Graduating ASU student Celina Osuna / Photo by Maureen Kobierowski

ASU doctoral graduate embraces desert landscapes, literatures

By

Kristen LaRue-Sandler

Editor's note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable spring 2020 graduates.

Graduating Arizona State University student Celina Osuna was born and raised in El Paso — a west Texas city situated squarely in the Chihuahuan desert, the largest “hot desert” in North America.

The desert is in Osuna’s blood. She tried to throw it off once, in a post-college move to Scotland. But the desert found her there — in a literature course on desert writing.

“I couldn’t believe that I’d moved all this way and here was this course on deserts,” she told an told an interviewer with Canadian Broadcasting in 2019, “and deserts could be a thing of study.”

In cold, rainy Scotland, in that literature class, she read American author Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” and found the sun.

“The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break ... only rock is real. Rock and sun.”

— Edward Abbey, “Desert Solitaire”

“Until I moved and was that far away, I just didn’t understand … aridity, the dryness of things,” she said. “My running joke about living in Glasgow was that my laundry never dried. Nothing ever dried — my towels, nothing — no matter how long you left it on the radiator. There was a climatic shift that made me learn what the desert wasn’t — what I missed about the desert. Specifically, light and heat: two things I really yearned for when I moved away.”

Osuna did indeed study deserts. She is earning a PhD in English (literature) and a certificate in critical theory here at ASU this May. She defended her dissertation, which explored cultural perceptions of the desert Southwest and incorporated several topical approaches including art, geography and creative writing, in late March.

“Her defense brought the broadest range of audience we have seen in a defense,” said Professor of English Ron Broglio, who directs the Desert Humanities Initiative in the Institute for Humanities Research and was Osuna’s committee chair. “Many people at ASU have connected to Celina through her creativity and insight, her warmth and care.”

At ASU, Osuna participated in multi-disciplinary projects and initiatives all over campus, including being a founding co-director, along with fellow graduate students from the School of Arts Media and Engineering and the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, of the Post-Human Network. PHuN is dedicated to understanding human and nonhuman relations in literature, culture, the environment and film. Osuna was also a spokesperson for a select course on the work of James Turrell — the only non-art student in the class.

For her place-based approach to research and teaching, Osuna was awarded a National Humanities Center Summer Residency for PhD Students in the Humanities, as well as honors from ASU, including the Department of English’s Katharine C. Turner Dissertation Fellowship and several Graduate College fellowships and grants.

After graduation, she’ll remain firmly embedded in the Sonoran desert for some time; she recently accepted a position as the new coordinator for the Institute of Humanities Research.

We caught up with Osuna to learn a bit more about her epic journeys through landscapes and literatures.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in your field?

Answer: While living in Scotland, I decided to take on a master’s degree. The program was called “Literature, Culture and Place” and one of the required courses was called “Writing the Void.” The class engaged with desert literature from around the world: Paul Bowles’s “Sheltering Sky,” Wilfred Thesiger’s “Arabian Sands,” Bruce Chatwin’s “The Songlines,” Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “Wind, Sand and Stars,” and Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire,” which of course made me homesick for desert mountains and big skies.

After looking over the syllabus on the first day of the class, (University of Strathclyde) Professor Rune Graulund asked us what we expected from this class. When it came to me, I was a bit overexcited and said, “everything.”

I had spent my life thinking that texts about the North American deserts weren’t worthy enough for scholars of literature. Of course, this was not true, but every American literature class I had, to that point, had taken up the discussion of nature writers as people like Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Rachel Carson. It took being across the Atlantic for me to learn about Edward Abbey.

From that point on, feeling the power of a novel to transport me to any desert of the world, I became interested in desert literature of the southwest and the many voices therein.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: In the classroom, I learned how to collaborate with people from nearly any discipline. One of the revelations of my research and interests has been that it is inherently interdisciplinary. When I was accepted at ASU, if you would have told me my committee was going to include a cultural geographer and a fiction writer, I would not have believed you. Further, in addition to literature, I took courses in geography, creative nonfiction, philosophy, professionalization, creative and cultural leadership and visual arts. This array allowed me to engage and learn what work is happening at ASU. Being in the classroom with so many incredible students is what has kept me inspired the most.

