When more than 6,800 Cal State Northridge graduates receive their diplomas to close the spring 2001 semester, the ceremonies will recognize more than just students' academic achievement.
The university's annual commencement week May 29 to June 1 also will highlight the tenacity and dedication of many students who overcame obstacles-often seemingly insurmountable-to complete their education in pursuit of their personal goals.
"Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Some have worked full-time jobs while carrying full course loads," said CSUN President Jolene Koester.
"Others have had to deal with challenging family obligations, often as single parents. Their determination to overcome the obstacles before them and succeed academically inspires and reminds us of the importance and value of higher education."
Here are just some of CSUN's extraordinary graduates this spring:
Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering
Antoinette Acosta admitted that when she graduated from an Arizona high school, she had no idea what she wanted to do. She ultimately enrolled at the University of Arizona, but dropped out to get married at age 20. Three years later, she was divorced and had a one-month-old son.
"I had to get myself in gear if I was going to provide for the both of us," said Acosta, now 27. She moved in with her parents, who had since moved to Bakersfield, and enrolled first at the local community college, and then at Cal State Northridge with the goal of becoming an engineer.
For the past few years, Acosta has commuted between Bakersfield and Northridge, dividing her time between a full load of engineering classes and her son. An internship last summer at Warren A. Minner and Associates, a Bakersfield engineering firm, turned into a part-time job that also demanded her attention.
Through it all, Acosta said, she kept her eye on her main objective-her son, now age 4.
"When I'm home, I don't do homework until he's asleep. He comes first," she said. "I want to be an example for him. I want to be a strong role model for him so that when he grows up, he will be able to admire his mother."
Acosta, who maintained a 3.7 GPA at CSUN, is receiving her diploma in the College of Engineering and Computer Science commencement ceremony on Wednesday, May 30. She plans to continue working at Warren A. Minner and Associates and also pursue a master's in engineering.
Bachelor of Arts in Sociology
Lydia Aguirre dropped out of high school and ran away from home at age 15. By age 17, she was a single mom determined to get her life back together. She enrolled in a Santa Barbara continuation school and graduated from high school in 1996.
Determined to make a better life for her and her daughter, Aguirre enrolled first at Santa Barbara Community College, where she earned an associate's degree in anthropology and liberal studies, and then transferred to CSUN's Ventura Campus, now CSUN at Channel Islands, in 1999.
Aguirre, now 23, admitted commuting between Camarillo and Santa Barbara, where she also works at the community college as a transfer advisor, can be arduous, but she said it is worth it. Aguirre would like to become an academic counselor at a community college.
"I want to reach that population that hasn't really been exposed to the educational system," she said. "I want them to know that even if they've made some wrong decisions in the past, they still have a second chance if they get an education. Like I did."
Aguirre, who is the first in her family to get a college education, received her diploma on Friday, May 25, at the Channel Islands' commencement ceremony.
Bachelor of Science in Psychology
Growing up in Syria of Greek and Armenian parents, Linette Astourian never really felt she fit in. The fact that she was a girl who spoke her mind, Astourian said, really made her stand out in a community that favored more traditional behavior.
Her family immigrated to the United States when she was 14, and after three tough years in New Jersey, they finally moved to California and settled in Whittier. Worried that their opinionated daughter would become too American, her parents arranged her marriage immediately after high school.
Despite family opposition that she should stay home and take care of her two daughters, Astourian, now 36, tested the waters of independence with the support of her husband by enrolling at a community college. She loved it. It took her five years, but Astourian earned her associate's degree and then transferred to Cal State Northridge in 1998 to study psychology.
Through it all, Astourian worked, first at her husband's jewelry shop and now with the Armenian Relief Society in Glendale helping new immigrants adjust to their new country.
"I want to go on to graduate school and eventually become a clinical psychologist. I want to work with immigrant children to help them deal with adjusting to coming to the United States," Astourian said.
"I know personally how hard it is. It's not just the language issues, but the cultural ones that the whole family has to adjust to," she added.
Astourian, who now lives in La Crescenta, is receiving her degree in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' commencement ceremony on Wednesday, May 30.
