~ By Jefferson Beavers, communication specialist, Department of English
Facing obstacles of all kinds — including earning the bulk of their degrees in a global pandemic — these 2022 graduates of Fresno State’s English Department have all found ways to use writing and literature to thrive.
Single-Subject English Teaching Credential
Born: Merced, California
High school: Atwater High School
Imagine yourself walking along the Clovis Old Town rail-trail and coming upon a brightly colored vending machine. You press a big red button on the front of the machine and out pops a little glass bottle with a handwritten message inside, messages focused on growth, gratitude, and kindness.
With a 2021 scholarship from CSU Summer Arts, to support a visual artwork project that could bring the community together, English teaching credential student Emily Saeteurn turned her hand-made, pop-up vending machine idea into a reality. She even squeezed herself inside — fully outfitted, of course, with surgical mask, gloves, and hand san — to document people’s reactions.
“All my most memorable accomplishments at Fresno State were the moments I could express and challenge myself creatively,” Saeteurn said. “I think whether people understand my intentions or not, they will definitely remember the experience and hopefully be inspired, motivated, and have the strength to persevere through a time of crisis.”
Saeteurn — who earned a bachelor’s degree in English education, with an emphasis in literature, in May 2021 — said she is also proud of publishing her creative writing in two campus publications, the San Joaquin Review and hais: a literary journal. (The word “hais” in Hmong means to say, speak, vocalize; the journal is produced by students in the Hmong American Ink and Stories club.)
One piece is an essay called “Native Tongue,” which reflects Saeteurn’s language barrier with her great grandmother, as she desperately struggles to know her Laotian elder’s story. The other is a nonfiction comic called “Papaya Salad,” which touches on generational gender roles.
“My artworks are identity-driven by childhood, growing up as an Asian American living in the Central Valley,” Saeteurn said. “I focus on gender roles, cultural traditions, and the American experience. I feel the need to tell my stories because these are culturally diverse American stories that are not being taught in our American education.”
Saeteurn credits Dr. Alison Mandaville, a professor of English, for introducing her to the idea that literacy can be established through comics and graphic books. She said she loved comics from a young age, but always felt discouraged from seeing them as “real books.”
“Dr. Mandaville taught me to be courageous while writing and creating comics,” Saeteurn said. “As a future educator, I will integrate visual literacy into my classroom starting with comics and graphic novels.”
She also credits her family for key financial help while student-teaching during a pandemic. “I would have never finished my degree if it wasn’t for my family’s loving support,” she said.
In May, Saeteurn will complete her student teaching at Clovis East High School. After earning her credential, she plans to return to Merced County to teach high school English. In the future, she hopes to be an English as a Second Language instructor and to teach abroad.
B.A. English Education, with an emphasis in linguistics
Born: Delano, California
High school: Delano High School
After high school, Esmeralda Nava took a year off from the classroom to help out her family at home. She found herself itching to go back to school, but she felt nervous about suddenly having to start all over again — and at a higher level.
So when a friend needed a roommate in Fresno, Nava took the chance and moved 75 miles from home in Delano to apply to Fresno City College.
“I know oftentimes fear or doubt can stop us from doing something,” she said. “But sometimes you just have to remind yourself why you want to do something and push yourself a little bit.”
At City, Nava said her self-doubt really kicked in. But her first English class with instructor Shana Munoz, a Fresno State alumna, showed her not only how writing is structured and what good writing looks like, but most importantly how to write about topics often overlooked or hard to talk about. Nava said Munoz acknowledged her writing anxiety and modeled patience.
“Professor Munoz was incredibly dedicated to helping her students, and she always had a positive attitude that made the class so fun, even at 8 a.m.,” Nava said. “Her class made me feel like any nerves I had previously just slipped away. I knew this was exactly what I wanted — I would love to be a teacher like her someday.”
Nava soon transferred to Fresno State and faced another obstacle to test her nerves: the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite the abrupt shift to online learning, just one semester into her time at the university, she felt proud in spring 2020 to earn a 4.0 GPA and make the dean’s list, while taking five classes and spending lots of time babysitting her niece.