Outside of the classroom, the past couple of years have shown me how important it is for me to be a part of a community. That was difficult at first because I was too focused on all of the requirements and work of the degree, but once I began to embrace this place, it embraced me tenfold. There are so many people in so many capacities at ASU who are supportive, generous and brilliant. I am always pleasantly surprised at the ongoing projects of students, faculty and staff.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: When I decided to apply for a PhD, I knew I wanted to be located in the desert Southwest because it made sense for carrying out my research. ASU proposed a fellowship for my first year, which felt to me like they genuinely believed in my project. I wish I could say I was keen enough then to know what an R1 university was, but knowing that I would be valued here was what really drove my choice. I had, of course, looked at faculty profiles and was in awe of their achievements, but their communication and earnest interest in me was central.

Q: Which professor taught you the most important lesson while at ASU?

A: Professor Ron Broglio served as my chair, and far and away the best and most important lesson learned through working with him is to appreciate and respect that we are human. It’s ironic because he is the Field Marshall of the Animal Revolution and he and I have spent countless hours instigating the agency and value of the more-than-human desert, but his respect for my work and his patience with my humanity has been encouraging.

Taking on a PhD is not easy, even when you love your project. There is a fairly constant pressure to produce and impress. Internally, I also create a lot of pressure for myself to excel. Eventually this can lead to burnout, and I definitely hit a wall at one point. What empowered me was knowing that Ron supported my overall wellness, not just my academic success. When I turned to art and music as outlets for stress and creativity, rather than chide me for “wasting” time on things other than my writing, he supported my need for such activities, for balance.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: This is difficult. I have mountains of advice at the ready, and most of it is from firsthand experience of learning things the hard way, but I don’t know that it would be of much use right now. Anyone in school during this time is exercising an incredible amount of discipline; the COVID-19 global pandemic is unprecedented and has effects both immediate and far-reaching that are devastating and confusing and taking classes on top of this is not easy. I sincerely commend you.

When I taught, I often had students who were overwhelmed, just like I was, with classwork and living in a new place. Whether sitting and talking to them during office hours or occasionally announcing to the class as a whole, I made it a point to remind them to take care of their whole self. Hydrate: It’s very hot and very dry here. Breathe deeply: There are apps that can help with daily meditative practices and intention-setting (see Headspace or Insight Timer). Connect: Find community causes that you care about and participate in them. These are all ways to take care of your physical and mental health, which in turn empowers you to do your academic work.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The Tempe campus is so large it has taken me all five years of my program to explore. I think for a long time my favorite spot was the James Turrell Skyspace on campus, Air Apparent. I used to take my friends and classes there, I’ve presented a paper on Turrell there, and even sat there during sunset with the artist and many others who were on campus celebrating his partnership with ASU. My favorite thing about the space is that it is never the same experience, and I’m really fond of when people stumble upon this lit-up structure as the colors are changing and they sit in silence and wonder.

Currently, my favorite spot on campus is the Fabrication Lab, the School of Arts, Media and Engineering’s makerspace. It is run by two brilliant people, Luke Kautz and Lauren Copley, and the place just teems with creative projects that they make possible. Currently, they are making medical face shields as part of a group uniting all ASU makerspaces to produce PPE during this time. And instead of closing down entirely, Luke and Lauren have started working with students on building a virtual FabLab, with the intention of creating and strengthening their community.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: Since my defense, I have started a new position at ASU’s Institute for Humanities Research (IHR) as coordinator. I could not be more grateful to be working with IHR, where I get to continue working with ASU faculty, staff and students on projects and events concerning our Digital Humanities, Health Humanities, and Environmental Humanities Initiatives. Of course, I’m especially excited to get to work as project coordinator for the Desert Humanities Initiative launched by IHR last fall. While starting a position during a pandemic is strange, it is also a gift. My new coworkers have been warm and welcoming, and I know this is where I’m meant to be.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I’ve never been good at choosing just one thing. Of course, the immediate urgency of the effects of COVID-19 are eclipsing my thoughts, and even billions of dollars aren’t quite tackling it. I think I would invest in ways to clean drinking water and air pollution. I know that’s more than one problem, and likely out of the scope of $40 million, but I would try anyway. Recently, we’ve seen that stopping automobile traffic can even clear the skies of Los Angeles, so maybe there is a way to harness what we’ve witnessed during this dire time and bring it into the near future. Water is life, and the U.S. example of the Flint Water Crisis and its ongoing status is a testament to environmental injustices surrounding clean water and access to that water that needs to be thoroughly addressed.