Bachelor of Science in Nursing
Eriko Iwata came to the United States with the idea that she could polish her nursing skills with an American education and return home to Japan in just a couple of years. That was nearly six years ago.
Iwata, now 37, quickly discovered that what she learned in Japan was not up to American standards, nor was her English proficient enough for a university program.
With the support of her husband, a magazine editor who remained at home in Tokyo, Iwata enrolled at Glendale Community College to brush up on her language skills and to meet the general education requirements she needed to transfer to Cal State Northridge.
Iwata, who brought her now 12-year-old son with her to the United States, transferred to CSUN in 1997 and immediately embarked on a full load of courses.
Juggling childcare, classes and later a job as an intensive care nurse at Cedars Sinai Medical Center has not been easy. But Iwata is determined to take what she has learned in the United States back home to Japan.
"In Japan, the doctors are in charge. The nurses basically don't have any say in the care of the patients," Iwata said. "Here, nurses are part of the team, and they have a more clinical approach to what they do. The nurses in Japan would love to do what American nurses do."
Iwata, who lives in Glendale, currently maintains a web site for Japanese nurses on American nursing practices, as well as how to apply to an American university to study nursing. She also is writing a series of articles for a Japanese nursing magazine about her experiences in the United States.
Iwata is receiving her diploma at the College of Health and Human Development's commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 31. She is planning to earn her master's degree in nursing at UCLA, and then work in the United States for several years before returning to Japan.
Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies
By most accounts, Theresa Leonard shouldn't be here.
When she was in the first grade, she, an older sister and her mother were kidnapped. When she was 12, her father was murdered. About a year later, her mother was arrested in connection with her father's death and Leonard was put in foster care.
Leonard married a minister by age 19. But after eight years of abuse, she took her two children and left her husband.
Leonard later married another pastor, but again found herself in an abusive relationship. That marriage lasted 11 years and produced another child. After her then-husband was arrested, Leonard found the courage to leave him even though he had her convinced he could track her down even while behind bars.
After months of therapy, Leonard, now 42, decided it was time to get an education in order to do something for herself and her children.
She enrolled in a community college. About that time, she met the man who would become her current husband. Once she earned her associate degree, they married and moved to California to start a new life for their family in 1996.
Leonard, who now works at CSUN as a sign language interpreter for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, ultimately wants to become an elementary school teacher.
"I firmly believe the abuse has to stop somewhere," she said. "I want children to know that love is out there. At least when they go to school, they will know that their teacher loves them and that they will be treated with the honor, dignity and respect they deserve."
Leonard, a Canyon Country resident, is receiving her diploma at the College of Humanities' commencement ceremony on Friday, June 1. She is planning to enroll in CSUN's teacher credential program in the fall.
Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology
All Jeremy Sonenschein ever wanted to be when growing up was a commercial pilot. But after two years at a training facility in Arizona, his dreams were dashed when he learned he was color-blind.
Disillusioned, he returned to Van Nuys and, at his mother's urging to "get out of the house," he enrolled at Cal State Northridge in 1996. After signing up for a variety of majors, including political science and pre-med, he settled on kinesiology. Sonenschein now wants to become a student affairs administrator at a university.
While taking 16 to 18 units each semester at CSUN, Sonenschein still found time to volunteer in the community. It is a passion he developed while in middle school, when a teacher assigned him to work with autistic children as part of a class project. "I loved it," he said. "I really enjoyed the feeling I got helping people."
During his time at CSUN, Sonenschein has volunteered with the Los Angeles Music Center, Tree People, the Wildlife Way Station, the Los Angeles Fire Department as an emergency medical technician, the Sierra Club, various political campaigns, CSUN's University Student Union and the American Red Cross, where he is a member of a disaster response team.
In addition to his volunteer work and his studies, Sonenschein, now 24, also holds two part-time jobs, as a personal trainer at the Northridge YMCA and as an emergency medical technician for a Torrance-based private ambulance company.
Sonenschein is receiving his diploma at the College of Health and Human Development's commencement ceremony on Thursday, May 31.
@csun | May 29, 2001 issue
Public Relations | University Advancement
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