Nava said Dr. Alexander Adkins-Jaramillo, a former faculty in the English Department, was influential in her transition to Fresno State. He made sure to include all students in conversation, she said, especially when helping them connect older texts to current, relevant topics.
“Having great professors who take the time to explain and get to know their students makes college a better experience,” she said.
Nava will enter the single-subject English teaching credential program in the fall, with hopes to teach at the high school level back home in Kern County. She’d someday like to earn a master’s in education.
James T. Morrison
B.A. English – Creative Writing
Born: Goleta, California
High school: Dos Pueblos High School
As a junior, James T. Morrison felt pretty good when he earned an honorable mention in the English department’s annual creative writing prize competition, as selected by a distinguished alumni author.
As a senior, Morrison felt even better when Dr. John Hales, a professor emeritus of English, suggested he try taking a graduate-level creative nonfiction workshop as an undergrad, to see if his interest in applying to Master of Fine Arts programs felt right.
But then the doubt set in.
Morrison worried he hadn’t earned his spot. For an entire month before the graduate course began, he obsessively wrote and rewrote his first essay. Polished and revised it, over and over. He felt convinced that his graduate-level classmates would be suspicious of him, would know there was an undergrad in their midst, would reject him.
“Turns out, Dr. Hales hadn’t told a soul,” Morrison said. “I was able to just be a part of the course, an equal. Everyone was so much cooler and more welcoming than I assumed they’d be, even after I spilled the beans about my status. It confirmed what I already knew — that pursuing an MFA is what I wanted.”
Even before moving to Fresno years ago from the central coast, Morrison said he has always known Fresno to be a city of writers. But an internship working on the Fresno Poets Archive project, and the experience of serving on the editorial board for the annual Young Writers’ Conference journal, Spectrum, helped him better understand the depth and richness of the Central Valley’s contributions to literature.
“Playing even a small role in preserving history was really meaningful,” Morrison said. “And so was helping lead a creative writing workshop at the Young Writers’ Conference. Some of those high school students are writing at an incredible level. I felt honored to be able to participate.”
After receiving offers elsewhere, Morrison has chosen to study creative nonfiction in Fresno State’s MFA program in the fall. His “absolute dream” is to someday be published and be paid to write full time.
MFA Creative Writing, with an emphasis in poetry
Born: Fresno, California
High school: Edison High School
After earning a bachelor’s degree in English education from Fresno State in May 2014, Gabi Cruz-Brittsan found herself back in the classroom just a few months later, teaching English at Washington Union High School in Easton.
Soon after, she and a colleague started a poetry club at Washington Union, to create a space for students interested in creative writing. Her young writers immediately dove into the writing communities around them, participating in Poetry Out Loud with multiple Fresno poets laureate, the Loud Mouth Poetry Jam with South Valley poets, and with Get Lit Words Ignite poets based in L.A.
“The hope is to help young writers see themselves in the world, to help them create a sense of community,” Cruz-Brittsan said. “I continue to see students empowered by their own voices.”
Cruz-Brittsan remembered, from her time as an undergrad at Fresno State, that the English Department hosts a big annual Young Writers’ Conference, and soon she started bringing a delegation from Washington Union.
This past fall, the MFA faculty invited Cruz-Brittsan to represent the program at a President’s Circle for Excellence gathering, an evening that brings together community members who directly support academic excellence in higher education.
“I was able to speak about the amazing opportunities that the Young Writers’ Conference offers to young writers in Central California,” Cruz-Brittsan said. “As a high school English teacher who regularly attends with my students, I have personally witnessed the positive impact this day makes.”
Being back on campus with her high school students was part of what inspired Cruz-Brittsan to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at Fresno State. She credits her thesis chair, Prof. Brynn Saito, an assistant professor of English, for her instrumental mentorship. “I would not be here, in my third year and preparing to graduate, without her support, feedback, and persistent faith in me,” she said.
