May 30, 2000 Vol. IV, No. 17

Top row, from left to right: Lawrence Johnson, Scott Benedict, Johannie Garcia-Chavez and Carmen Patricia-Tovar. Middle: Kent Tablada. Bottom row, from left to right: Brandy Isom, Mary Paulson, Felice Parish and Alan Kramer.

Graduating Students Overcome the Odds in Many Ways

Graduates Triumph Over Illness, Family Struggles, Work Demands and Language Barriers

"Both by location and by intent, we have attracted students who are overcoming obstacles," said Fred Strache, interim vice president for student affairs at CSUN. "We've intentionally sought out these students. This truly is the epitome of the modern university in an urban setting. People with different backgrounds, different socioeconomic levels, religions, places of birth-different everything-come together and it all seems to culminate at graduation," Strache said.

"We have the National Center on Deafness and the largest number of disabled students in the Cal State system-probably one of the largest populations in America. We have so many students who come out of poverty and have to work not just to support themselves, but to support their families, siblings or parents while they go to college," Strache said.

"Many other CSUN students were born outside the country, and not only were they able to survive and make a living, but they've mastered a new culture, a new language, and the rigorous academic programs at CSUN."

Here are the stories of just a few of CSUN's many extraordinary graduates this year:

Lawrence Johnson,
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology
After a 1989 motorcycle accident left him paralyzed from the waist down, Johnson wallowed in frustration and anger, spewing invective at his wife and feeling sorry for himself. He quit his job as a missile technician at the Navy's Pacific Missile Test Center at Point Mugu.

Reeling from money problems, medical problems and verbal attacks from her husband, Johnson's wife finally left him.

"For three years, I basically watched TV, watched people go up and down the neighborhood and felt sorry for myself. And then one day, it just hit me," said the 44-year-old Ventura resident. "I said, 'I've had enough of this. What am I doing with my life?' "

Johnson had only a high school education, having graduated near the bottom of his class. Overcoming his embarrassment at people seeing him in a wheelchair, Johnson entered Ventura College, earning an associate degree in liberal arts. Johnson then enrolled at CSUN's Ventura campus, which moved to Camarillo last fall.

Johnson successfully ran for president of Associated Students of the CSUN at Channel Islands campus, a post to which he has been re-elected for the 2000-2001 school year. He also was selected as Channel Islands' Student of the Year.

Johnson is graduating summa cum laude with a 4.0 grade point average and plans to continue at CSUN while he earns a master's of science degree in college counseling and student services.

As for Johnson's ex-wife, Ellen, she will be at his graduation. The two have remained "really good friends"-such good friends that they are talking about remarrying, Johnson said.

Johannie Garcia-Chavez,
Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology
The older of Garcia-Chavez's two daughters is disabled. At age 7, the daughter isn't toilet trained, cannot feed herself, and will not eat unless coaxed. Mealtime is a time-consuming and messy ordeal.

But for the past three years, Garcia-Chavez has attended CSUN full time. This spring semester, the Puerto Rican native is taking 21 units of classes so she can graduate and get a job teaching physical education to disabled students.

She drops off her daughters at school and daycare, then attends classes until it is time to pick up the girls in the late afternoon. After dinner, baths and chores, Garcia-Chavez heads back to CSUN until 10 p.m. Her husband helps, though recent marital problems have added to the strain.

"It's a little hard doing the kids, the school and the house, but I wanted to graduate. Even if it took me a while, I knew I would," said Garcia-Chavez, 28, of Sunland, who has periodically taken college classes since graduating from Palmdale High School in 1990.

Felice Parish,
Bachelor of Arts in Theatre
Felice Parish's mother, abandoned by her crack addict husband, long ago moved her family from South Central Los Angeles to Pomona to escape gang violence. But a few years later, Parish and three others were in a car outside a Pomona movie theater when shots were fired. Parish's boyfriend was fatally wounded.

