Major: Gender and Women's Studies
Roderick "Shawn" Williams
Major: Sociology (Work and Society)
Major: Information Systems
Major: Cell and Molecular Biology
Double Major: Chicana and Chicano Studies/Spanish
For one former foster youth, Cal State Northridge is home.
Karisma Gideon is not your ordinary 20-year-old.
At a very young age, she was forced to face some ugly realities. But those potent experiences have shaped her into the strong individual she is today.
"I'm mature for my age. I can't be anything else. I carry that [burden] on my shoulders," she says gravely.
Karisma was born to an abusive father and a drug-addled mother. As a teenager, she was told to make a tough decision—remain in the household where she was abused or go into foster care.
She opted for foster care which estranged her from her birth family. Despite her grim circumstances, Karisma knew she would attend college one day.
Higher education was her golden ticket. "Once you're emancipated, you don't have anywhere to live," she says. "Northridge is like my home now."
While she was researching and applying to schools, Cal State Northridge jumped out at her immediately. She joined the campus as part of the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). She also became a Resilient Scholar, which introduced her to a support system of former foster youths, faculty mentors and campus staff.
Attending college was not only a turning point for her, but also for her family. For most of her life, Karisma has watched her mother and other relatives struggle with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Her success has helped her reconcile with them.
"It all stops with Karisma," her maternal grandfather told her family. The knowledge that she is a role model for future generations motivates her to keep pushing forward.
With her winning smile and effervescent personality, Karisma has an optimism that belies a childhood filled with tragedy and hardship. But her desire not to dwell on the negative has helped her get to where she is today.
Furthermore, she prefers to focus on the beauty around her. She loves all art—film, theater, and especially dancing. She hopes to work up the courage to audition for "Kinesis," the student dance showcase that takes place every year.
As a teen, when she felt most alone she sought guidance from her high school teachers and counselors. Ultimately, she too wants to mentor disadvantaged young women and children.
Even though she knows firsthand how hard life can be, her outlook remains perpetually bright and she wants to share that with others.
"Life can be good—and I want to show them the good side," she says.
After a terrible accident, DRES helps one student rise above his disability.
Roderick "Shawn" Williams is no stranger to sorrow.
Incarcerated for the majority of his life, he sought to rectify his past mistakes through hard work and education. After laboring through junior college, he transferred to Cal State Northridge in 2007.
At first, he was worried about the stigma of being an ex-convict.
"When I got into the classroom, [the anxiety] disappeared," he says.
However, he still struggled with college life. It was intimidating being on campus, surrounded by students who were much younger than he was. Back in junior college, he took distance-learning courses, which are not proctored by actual professors.
To help pay for school, he held a job at the Tarzana Treatment Center as a handicap van driver. He invested in a bicycle to commute to work. On the way home one evening, he collided with another cyclist and was thrown into the direct path of a Metro DASH bus.
The impact was devastating. Shawn sustained fractures to his skull and jaw, and tore a vital nerve in his arm, leaving his right hand useless. When he awoke, he was greeted by classmates and his sociology professor, Dr. Helen Dosik, along with her husband, at his bedside.
"I thought, 'Wow, that's pretty nice,'" he says.
Shawn stayed in intensive care for two weeks, but despite the strong support system, he fell into a deep funk.
"I would lie in bed, face the wall, cry and think, 'Oh God, what am I going to do?'" he recalls. He struggled with the once-simple tasks of filling out forms and signing his name. The pain in his arm agitated him.
"I've done some bad things in life, but getting hit by a bus is pretty severe," Shawn laments. "If God had a message for me, he didn't have to use a bus." Gloomy over his prospects, he lost the motivation to return to school.
Shawn didn't go back to Cal State Northridge in the fall semester following the accident.
However, his professors persisted in persuading him to come back. Dr. Dosik introduced him to Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) at Cal State Northridge. Out of respect for his former instructor, Shawn agreed to meet with the staff, but he had no expectations.
When he arrived at the office, "Everyone was so happy, I wondered what they were on," Shawn jokes. He was amazed at their resolve.
