More than 6,000 proud Cal State Northridge students will claim their diplomas in June. Among the standouts are seven whose courage and tenacity prevented even war and grave illness from interfering with their dreams.
"We are proud to celebrate all they've accomplished," said President Jolene Koester.
"All I remember is crying and wanting my mother," said Altounian, now 41 and living in Sunland. "I did not speak a word of English and I had never even heard the language. I was unceremoniously dumped in the back of the class and left to cope… School was a very cruel place."
But Altounian studied feverishly, graduating from high school at age 12. After a move to Southern California in 1983, she enrolled at CSUN and earned bachelor's degrees in biology and psychology, a master's in experimental psychology, a teaching credential in biological sciences and a supplemental credential in mathematics.
A master's in mathematics education was next when, two years ago, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Chemotherapy stole a whole semester from her, but Altounian kept teaching at Garvey Intermediate School in Rosemead.
"I had my good days and my bad days, but the kids in my classes kept me going. When I lost my hair, they brought me hats and scarves, and would visit me when I was in the hospital," she said.
Altounian's cancer has metastasized. A year ago, her doctors gave her six months to live. They now say she has two years, but Altounian thinks they are wrong. She has a doctorate in her future, and many more classes to teach.
Working in Kuwait as a mechanic on field service trucks headed for battle in Iraq, the U.S. Naval reservist kept his mind sharp reading books, many sent by CSUN professors. He used coveted computer time to register for the fall semester.
Barnes, who stuttered severely growing up in Florida, did not find school easy. After high school, he signed up with the Marines, and was part of 1991's Operation Desert Storm.
In 1996, Barnes became a security supervisor with Sports Chalet, joined the reserves, and enrolled in classes at Pierce College. Sitting in a sociology class, a light flicked on in his head. Sociology was the field where he belonged.
Barnes transferred to CSUN in spring 2002, but was promptly swept onto a different field, in the Persian Gulf area.
Less than two weeks after returning from the Gulf, Barnes was back in school, shrugging off advice to take time off after his "traumatic" experience. "I really missed CSUN while I was over there, and I was determined not to miss any more classes."
Fresh from the College of the Canyons, the Santa Clarita resident enrolled at CSUN in 1995, but lost interest in his studies. Academic probation was followed by disqualification in 1998.
A year later, he was back again as an English major. "I had always wanted to be a writer," Cedillo said, "but I never tried it." He tried it and found a true passion for theater in Northridge productions.
Last fall, Cedillo began coughing up blood and was misdiagnosed with walking pneumonia. During a performance, he lost the ability to speak.
Eventually diagnosed with testicular cancer, Cedillo led a life dominated by surgery and chemotherapy from November 2003 to April 2004. He lost 50 pounds, had to relearn how to walk and still cannot run.
"If I want stuff to happen, I have to do it now. I don't know if I have another five years," he said of his desire to pursue a master's in English at CSUN. "If you're not busy, you're dead."
"Three Bulls," a work based on his experiences, will be performed in June at Tia Chucha's Café Cultural in Sylmar.
"But at school, I was constantly struggling and often answered the wrong questions," she said. "It was very hard."
A new school in Tucson, Ariz., understood Copps' disability and helped her catch up. Despite entering high school reading at a fourth-grade level, she graduated reading at college level.
Copps, who will seek work as a school counselor, has a 2002 University of Arizona bachelor's degree in psychology. She came to Northridge for her master's because of CSUN's reputation for serving deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
As a full-time student with three jobs—counseling at Granada Hills High and CHIME Charter Elementary schools, and tutoring for a deaf student—Copps has battled illnesses that often sent her to the emergency room.
Missed school days were made up. "I didn't want to give up," she said.
"Some mornings it was hard to get up and keep going," said the Van Nuys octogenarian. "Your eyes, your whole body gets tired."
But McKenney has never been one to back down from a challenge. After dropping out of college in 1960 to take a secretarial position in Edwards Air Force Base's space program, she handled top secret correspondence between rocket scientist Werner Von Braun and her bosses.
Plunging back into school after retirement, she became Valley College's oldest graduate in 2001, drawing special praise from U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer.
Student life at Cal State Northridge was challenging but rewarding. "All the teachers were very polite to me, and respected me. When I asked, 'Am I really supposed to be here?' they said 'Absolutely.' "
McKenney's heavy CSUN class and study schedule required every ounce of her concentration. "I worked myself around the clock doing theses," she said.
But they were hours well spent. "The learning process itself is what I love most."
The San Fernando resident is remembered by family and friends as a single mother determined to make a difference in the lives of her peers.
Not only did she work full time as a social worker assisting victims of domestic violence, and part time at a YMCA shelter, but Rosales volunteered at Casa Esparzena, where she helped troubled teen-aged girls get back on track.
Rosales, who dreamed of opening a shelter for victims of domestic violence, attended Cal State Northridge full time to provide a role model and a better life for her eight-year-old son, Emmanuel.
After a failed marriage, the single mother of three worked three jobs at times to support her children. One job was at Cal State Northridge, where she has spent 29 years, the past 13 as an administrative support coordinator in the Marketing Department.
To set an example for her children, Trigg became a CSUN student in 1993 and, after more than 11 years of part-time school, will graduate magna cum laude. Her daughter is now a freshman at Northridge, and her sons are in the military.
"I wasn't going to let the people who hurt me ruin my life," said the future teacher. "I ultimately won."
@csun | May 17, 2004 issue
Public Relations | University Advancement
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