"It made me even more determined to go to college and get away from the violence," said Parish, 26, of Pomona.

Parish enrolled at CSUN, where she has studied to become an actress. On campus, Parish has appeared in many plays. Off campus, she worked with four professional actresses in the American premiere of Athol Fugard's "My Life" at the Lankershim Arts Center in North Hollywood. Peter Grego, a CSUN theatre professor, directed the play.

An unplanned pregnancy in 1998 complicated things for Parish, but she kept attending school-and last year gave birth to a boy, Elyjiah. "I never really contemplated abortion or adoptionŠMy mother didn't give me up when times were hard," said Parish.

Parish's current boyfriend proposed to her at Christmas time. And in February, Parish learned that she had been accepted at Harvard's prestigious American Repertory Theater for graduate school.

Kent Tablada,
Bachelor of Arts in Psychology
Tablada, 43, of North Hollywood, arrived with his wife from Belize in 1981 seeking a better life in America. He struggled in low-level jobs, then became a machinist, working in freelance sales on the side.

All the while, Tablada supported a succession of friends and family members who moved from Belize to California. His sisters, a brother, parents, and in-laws all lived with the Tabladas for a year or two until they were able to save enough money to become independent.

Finally in 1992, Tablada began attending CSUN at night, but the 1994 Northridge earthquake so traumatized him that he dropped out. Then in 1998, he suddenly realized, "I'm losing sight of my dreams." Tablada was working days. The classes he needed were in the morning. "My wife and I made a choice. I retired."

Tablada hopes to be a role model for "a host of young nieces and nephews" whom he wants to inspire to attend college. He has been accepted to the master's program in psychology at CSUN, and plans to continue his education until he earns a doctorate degree. He wants to become a therapist.

"I am changing," Tablada said. "Back in 1981, a bachelor's degree may have been something to aspire to. But I think I need to be more educated so I can play a greater role in society."

Alan Kramer,
Bachelor of Science in Honors Physics
During his 16 years as a Mercedes Benz repairman, Kramer's co-workers didn't understand his dream of attending college. Few of them even had a high school education, let alone any college.

The 38-year-old Agoura Hills resident married right out of high school and had two children to support. Finally, 11 years ago, Kramer began taking night classes at a community college near his New Jersey home while continuing to work days at the job he found "unfulfilling."

In 1992, the Kramers moved to California to be near his wife's family. Kramer attended Pierce College, then transferred to CSUN. Fall 1998, Kramer recalled, "was the decisive moment. I could no longer take any evening classes. All the classes I needed were during the day." Kramer transferred to a Mercedes dealership that would let him work part time. "It was very, very difficult financially. It had an incredible impact on the way we lived. I took my children out of private school, let the nanny go. My wife was very angry. No vacations, much less dining out, no buying toys, we had to sell one of the cars," Kramer said.

Now, Kramer has a degree and his first professional job. He reports June 5 to work as a process engineer at Spectrolab, a division of Hughes Aerospace Inc., in Sylmar. Kramer's job will be to analyze the production of solar panels for communications satellites.

While working, Kramer plans to continue attending CSUN at night, pursuing a master's degree in physics. About 50 of Kramer's family and friends from across the United States were invited to a recent party to celebrate his graduation.

Carmen Patricia Tovar,
Bachelor of Arts in Spanish, Chicano Studies and Psychology
A native of Mexico City, Tovar immigrated to East Los Angeles with her family in 1990 at the age of 16. "I am the oldest of four children and the first one to go to college," Tovar said proudly.

"My first whole immersion to the English language and to the culture was when I got to CSUN in 1994," said Tovar, 25, of Reseda. "My family and all my friends were Spanish-speaking, so I never had to speak English other than in the classroom."

On Tovar's first day of college, she rode the bus from East L.A. to downtown, then realized she had no idea where she was going. She asked for directions, but no one knew where CSUN was located.

