By Nino Paoli, CLA Student Writer
Elena Passarello, associate professor of creative nonfiction writing, says a “spider web of experiences” and a quiet fascination with the Pacific Northwest led her to Oregon State University.
Originally from Snelville, Georgia, Passarello relied on pop culture to shape her understanding of the far away land; and though grunge music energized her throughout her teens, Passarello claims it was “The Goonies” movie that made her apply to be a professor at OSU. She’s kidding, but she’s not. Despite her avid consumption of West Coast media, Passarello’s decision to cross the country came only after she completed two degrees from two different colleges with half a decade in between her higher education endeavors; but she says the non-traditional career path she experienced in her early twenties has assisted in her past and current ventures.
Passarello is no stranger to uncertainty. In pursuit of her undergraduate degree at the University of Pittsburgh, she enjoyed studying writing, literature and film. Her diverse education worked in tandem with different extracurricular opportunities, including writing for local magazines, DJ-ing at the UP radio station, working for an arts and education nonprofit, and landing small voiceover and acting jobs.
“I knew that I just had to find the next thing to try for as long as I could pay my rent,” Passarello recalled. “If I could just try a lot of things that my studies prepared me for, that was enough for me.”
Equipped with BA in English and the skills obtained from her prior jobs and education, Passarello spent the next five years working as an equity actor. Pittsburgh, Penn., she says, is a great theater town, since it’s equidistant from the behemoth theater industries of New York and Chicago. When she wasn’t acting, she would write or teach to supplement her income. For Passarello, those were formative years. She would work on plays written by the likes of Adam Rapp and Christopher Durang, while also freelancing and spending her downtime on independent creative work. Though content with her acting career, she wanted to go back to school for writing.
“I knew my brain had changed,” Passarello said, “and I wanted to see what this brain was like in school,” she said.
So Passarello took the unique step of applying to graduate programs a second time, despite the first time not being the right fit.
“I had a clearer sense of what I wanted, how to present myself, what I didn’t want in a program,” she explained. “Instead of having four years between undergrad and grad to do this freelance work that I was doing, and this independent creative work that I was doing, I had five years.”
When she did apply, she found that the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa was what she had been looking for, and it has served Passarello well.
“Being the director of the MFA in the creative writing program here at OSU, I think that it’s good for folks to know that applying twice [to graduate programs] is sometimes super sharp,” she said.
After graduating from UI, Passarello had still not set foot in Oregon. It was only when she came across a job posting for a teaching position at Oregon State, that she decided to see what Oregon was really all about. Her first time in Oregon was actually her on-campus interview.
She’s now celebrating her “decaversary.” Though “The Goonies” might have sparked her interest in Oregon, Passarello has stayed for many reasons – one, admittedly, being Oregon coffee –but she also acknowledged her appreciation for the OSU community.
“I’ve taught students all over the country and these students are surprising. They take good care of each other in the classroom, which is very important to me, and they’re teaching me all these new ways to frame the world.”
Teaching and learning have been the constants throughout Passarello’s life. Her mother and great-grandmother were teachers, and Passarello says that teaching is the way in which she has conversations with the world. She also says that writing is more collaborative than one might think, and she finds inspiration in working with other minds on writing. It connects her to her “writerly center.”
“[As a writer] you should have a cow in your barn named ‘Curiosity’; and you should always know how to milk it,” she said.
For Elena Passarello, coming back into the classroom with a “new cast of characters” is always exciting. And having that prior experience as a performer – as well as being an announcer on Public Radio Exchange/Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Live Wire Radio” variety show – only helps her as a teacher.
“I’m fine with a quiet audience and I know how to get a crowd back!” Passarello said.