Editor’s Note: Despite the necessary adjustment to virtual instruction for part of this semester, more than 6,000 talented Fresno State students will earn their degrees in May and move on to become the next generation of leaders in the Central Valley and beyond. While every hardworking graduate deserves to be recognized, for the rest of the semester we will be sharing the inspiring stories of graduates like these who have achieved at the highest levels or have overcome remarkable challenges. As University President Joseph I. Castro previously announced, the University looks forward to celebrating all of its deserving graduates at an in-person ceremony at a later date when it is deemed safe to do so.
With future professional goals that include teaching, traveling, community organizing, publishing their own books, and more, the power of writing and literature is alive and well in these 2020 graduates of the Fresno State English Department.
B.A. English Literature; Minor, Creative Writing
Born: East Los Angeles
High School: Roosevelt (Fresno)
After attending Fresno City College for several years, Rodolfo Avelar’s educational trajectory changed at Fresno State.
In fall 2018, they landed a student assistant job in the Creative Writing Program office, which included work on The Normal School literary magazine and at English Department events. The opportunity immersed Avelar in the Fresno writing community and introduced them to professional publishing and editing.
In summer 2019, with support from the College of Arts and Humanities Dean’s Council fund, Avelar earned a prestigious internship with Milkweed Editions, a highly regarded nonprofit press in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
“The internship is a competitive one,” Avelar said, “and when I applied for it, I was having a hard time within the English major. The experience of working with Milkweed, working in the book industry, was what I needed to make myself sure of what I wanted to continue to do with my life. When I came back to Fresno, I knew that more than ever that I needed the support of people who love me and the creative work that I do.”
Avelar has enjoyed spending so much time with the inspiring people on campus, most notably with peers in the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association student organization, and with Dr. Melanie Hernandez, a specialist in African American and Latinx literature, who became Avelar’s closest faculty mentor. The support encouraged Avelar, a first-generation college student, to present an experimental poem from a collection in progress at this year’s Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas.
“These people and the time I spent with them made the past year especially beautiful to me,” Avelar said, “and I cling to that in the face of all of the uncertainty we now face.”
Avelar will study poetry this fall in the Master of Fine Arts program at UC Riverside. They want to write “speculative, queer, Latinx poetry collections and space operas.”
“I want to run a literary magazine, run a press, design book covers, design books, work with writers and readers and artists,” Avelar said. “I want to be living in and surrounded by art.”
B.A. English Education
Born: Washington (state)
High School: Crossroads Charter Academy (Hanford)
Jessica Hallstrom has loved reading all her life, and she often turned to literature and comic books for comfort while struggling with clinical depression in her late teens and early 20s.
But when she was diagnosed with leukemia, writing and drawing stories became her absolute outlet for expression.
“When I became sick, I didn’t have the strength to do anything but lay down,” Hallstrom said. “My dad began to read me Lewis Carroll’s ‘Through the Looking Glass,’ and I was able to be transported somewhere else.”
Carroll’s classic novel, the sequel to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” sends the reader into a fantastical world, as the heroine Alice climbs through a mirror into a world she cannot yet see. As illustrated by John Tenniel, Alice’s adventures with the Mad Hatter, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the nonsensical poetry of “Jabberwocky” spring to visual life, leading readers of all ages to question what they believe about logic and language.
Years later — thinking about her time with her dad, Alice, and the looking glass — Hallstrom wrote, drew, and handprinted her own eight-page comic book about her battle with leukemia and depression. Someday, she said, she would like to try to write a memoir about her experiences, based on her graphic chapbook.
“It’s difficult to describe why putting pen to paper felt so relieving,” she said. “Studying literature, to me, is one of the greatest decisions someone can make. There are thousands of lives to live, through the leaves of books. Writing is an extension of the self; so when you write, you must write with passion.”
Hallstrom credits faculty Chris Henson, one of the English Department’s specialists in American literature, for encouraging her development as a literary scholar. After taking Henson for each of the three American lit survey courses, Hallstrom presented a research paper at the Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas, advocating for more Asian American literature in K-12 classrooms.
A December 2019 graduate, Hallstrom has entered the single-subject English teaching credential program, with hopes of soon becoming a high school teacher. She is doing her initial student teaching at La Joya Middle School in Visalia. At some point, she would also like to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing.
“Once I get my MFA, I want to travel the world and write for at least a year, so that I can enjoy some more life experiences,” she said.
BA English Literature; Minor, Creative Writing
High School: Clovis North (Fresno)
Like many creative writers that focus on writing fiction, Bekah Izard wants to make books that tell the stories that have been playing in her head for years, and then share with the world.
Izard, a first-generation college student, likes to pull inspiration for her writing from various mythologies, in order to celebrate how the human mind can explore real-life issues through worlds of fantasy. Her current project, which she hopes one day can become a book series or graphic novel, focuses on one heroine’s struggle for agency over her own body, within a magical-realist world that reflects our own.
At first, Izard felt sheepish about a career goal of wanting to write fantasy books. But she was drawn to them, and she keeps following her instinct.
“There are so many genres from so many time periods and you do not have to be interested in what people think of as ‘scholarly’ literature to be a successful scholar,” she said. “You have to seek out what you find cool and inspiring and stick with it, and you’ll be all the happier.”
Izard credits her experience in the College of Arts and Humanities Honors Program as being pivotal in allowing herself to seriously pursue creative writing within her English degree.
Her faculty mentor is Steve Adisasmito-Smith, an English Department specialist in world literature, mythology and folk tales. Izard’s honors project focuses on representation of the Sidhe, also known as fairies, in select Irish myths.