"So I got on the bus, and I went back home with a desolate heart because I felt I had failed," said Tovar. But Tovar's father mapped out a route for her. "For the following four years, I rode the bus for two hours to get to CSUN, getting on different routes until I found the one that took the shortest time," Tovar said. She left the house by 5:45 a.m. and didn't get home until 6 or 7 p.m. Tovar used the four hours she spent on the bus daily to study or read.

"Then I got involved in campus activities, so I would leave the school at 9 p.m. and get home by 11. Sometimes, I'd be, 'OK, do I want to eat or do I want to sleep? No, I want to sleep. I'll eat tomorrow,' " Tovar recalled. Tovar frequently found herself alone at a bus stop in downtown Los Angeles at 10:30 p.m. "I'd try to dress like a guy and be very tough. I'd wear big jackets and beanie hats and hide my hair so they wouldn't see my face, my hair or my body," she said.

"The last year I was on the bus, I would just get on the bus and go to sleep. I told my Dad, 'I have to move to the Valley. I'm so tired.' "

Tovar is excited because she received her green card in March. Although she was at the top of her classes, the prior lack of a green card kept her from applying for scholarships and special programs. Tovar wants to earn her doctorate and become a professor of American literature.

Scott Benedict,
Bachelor of Arts in German
In the second week of the 1999-2000 school year, Benedict discovered he had multiple sclerosis, a degenerative disease that doctors say will land him in a wheelchair in five to 10 years. Benedict, 28, of Los Angeles, took one day off from school to grapple with the implications of the disease, then went right back to classes.

"The week before school started, my entire right side went numb from my neck all the way down," Benedict recalled. "The test results came back on a Monday night. Tuesday, I just couldn't bear to go to school. I just had to sit and reflect on it, let it all sink in, but then I went right back to school Wednesday. I took my day, that was it. Time to get back to work.

"There were days when I'd wake up and try to stand up and I couldn't. I'd fall to the floor," Benedict said. Only then did Benedict miss classes.

The painkillers he took merely numbed the pain. "Going up and down the stairs was hard. All my classes are on the third floor. But I don't like to take the elevators, even though it's painful and I have to pull myself up the last flight of stairs, because I want to use my legs while I can, before I have to be in a wheelchair," Benedict said.

Despite his struggles, Benedict still was a standout student, always prepared for class, always contributing to class discussions. He plans to return to CSUN for postgraduate studies.

Mary Poulson,
Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies
The nuns at Mary Poulson's high school singled her out as having the intelligence to pursue higher education and placed in her college preparatory courses. But her mother's Filipino culture dictated that she become a wife.

So Poulson did what was expected of her and married young. But she was soon left a widow with two children. Untrained in any profession, Poulson became a secretary for Southern California Edison. For 17 years, she worked as a clerk, with little chance of advancement.

"According to my bosses, they couldn't offer me much because I did not have a higher education. I felt doomed," recalled Poulson, 49, of Ventura.

Then, 13 years ago, Poulson remarried. When her children "left the nest," she attended Moorpark College and Ventura College before transferring to CSUN's Ventura campus, which became the CSUN at Channel Islands campus last fall.

"I had no idea what field to pursue, but I knew that I enjoyed learning," Poulson said. She has been on the dean's list every semester and is graduating with a 3.94 grade point average. Poulson plans to become a teacher.

Brandy Isom,
Bachelor of Arts in Journalism
When Isom came to CSUN in 1996 from the small Antelope Valley town of Littlerock, she needed four remedial courses-the most available-to overcome deficiencies in her education. But the 21-year-old Canoga Park resident persevered, and by attending summer school every year, has managed to graduate in four years.

She won two scholarships from the university's Journalism Department and a prestigious Freedom Forum internship at Minnesota National Public radio. She also was active in the Black Student Union and worked with Associated Students. Along the way, she also inspired her younger sister, Stephanie, to attend CSUN.

May 30, 2000

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