"Instead of claiming that they'll try their best, they kept telling me, 'We'll do this, and we'll do that,'" he says.
The staff at DRES introduced him to Naturally Speaking, a voice-recognition technology that helps him answer email and surf the Internet, and set him up with note and test-takers for class. When Shawn went back to Cal State Northridge in the spring, his grades picked up.
"I don't advise getting hit by a bus, but I didn't get anything lower than an A- [afterward]," Shawn says. Since the accident he has had to visit his professors during office hours to set up test dates. During these visits his professors inquire about his assignments and give him extra instruction.
With help, Shawn finished up his bachelor's degree in sociology only one semester behind schedule. The staff at DRES did more than just provide a service to him—they were like a family.
"They believed in me more than I did," he says.
Today Shawn is pursuing his master's degree in public administration at Cal State Northridge. His goal is to work with convicts and their rehabilitation.
Similar to his recovery, rehabilitation is a long, painstaking process and a labor of love. But like those who supported him through his injury, Shawn is up to the challenge.
Being president of Associated Students is not all fun and games—it's also about empowering students.
Conor Lansdale isn't afraid to speak his mind.
This character trait comes in handy for Associated Students (AS), for which he serves as president and student liaison to school administrators.
He attributes his candid brashness to his New Jersey upbringing.
"I have an East Coast communication style," he admits. "Some [people think I'm] too blunt...too aggressive."
But Conor just doesn't allow himself to be bullied. When he speaks, he looks you directly in the eye. He's self-assured but friendly. And he's not afraid to say no.
"I'm very fair. I don't even show favoritism to my fraternity," he says, referring to Pi Kappa Alpha, the Greek organization he's been a member of for five years.
The same fraternity helped him first become involved with AS. In 2007, the group ran into some trouble. It was brought to trial before the Interfraternity Council, and Conor stepped forward as a delegate.
In doing so, he realized that neither he nor his fraternity had a working relationship with the rest of the campus. To remedy this, he decided to join the AS Senate.
As an information systems major in the College of Business and Economics, Conor is fascinated by the inner workings of AS, which runs like a nonprofit professional organization. He voted on policies and allocated funds as a senator, and hired staff when he was elected vice president in 2009.
Now, as president, he meets with university leaders and makes executive decisions. But he's still not afraid to get his hands dirty.
On the first day of school, he can be found sprinting around campus with cans of spray paint and red-stained fingertips, tagging AS billboards with stencils. He doesn't shirk from chatting with students or inviting them to events like the Freshman Convocation or Big Show X.
Conor's administrative responsibilities extend beyond school matters. Unafraid to bring up controversial issues such as immigration reform and state ballot measures, he plans to host several professional speakers this year to address some of these topics.
The objective isn't to take a stand, but to give students access to the facts so they can be educated voters, he says.
"Most people wait until they are old and rich to vote," he explains. He wants students to realize that their vote gives them clout in society.
And that power, says Conor, allows them to take charge of their future.
Applying for a scholarship is no easy task. But for one student, it's one step closer to a long-held dream.
The first time Robbie Haughton tried to get a scholarship, he didn't succeed. On the second attempt, he applied the lessons he learned to create a stronger application.
He realized it wasn't enough to simply list his accomplishments. He had to market himself and showcase his abilities in the best light. And that's not all.
"You need to describe your achievements in a way that someone else can understand," Robbie says.
As simple as that sounds, actually achieving it takes a little work. Brushing up on the rules of grammar and syntax was helpful, Robbie says. He also sought advice from his father, a professional business writer. But most importantly, he pored over every sentence in his application to make sure that his intended meaning was clear.
Waiting one year to apply allowed him to gain some relevant experience, such as working as a student assistant for Dr. Dorothy Nguyen-Graff in the chemistry 100 classes and joining the laboratory of Dr. Paula Fischhaber, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry.
Robbie also asked professors, friends and family to review multiple drafts of his application before he sent off the final version.
In the end, his efforts paid off. When he was finally awarded the University Scholarship, he was exuberant. "It was a huge honor," he says.
Not only did victory taste sweeter for having missed out the first time, the University Scholarship catapulted him to even greater prestige—the Presidential Scholarship.