While reading and writing has long been a cornerstone of her life, Cruz-Brittsan also credited Dr. Samina Najmi, a professor of English, with key moments of encouragement late in her undergraduate program.
In her last semester as an undergrad, Cruz-Brittsan presented her first academic paper at the English Department’s annual Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas. Her paper — “Seeking Refuge in Identity: Discourse Communities in Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist” — tackled acclimation to American societal norms, a subject Cruz-Brittsan said as a Latina she has a personal connection with and has found herself continuing to write about years later.
“Dr. Najmi pushed me to be a better writer, and to continue to seek opportunities that would strengthen my writing,” she said.
Cruz-Brittsan plans to continue teaching English at Washington Union. She would like to someday teach at the community college or university level.
M.A. English – Literature
Born: Fresno, California
High school: Edison High School
The Covid-19 pandemic began in March 2020 just a few months before Alexander Flores took over as president of the Students of English Studies Association, the English Department’s primary student club for literary scholars.
Flores and his peers immediately were tasked with re-imagining SESA’s annual fall symposium, a previously in-person, multi-day event that often provides one of the first opportunities for English majors and grad students to publicly present their research together and begin to see themselves as part of a community of scholars.
“We had no idea in the early days of the pandemic what our event would even look like,” he said.
Then, as SESA members quickly pivoted to virtual event mode, something unexpected happened.
While organizing an impromptu gameplan from scratch — planning and producing more than a dozen symposium sessions for a suddenly virtual space — Flores found himself at the center of a small but tightly knit group of grad students who mutually mentored each other daily, quickly improvising at every turn, simultaneously giving and receiving instruction on how to “do an event” in an online space. They coached and encouraged each other, all while maintaining the vibe and the benefits of a supportive community.
“There was a sense of comradery in facing something new and unexpected,” Flores said, “and when we are reacting to a crisis that’s often when the best of our nature can come out.”
The SESA students not only kept their symposium running during incredibly uncertain times, but they expanded its scope. They brought in an international keynote speaker. They hosted their first virtual game night. And perhaps most importantly, they built an invaluable framework for an online conference model that other English Department event organizers have continued to use.
“I could not have made it through my M.A. program without my fellow graduate students,” Flores said. “The community we made, in the spaces we could find, really pulled us through the most uncertain moments.”
In addition to his leadership work with SESA, Flores taught first-year writing for two years as a graduate Teaching Associate. He has also presented academic papers at multiple national conferences.
Flores credits Dr. William Arcé, an associate professor of English, for practical advice on his conference presentations and submissions to academic journals. He also cites Dr. Lisa Weston, a professor of English, for sparking his research, which focuses on contemporary critical theory in medieval studies.
“Dr. Weston is one of my fellow medievalists at Fresno State,” he said, “and the papers I write have taken an incredible turn with the kinds of theoretical texts she suggests. I really feel I’ve found an academic niche that is relevant and timely in the field.”
Reading medieval texts through queer theory, for example, has inspired research that is both academically exciting and politically current and important, Flores said.
“In reading nonbinary bodies in 10th century Old English prose, I’m not only pushing the bounds of the field but also creating potent counter-arguments to notions of ‘traditional gender’ used to exclude trans and nonbinary individuals from society,” he said.
Much of the discourse of white supremacy and rigid gender roles emerged from medieval studies in the 19th century, Flores explained. Now, through his research at Fresno State, he can be part of the field correcting those past errors, correcting misreadings of the past in order to imagine a more inclusive future.
“Fear not the old stuff!” Flores advised current students. “There are so many ways to encounter and read the past that makes early modern and medieval literature come alive. The critical theorists have gotten their hands on Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and more. Gone are the days of dusty readings of dustier old books. Nearly every issue we face today can be seen reflected back at us from the past.”
Flores plans to continue teaching writing, and he will be applying to Ph.D. programs for fall 2023.
Additional links to 2022 English Department graduation stories:
• Carolina Vasquez Mata, MFA Creative Writing student of distinction
• Mary Sosa, M.A. English student of distinction
• Janette Lopez Villalobos, B.A. English student of distinction