialist at California State University, Stanislaus in Turlock. Her debut novel, “Amreekiya,” was published in October 2018 by University Press of Kentucky.

Conference contributions:

2010 – Presenter: “Water as Fragmentation: Suheir Hammad’s Drops of This Story

2011 – Presenter: “Developing Community: Storytelling in Laila Halaby’s West of the Jordan

2012 – Organizing committee

2013 – Organizing committee

2014 – Organizing committee

Lena said:

“It was the first conference I presented at, and it helped me to see myself in a more professional sense. Especially by being on the organizing committee as a grad student, it gave me the chance to be in charge of something meaningful.

“With this conference, there’s more mentorship than with others. You’re not going to have to write a bio for a person you’re introducing right before you present. You have the time to prepare, and to get and give feedback. You are not put on the spot as much.”

Neama Alamri

About: Neama is a Ph.D. candidate in the Interdisciplinary Humanities Program at the University of California, Merced. Her dissertation explores the histories of labor and activism in the Yemeni diaspora.

Conference contributions:

2011 – Presenter: “The Palmolive Woman and Fragmented Identity”

2012 – Presenter: “Empathy Through Narration: Moving the Center in South Asian American and Arab American Literature”

2013 – Presenter: “Multicultural Mess: Empathizing with the Subversive in Arab American Women’s Literature”

Neama said:

“UCMLA for me was starting the journey for overcoming imposter syndrome. Because it never really goes away, you’re just at different levels with it. … It makes you feel like, ‘I have something to say,’ and that’s powerful for first-generation students of color who don’t always see themselves reflected in academia. To be in a space, especially where the faculty are so supportive and always give feedback and ask questions, it was such a positive space for students who are thinking about entering academia and going into grad school. I don’t think I would’ve made it to graduate school if I didn’t have this experience. I needed to do it three years to really have that courage to be like, ‘Yes, I do have something to say, and I can totally do this.’

“I realize now, looking back at my papers, the question I was asking, particularly for Arab American writers, was: How do we talk about them in a post-9/11 context, where they are being consumed or used for particular political projects? That’s where I think UCMLA goes beyond the literature. It’s never just about the literature. You’re really asking questions about why aren’t they taught, how do we teach it, how are we going to teach it, and what’s at stake. This is your job to do that. It’s super daunting but exciting.”

Leila Alamri-Kassim

About: Leila works as an attorney for the law offices of Lozano Smith in Fresno. She practices in the areas of labor and employment, facilities and business, and education law and election issues impacting students.

Conference contributions:

2010 – Presenter: “The Colonizing Gaze in Jamaica Kincaid’s ‘Lucy’”

Leila said:

“The literature that we read in English 179, the multiethnic literatures class, was really the first time I had read about characters of color, authors who were of color, women of color, and it really connected with me. It was the first time that I really saw myself in literature, and then I had to have a professor who was a woman of color and who encouraged me to do the conference, it was just really motivating. It was the first time I had presented formally at a type of conference like this. … It really gave me the push to formally do these types of presentations, and although I didn’t end up in academia, public speaking in these types of forums, to be able to communicate and articulate yourself through writing is really important in my profession as an attorney. It was a really good experience and it really did lead me to much greater things.”

Carrie L. Ayala

About: Carrie is a community organizer and regional connector for Central Valley Movement Building, a coalition of organizations and groups working to dismantle the school to prison pipeline in the central San Joaquin Valley, from Sacramento to Kern counties.

Conference contributions:

2010 – Presenter: “Confounding Stages: Cyclical Cultural Productions in ‘Bandido!’”

2012 – Presenter: “‘Blooming Buds’: Growth Through Narrative in Bapsi Sidhwa’s ‘An American Brat’”

Carrie said:

“I was always in accelerated classes. I was always one of the smart kids that was receiving the best that we had to offer. But it wasn’t until I got to Fresno State and I was in English 179 with Samina Najmi that I had an intellectual, educational conversation about systemic oppression. And yet it’s something that we’re steeped in and constantly experiencing on a daily basis. As that door is opened and all of a sudden, not only are my eyes being opened to some of the realities that I’ve been experiencing and things I didn’t previously have language for, to even express the feelings that I had and the experiences I was having, but now I’m receiving support to grow professionally so that I might have a shot of economically being able to support myself in this culture that historically has not given a shit about people like me, and participating. It’s hard for me to put into words what something like this means to somebody like me.

“I would not be here if it were not for individuals like Samina, coming together and – I remember founding conference faculty Alex Espinoza and Dr. Analola Santana – coming together and recognizing the necessity of just creating the space for people to come and be their most authentic self, and tell the truth about what’s going on, and read stories about people like them and talk about them in the context of what they know and what they learn. This so unbelievably important. … I wasn’t really sure there was a place for me, until I met people who made that place.”

Jeremiah Henry

About: Jeremiah teaches English and writing courses as a lecturer at Fresno State, College of the Sequoias in Visalia, and Reedley College.

Conference contributions:

2014 – Moderator

2015 – Organizing committee

“When I think of myself as what the institution calls me – an adjunct faculty, adjunct as in something that is not necessary, as something that’s auxiliary, as non-essential, it can be a challenging space to be in, particularly since I really enjoy scholarship and presenting at conferences. I just presented recently at a CSU symposium for teaching and learning. Going to a conference like that, when I’m presenting on a panel in a session that’s full of tenured professors, it’s very easy to fall victim to imposter syndrome. What could I possibly have to offer to all these people who have completed their dissertations, who have applied for and are now working in a tenured teaching position? Here I am an ‘adjunct.’ It can be super intimidating going into a context like that and trying to present something that will be worth their time.

“The UCMLA experience, for me, gave me the background, gave me the foundation, gave me the confidence to go into a context like that and thrive. In fact, presenting at conferences is one of the places where I feel the most vital, the most creative, the most non-auxiliary, the most non-disposable, and in fact, I feel more essential. I have nothing but gratitude and thankfulness for UCMLA in giving me the background and experience to thrive in these contexts.”

Department of English communications specialist Jefferson Beavers contributed to this report.

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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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