As a Presidential Scholar, Robbie is required to design a project and find a faculty member to sponsor him. Since he was already working with Dr. Fischhaber, together they designed a study of the molecular mechanisms of cells that repair DNA damaged by the sun's UV rays.
Robbie stresses the importance of finding the right mentor before applying for these scholarships. His best advice? Get to know your faculty. "A mentor will help you build an idea for a project," he says.
And do your homework, he adds. Since the scholarship is competitive, you need to demonstrate to the selection committee that you've done your preliminary work. Your project needs to be well-researched and ready to go by the time you submit it for consideration, he says.
While Robbie appreciates the cash he earned, it wasn't the impetus for seeking out this scholarship. Support for his project brings him closer to his dream of attending medical school.
Additionally, the scholarship program allows him to understand the greater implications of what he does. When he and the other scholars prepare for the annual spring showcase, in which students present their projects in front of President Jolene Koester and Northridge patrons, they are actually training for careers in professional research.
This preparation is invaluable to Robbie, and he hopes his project will lead to research that "will [expand] our medical [knowledge] so we can treat people with skin cancer."
Through the Presidential Scholar program, Robbie also has had a wonderful opportunity to observe a microcosm of Cal State Northridge's diverse student body. He mingles with Presidential Scholars from a wide range of disciplines spanning the arts, design, dance, psychology, deaf studies and more.
The experience has been eye-opening—and well worth all the extra time Robbie took to get his scholarship application just right.
Even as MEChA chair Jose Gomez looks toward the future, his feet remain firmly planted in the past.
For Jose Gomez, growing up Mexican-American in South Central was rough.
Compton High School was a hostile environment. Police cars parked outside the entrance every day. Students were often assaulted during or after school. And every Friday at lunch, black and Hispanic gangs drew racial lines across the cafeteria.
To Jose, these circumstances seemed like a straight road to prison or the military. He felt detached from the teachers and curriculum. However, his father was firm on securing a better future for his son.
"You're smart," he told Jose. "I want you to go to college."
Inspired by his father's words, Jose struggled to do well during his senior year. He signed up for AP English, even though he had previously attended only remedial classes. He took the SAT and applied to nearly a dozen colleges, including Cal State Northridge.
Being accepted by Northridge was the best thing that ever happened to him.
"Before Northridge, I had nothing," Jose says.
For the first time in his life, Jose thrived in an academic setting. He met people from different walks of life and gained firsthand experience of other cultures. He traveled abroad—to Puerto Rico, Mexico and Latin America.
Growing up among working-class immigrants, he often observed the voices of the masses silenced by more powerful people. As a student now, though, he is encouraged to speak up and be heard.
Learning to think and write critically has given Jose a sense of validation.
"Writing is powerful," he says. "We use it to preserve culture and history, and to start conversations."
As his knowledge of the world grew in scope, Jose also returned to his roots.
"Your past, your culture and traditions—[these are] what [give] our lives guidance. Otherwise it's just as easy to say [everything] is worthless because we all die. When you are disconnected from your past, your lifeline is cut," he says.
Jose currently serves as the internal chair for Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA de CSUN) and plans to pursue a master's degree in Spanish literature after he graduates. He is a double major in Chicana and Chicano studies and Spanish, and he is a member of the American Indian Student Association (AISA)—he was formerly vice president.
Every spring, MEChA hosts the Raza youth conference, an all-day campus event aimed at encouraging high school students from underserved areas to enroll in college. The festivities include free workshops, food and special giveaways, such as scholarships and laptops. Three hundred students attended last year.
Every week, Jose and MEChA members counsel elementary school children living in neighborhoods caught between rival gangs.
As Jose pursues his academic goals, he plans to apply his education to serving his community.
"Academia is privileged," he explains. "In college, professors and students have access to resources unavailable to others. As academics, we have to look out for the future, and [repair] the damage done by the past." His desire is to create a better world for younger generations, including his younger sister.
"I once was there," he says. "That's why I need to help them out,"
Find out more about cultural clubs on campus by visiting the Matador Involvement Center.