A record 10,110 students have been invited to walk across the stage at Cal State Northridge later this month to celebrate their graduation from the university.
The commencement ceremonies mark not only the academic achievement of the students, but also their tenacity and determination to get a college education.
“Graduating from college is a great achievement and has special meaning at Cal State Northridge,” said Northridge President Jolene Koester. “Commencement is a celebration of our graduates’ accomplishments, and the important role the university plays in the community and local region.
“We are very proud that these students, who are among the best and brightest in their community, chose to attend Cal State Northridge,” Koester continued. “They recognize that Northridge is a highly respected institution with many outstanding and demanding programs that can give them the knowledge and education necessary to succeed. Though many of our students face special hurdles during their studies—such as juggling one or two jobs with a full course load and/or dealing with family obligations and cultural barriers—their achievement in reaching this pinnacle moment of their lives speaks volumes about the underlying character and determination of our students.”
Below is a short list of some of these extraordinary graduates:
María Luisa Arienza-López
María Luisa Arienza-López, B.A., Spanish
María Luisa Arienza-López was just 10 years old when she and her family moved to Santa Clarita from Russia in 2001 seeking a better life. She knew not a word of English and had only an inkling of what American culture was like.
“It was very difficult for us financially, emotionally, everything,” she recalled. “We knew nothing about the United States, not the language, the culture, nothing.”
But Arienza-López, now 18 and the first in her family to get a college degree, was determined to make it.
She mastered English within a year. While a 14-year-old sophomore at Van Nuys High School, she decided to tackle another language and culture—Spanish.
She had inadvertently been transferred mid-semester into an advanced Spanish literature class for native Spanish speakers. She knew nothing about the language, but her Latino classmates had given her a glimpse of their culture and she was intrigued. She talked the teacher into letting her remain in the class. Within a year, she had mastered Spanish and discovered a passion for the language and culture.
Determined to make the most of her new-found love, she finished high school early and immediately enrolled at Los Angeles Mission College with an eye on transferring as soon as possible to a four-year institution to get her bachelor’s degree and then a teaching credential. She wants to teach high school Spanish and eventually get her doctorate so she can teach at the college level as well.
Arienza-López took nine classes per semester at Mission, earned her associate’s degree within a year and transferred to CSUN last fall. She has taken nine classes each semester at Northridge, all the while working 30 hours a week at a local middle school as an aide to non-English speaking students.
“The kids know I go to school and they’ll ask me questions about what it’s like and I try to tell them about it. I hope I am a role model for them,” she said.
The Glendale resident knows the educational fast track she has taken is not for everyone, but given the finances at home, she felt she had no choice.
“I love school and everything about it,” she said. “I’m not into parties or going out to clubs. I love being in a classroom and learning from good teachers, like the ones I’ve had here at CSUN. Nine classes a semester is not too much when you love school as much as I do.”
Arienza-López will take part in the College of Humanities’ commencement ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 20, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library at the center of the campus at 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge. She starts CSUN’s teacher credential program this summer.
Nick Arman, M.S., Counseling
Nick Arman, 27, of Northridge, had dreamed of joining the military and then becoming a cop ever since he was a little boy. He was proud of his parents’ military service in the family’s native Israel, and he wanted to give back to his new home.
But that all changed about five years ago when Arman severely injured his back as a member of the National Guard during a mortar attack on his base 60 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq. Though he continued to serve in the National Guard for a few more months, including time in Korea, Arman’s dreams of being a police officer were over.
Arman was honorably discharged from the military in 2006 and returned to study sociology at Pierce College, which he left two years prior when he volunteered to go to Iraq.
“I learned a lot about myself while I was in the military, and in Korea,” he said, noting that his time in Korea reminded him of when he first immigrated to the United States as a child and didn’t know the language or the culture. “I learned to question who I was and what I wanted to be. And this validated my passion to help others.”
He finished his studies at Pierce, transferred to CSUN, earned a B.A in sociology and enrolled in Northridge’s Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling.
“I did at lot of research, talked to my twin brother (Yanir) who got his psychology degree here, and through my experiences at CSUN as an undergrad, I realized that this was the best place to get my degree,” Arman said.
While working on his master’s, Arman interned at Los Angeles Community College as a counselor and, recognizing a need for veterans’ services, he helped establish a support group for student veterans. He also developed a handbook to guide them through the educational process. His efforts played a pivotal role in the college receiving a $100,000 grant from the American Council of Education and the Wal-Mart Foundation.