“Being able to study and reflect on the fantasy elements within Celtic mythology has only made me more confident in the prospect of pursuing a writing career that incorporates my love of fantasy,” she said.
Izard will study creative writing this fall in the Master of Fine Arts program at Chapman University, in Orange County.
B.A. English Education
High School: Clovis East
Jade Martinez felt drawn to English Studies from the start for its wide variety of topics to choose from. Performance, theater, communication, creative writing, literature analysis — the mix of subject matter has inspired her to pursue the career goal of teaching middle school English, where she can utilize all these areas daily.
She’s also now following in the footsteps of her grandmother, an elementary school teacher and “the reason I decided to become a teacher.”
Although Martinez is currently studying the teaching of English, she enjoys creative writing the most. “It gives me an outlet and a personal space to write my thoughts, ideas, emotions and anything else I would like to share and confide,” she said.
Martinez’s interest in creative writing led her to present her first academic paper, on breaking stereotypes in Native American author Tommy Orange’s groundbreaking novel “There, There,” at this spring’s Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas.
The opportunity to present together in a room full of scholars, just days before the campus moved to virtual instruction, felt especially engaging, memorable and meaningful, she said.
“UCMLA was my first participation in a conference, and it was wonderful to get a sense of how a professional event like that functions,” Martinez said. “I felt honored to be able to listen to and collaborate with the ideas of my peers, as we grow together on our educational journeys.”
A December 2019 graduate, Martinez is currently doing her initial student teaching at Clovis West High School, with four periods of 10th grade honors English students. She hopes to complete her preliminary single-subject English teaching credential in the fall, and she will learn her school site placement soon.
In the future, Martinez would like to pursue a master’s degree in rhetoric and writing studies.
B.A. English Literature
High School: Dos Palos
A first-generation college student with aspirations of becoming a university professor, Graciela Sierra-Moreno has immersed herself in multiple forms of Chicanx writing, media and art while at Fresno State.
She has shared papers at multiple undergraduate conferences, learning from a wide range of fellow researchers. And she has enjoyed being a member of the Chicanx Writers and Artists Association student organization.
“CWAA has provided a space where I can be surrounded by Chicanx influences and creatively produce my own work,” she said.
Sierra-Moreno presented a paper at the national Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA) conference this past fall, on how cholas in the film “Mi Vida Loca” defy social and political norms to resist marginalization in early ’90s Los Angeles.
“I want to further engage with all forms of Chicanx art,” Sierra-Moreno said. “I want to create work that bridges the traditional academic style of research with artistic expression into a theory-based praxis intended to empower people of color.”
With minors in Spanish and Women’s Studies, Sierra-Moreno said ethnic studies has played a pivotal role in her educational awakening and her experiences as an English major. She plans to seek her master’s degree in English literature at Fresno State this fall, with hopes to pursue a Ph.D. and eventually become an American literature professor, focusing on Chicanx lit.
She credited Dr. Melanie Hernandez, her English Department faculty mentor, for inspiring and motivating her to pursue a career in English Studies.
“I want to remove the mystery from the college experience by helping students of color achieve greater success and find opportunities to advance their lives after graduation,” Sierra-Moreno said.
B.A. English Education; Minor, Creative Writing
High School: Sanger
Immersion in the Fresno writing community has changed Gaoyong Yang-Vang’s life and has led her to take academic risks at Fresno State she might never thought of taking.
Joining the Hmong American Writers’ Circle early in her undergraduate years, Yang-Vang took a seat at the writing workshop table alongside published authors from the community such as Soul Vang, Mai Der Vang, Pos Moua, and Khaty Xiong. They led her to connect with the creative writing faculty and grad students in the Master of Fine Arts Program on campus.
“I’ve loved working with and participating in creative writing events at Fresno State and all over town,” said Yang-Vang, a first-generation college student.
She has regularly volunteered at the Laureate Lab Visual Wordist Studio inside Henry Madden Library. Since its opening in 2016, Yang-Vang has worked with U.S. Poet Laureate Emeritus Juan Felipe Herrera and La Lab’s graduate fellows on exploring the dimensions and connections of sculpture, movement, words, performance and mixed media.
“My career goal is to get high schools to shift their focus and understanding of art and art classes to include creative writing, and to focus on the voice of youth, who are the future,” she said.
As Yang-Vang’s confidence as a creative writer and artist has grown, so has her confidence as a scholar.
At the 2019 Undergraduate Conference on Multiethnic Literatures of the Americas, she ditched her first idea of presenting a more traditional literary-analysis paper on Maxine Hong Kingston’s classic novel “The Woman Warrior.” Instead, Yang-Vang contrasted the book’s heroines with Rachel Chu, the contemporary warrior-woman protagonist of the popular film “Crazy Rich Asians.”
“Using what I’ve learned from my literature classes, I analyzed concepts in the movie that I wanted to focus on for myself,” she said. “I examined something I felt passionate about: being the outsider to both the culture and family of a significant other, just like the Rachel Chu character. In presenting this deeper analysis, I felt more confident and sure of myself.”
Before starting her teaching career, Yang-Vang will this fall begin the Master of Fine Arts program at Fresno State, studying poetry.
Additional links to English Department 2020 graduation stories:
- Anthony Cody, MFA Creative Writing student of distinction, and College of Arts and Humanities Graduate Dean’s Medalist
- Riley Thomas, M.A. English student of distinction
- Liliana Perez Rodriguez, B.A. English student of distinction, and College of Arts and Humanities Standard Bearer
- Mary Johnson, B.A. linguistics student of distinction, and English double major
- Andrea Marin Contreras, B.A. Media, Communications and Journalism student of distinction, and Creative Writing minor