The classroom is loud. Inside, the students are having a discussion, and they are all talking at once. Everyone has an opinion and voices it at a growing crescendo. June Saraceno, chair of the English department at Sierra Nevada College, stands at the front of the room, smiling at her engaged students. To her, this clamor is the best learning environment and her favorite kind of class.
“The best days in class are when I have to make a comment saying that we should talk one at a time because everyone is talking at once. I love those days,” Saraceno said.
Saraceno wants her students to be inspired and interested in class. She is a passionate teacher who asks a lot of questions and provokes energetic class discussions.
“If students are bored in my class, then I am crushed,” Saraceno said. “I feel like I’m not doing my job. I’m not successful.”
Saraceno has been teaching at SNC since 1987. At that time, the school was geared toward a small gathering of hippies and ski bums. Classes were held in trailers across the creek.
“It was tiny,” Saraceno said.
She was one of those ski bums herself. After finishing her BA in English and her MFA in creative writing, she decided she needed a break from school and moved from North Carolina to Lake Tahoe in 1984 to try skiing.
Saraceno spent her first years in Lake Tahoe on the slopes and exploring the mountains, enjoying the quality of life that she had moved here for. But it didn’t last.
“After a while of skiing and waiting tables, with every conversation I had being about the snow, I got tired of it,” Saraceno said. “I was longing to be able to talk about books and ideas… to be able to talk about the things that mattered to me.”
In 1987, she accepted a job as a creative writing and Humanities professor at SNC.
“When I first started working at SNC, you could get a Humanities degree, but you couldn’t get an English degree,” Saraceno said. “I thought most schools offer an English degree, and we should offer one too.”
Saraceno proposed an English degree that was modeled after other colleges’ programs, and it was unanimously accepted by the faculty. Saraceno became the chair of the new English department and soon decided that SNC should offer a creative writing degree as well.
In 2011, Saraceno started the creative writing program, which allows students to get a BFA or MFA in creative writing. In just two years, the program already has thirty students.
In addition to her academic achievements, Saraceno is also an accomplished poet. Her second book of poems, “Of Dirt and Tar,” was published in February 2014 by Cherry Grove Collections.
“The poems of June Sylvester Saraceno’s ‘Of Dirt and Tar’ concern themselves as much with air and light as with the world’s physical objects, lifting up as much as they dig down and deep,” said Cherry Grove Collections.
Last summer, Saraceno started a third book of poems while at a residency program in France. She was invited for a month-long stay at Carmac, an esteemed center for artists in Marnay sur Seine. There, living in an artists’ retreat in a room overlooking the Seine River, she had the time and space to write poetry. This summer she has been invited back to Carmac for another month, and she is excited for her upcoming trip.
“I will take any excuse to travel,” Saraceno said.
Saraceno has accomplished a lot outside of the classroom, but teaching at SNC is where she feels most fulfilled.
“I need the classroom. It’s part of what makes my life rich,” Saraceno said. “To be in a room talking with people about literature is a privilege, and it’s what makes me happy.”
By Terra Breeden