Arman, who spent two years in the Marines right after high school, also volunteered at the Sepulveda Vet Center, where he co-facilitated a support group for Vietnam veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress. The men were initially skeptical that someone so young, and who had fought in a different war, would be able to relate to their experiences. It’s been nearly a year since he joined the group, and Arman said it has grown into a tight-knit cluster of men. “We’re going to keep on going as a group as long as we can,” he said.
When he graduates from CSUN, Arman would like to get a job as a community college counselor. “I think that’s where I can do the most good—helping students learn what they want to do and what classes they should take to get where they want to go,” he said. “But I will always be an advocate for veterans and their needs. That’s where my heart is.”
Rashitta Brown, M.A., Education Administration
From the time she was old enough to work, Rashitta Brown, 26, has assisted her mother with financial responsibility four younger sisters, holding down several jobs while in high school.
She dreamed of a college education, but her grades weren’t stellar. Then she came across the Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) Residential Bridge Program at CSUN, which enables “special-admit” freshmen from low-income families to attend college.
“I was excited to be accepted into college,” Brown said. “I was the first in my family and I had to make a change. I am a role model to my four younger sisters, we were expected to be teen mothers. Although she was a teen mother, my mother strived to make sure we did not take the same path.. I needed set an example.”
But the responsibility to help provide for her family remained. Once again, she worked several jobs while attending school full-time. The stress began to take its toll.
“I was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism,” Brown said. “Everything I ate would not stay down, which meant I lost a lot of weight. My skin became scaly and dry. I looked like I was dying and the doctors told me I would have it for the rest of my life.”
By the end of her first year, Brown “stopped out” of CSUN. She moved back home to focus on her health. Brown’s mother, then recently divorced, had moved her sisters into a friend’s home. All six women were living in one room. The divorce had taken a financial toll on the family.
“Moving back home reminded me of the poverty that we lived in and that I had to work hard for an education in order to do what I wanted to do,” she said.
Brown attended community college, then returned to CSUN in 2002. Recognizing an inherent need to help others, she volunteered with EOP. Her commitment impressed senior staff within the program and she was hired as a student assistant.
One student in particular inspired Brown daily with his perseverance to achieve despite the obstacles. The student, who comes from a drug-addicted family, “showed up every day with the biggest smile on his face and finished his first semester with a 4.0,” said Brown.
In 2006, Brown earned a bachelor’s in sociology. She currently works as the EOP Transitional Programs assistant, coordinating the First Step program, which reaches out to low-income high school students and prepares them for the rigors of college.
Brown will receive her diploma during the College of Education’s commencement ceremony May 21. She will be entering a doctoral program at USC in the fall. She would like to create a community foundation for low-income, first-generation students who may not have the best GPAs, but who have a lot of potential. Students like her.
Kristina de Bree
Kristina de Bree, B.S., Marketing
Kristina de Bree was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis when she was only six weeks old. Doctors told her parents she would not live beyond her teens. Someone forgot to tell de Bree.
Now 23, she will be walking across the College of Business and Economics’ commencement stage in front of the Oviatt Library shortly after 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 20, to receive her degree in marketing and business honors and a minor in psychology.
“Because of my cystic fibrosis, people have told me that I would never get through to college or that I should just quit,” said the Valencia resident and a volunteer with the Los Angeles chapter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation since she was 15. “Because they said those things to me, it motivated me a lot more to graduate from CSUN, and to do it well.“
Cystic fibrosis is a life-threatening genetic disease. It causes frequent lung infections causing de Bree to be hospitalized multiple times a year with pneumonia. In addition, de Bree has a tedious daily regime requieing three-hour breathing treatments, airway clearance exercises and handfuls of pills.
The disease also meant that de Bree missed school a lot. Despite her frequent absences, she still maintained a high grade point average and was an active member of the Business Honors Association, organizing events and fundraisers that brought students, alumni and members of the business community together.
Tapping into her “intrinsic motivation to succeed, ” de Bree looked at each setback as an opportunity. The death of her first friend to cystic fibrosis in 2007 reminded her that this “disease really kills people.” It also made de Bree more determined to graduate. About a year later, she developed a life-threatening pneumonia called MRSA, a drug-resistant Staph infection, that took her more than three months to recover.
