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Chico State

A Stronger Sense of Space

Portrait of Mary Gibaldi
Photos by Jason Halley / University Photographer

Mary Gibaldi is finishing her MA this semester (she already defended her thesis), has been chosen as the MA Commencement speaker, lost her house in the Camp Fire, and has been accepted to PhD programs at The Ohio State University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Mary Gibaldi is photographed on Wednesday, April 17, 2019 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

Mary Gibaldi has always been aware of the space around her. From moving city to city, to completing her thesis on the meanings behind space and architecture in literature, to establishing her presence in Chico State’s English department, her attention focuses outward.

Originally from St. Petersburg, Florida, Gibaldi started her college career at the University of South Florida studying English. A shift in focus inspired her to move to Fresno to pursue oenology—the study of winemaking—yet her English classes continued to fascinate her.

Drawn to Chico State’s English department, she found herself moving once again to complete her undergraduate degree in English, the discipline she decided she was truly meant to pursue.

It wasn’t long before Gibaldi found a home in the department. She loved it so much that she subsequently enrolled in the University’s English studies graduate program.

To her, the study of English occupies the space between history and philosophy, which is where her passion and love for the subject flourishes.

“You’re getting a holistic picture of the world from so many different perspectives,” she explained. “It’s a really elegant thing to have to think about for hours on end.”

During her two years at Chico State, Gibaldi was involved in countless leadership positions to give back the support she has received since her first day. She served as the president of the English Graduate Student Council (EGSC) where she orchestrated the 2019 EGSC English Symposium, worked as the assistant director of the ESL Resource Center, and will be speaking at the spring 2019 Humanities and Fine Arts Master’s Commencement ceremony. After graduation, she will serve on a panel with Chico State English professor Nathaniel Bryant at the Working-Class Studies Association Conference in England, where the panel will present one of Gibaldi’s recent papers.

To tack on to the list of her numerous titles and projects, Gibaldi was also selected to work as a teaching associate on campus. She was given the opportunity to compose syllabi and teach two English classes, including the 300-level course “Literature of the Child.”

Her thesis chair, English professor Erin Kelly, emphasized the confidence faculty had in Gibaldi’s skills, so much so that when they were looking for a faculty member to teach a 300-level course a few weeks before the spring 2018 semester began, they turned to her instead.

“We knew that she would be able to take on the challenge of teaching a higher-level course,” Kelly said. “She fulfilled our expectations with her performance in the classroom.”

Mary Gibaldi walks down the path between two campus buildings, looking off into distance.
Mary Gibaldi will be sharing the story of her educational journey with fellow students and their families and friends at the Master’s Commencement.

Now approaching the end of her master’s program, Gibaldi recently defended her thesis. Her study uses spatial and architectural poetics and French philosophy in literary theory to analyze how women speak about and represent different rooms, houses, and architecture in literature. She explains how the claims in this field are focused on observing how men represent their spaces in literature, but her thesis is believed to be the first that analyzes how females represent and interact with architectural environments.

She was introduced to the significance of space in one of her graduate seminars. By the end of the class, her curiosity took her from examining geographical spaces to exploring her own interest in the importance of rooms and houses.

 “I have been consistently impressed with her work on the feminist spatial poetics,” Kelly said. “Working with Bachelard’s theories of spatial poetics, Mary has corrected his theories for the realities of women, intersectionally attending to race and social class, as well as gender.”

As someone who is aware of the complexities of all that surrounds her, Gibaldi’s sense of space was demolished during her biggest challenge in grad school.

Gibaldi and her husband were living in Paradise when the Camp Fire erupted on November 8.  They fled the fire that morning in their pajamas with their dogs, leaving all their belongings, including the entire contents of his business, behind.

During the three weeks after the fire, the small family slept in friends’ living rooms and spare bedrooms until they could find a new space to call home. With both their families in Florida, they were on their own.

At the time Gibaldi was enrolled in three graduate seminars, all while fulfilling her roles as president, assistant director, and teacher.

“The real challenge has been continuing on in all of those roles after having been so mentally disrupted,” Gibaldi said. “It’s those small, daily battles that I have to fight since the fire to just continue and not quit the things I said that I was going to finish.”

Her characteristic momentum and vigor were diffusing. Yet in the face of destruction, she kept moving forward.

She credits the progress she maintained to the sense of home and family she found in the English department.

“They rallied around me and made sure I made it through and accomplished what I needed to accomplish,” she said. “I’m convinced I couldn’t have done it anywhere else.”

Gibaldi gleams as she talks about her passion for giving back the support that she has been overwhelmed with since she first arrived at Chico State.

“I just want to help others succeed: whether it’s my students, classmates, cohort, or tutees at the ESL Center,” she said.

Mary Gibaldi laughs against a backdrop of a brick wall.
Gibaldi’s positive attitude was buoyed by the support of her faculty and fellow students, as she determinedly pushed forward to finish her degree after losing her home in the Camp Fire.

Moving forward, Gibaldi will be relocating again to begin her PhD program at Ohio State University, where she has already been recruited by the university’s library to establish the curation of a rare books collection on architecture.

“That’s the great thing about being an English major. You can take it in any direction and find your own space in the field,” she said.