Despite her illness, de Bree remained committed to her education, often attending class with pneumonia so she would not fall behind. “When CF (cystic fibrosis) tries to bring me down I work 50 times harder to come out on top,” said de Bree.
De Bree will take the last of her classes this summer and begin a publicity internship with Warner Bros. Records. She eventually wants to go to graduate school to study organizational psychology.
In addition to the commencement ceremony for the College of Business and Economics, de Bree also will take part in the university’s Honors Convocation ceremony at 6 p.m. Monday, May 18, on the lawn of the Oviatt Library.
Frank Carr, B.S., Business Administration
Frank Carr traveled with the army, raised a family and retired after working for more than 33 years. But a few years ago, the 82-year-old Huntington Beach resident realized he had one more thing he needed to accomplish—get his college degree.
“One day, I was thinking that maybe if I added all of my credits together I could get a degree from CSUN,” said Carr, who retired from Boeing Aircraft in 1992. “I decided to look in the CSUN directory and find someone who could help me in completing my degree. I was transferred to Judith Hennessy and she told me that it would be hard work but that it could be done.”
Hennessy, associate dean of the College of Business and Economics, and Carr worked for weeks to contact all of the schools Carr had attended since his early 20s. Carr left college in the late 1950s, after having spent years taking night classes at CSUN, UCLA extension and Santa Monica City College.
At the time, he was working at Boeing. His position at work and a desire to spend more time with his family influenced his decision to put his education on hold. He never imagined that he would be returning to school for his degree almost 50 years later.
Originally from Louisburg, Ala., Carr joined the army after high school and was sent to Japan for a year. “The army gave me the opportunity to travel quite a bit and visit many places. After being discharged from the army and seeing that jobs were scarce in Alabama, I decided that California would be a good place to live,” he said.
Here, he met his wife, Micheline, whom he married in 1964. They eventually had two daughters, both of whom are now teachers.
For Carr, attending class and completing assignments were the best parts of going to college. Graduation is more of an afterthought.
“It’s going to be an honor,” he said of commencement. “But now that [school’s] all over, the diploma doesn’t seem as important. Things are interesting when they are being done. Once done, the activity and the process of learning simply end.”
Unlike many of his fellow graduates, Carr will not be looking for a job.
“After I receive my degree, I plan to use the knowledge that I received to help me invest wisely during these troubling economic times and to advise others,” he said. “Since I am 82 years old and retired 17 years ago, I have declined all job prospects.”
He is planning to attend his college’s commencement ceremony on May 20. His daughter, Karen, will be there to cheer him on.
LaNai Wiley, B.A., English (English Subject Matter Option)
When LaNai Wiley graduated from high school in June 2007, she already had her associate’s degree from Los Angeles Harbor College, an accomplishment that nearly a year earlier would have seemed impossible.
During her junior year in high school, Wiley’s world was turned upside down when two of her closest friends were killed. Drawing support from her family, Wiley continued to push through her high school academics and the associate’s degree program she started as a freshman.
While losing two friends proved difficult, nothing could prepare Wiley for the loss of her father near the end of her junior year. Her father, who always urged her to “keep your grades up no matter what,” passed away from lung cancer.
“I fell off track and let my grades fall [but] one day I thought ‘what am I doing?,’” said the Carson resident. “Taking a step back [to] think, ‘this is what my dad wanted and what my friends knew I was going to do.’ It helped and motivated me to go on.”
She remembered her father’s dream for her: graduate from high school and go to college. This thought alone motivated Wiley to complete both her A.A. and high school education.
Now 19, Wiley will be graduating from CSUN with a B.A. in English (English Subject Matter).
The path to her degree has not been easy. Facing financial problems, there were times when Wiley did not know how she and her family were going to be able to pay for her college education. Yet, time and time again, everything worked out, and, according to Wiley, it was simply because she “really believed” in herself.
Taking about 15 units of upper division courses a semester, Wiley first struggled to gain acceptance from her older peers, who were usually in their early to mid-twenties.
“[Classmates and teachers] would say, ‘do you know this is upper division?’ and I would have to explain,” said Wiley. “Now, I’m used to it and I just say, ‘well, I’m younger and I’m graduating.’”
Wiley hopes to return to CSUN next year to get her teaching credential and learn sign language. She will take part in the College of Humanities’ ceremony on May 20.
Paola Cervantes, Eve Green and Nichole O’Grady all contributed to this release.