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Newsroom – California State University, Northridge

CSUN Graduates Take Varied Paths on the Road to Commencement

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(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., May. 11th, 2010) ―

More than 10,300 students are expected to walk across a stage at California State University, Northridge next week to celebrate their graduation from the university before thousands of friends and family members.

Each student has a personal story of hard work, perseverance and success. Below are samples of some of those truly unique stories:

Jayme Alilaw, M.M. in Vocal Music

Jayme Alilaw

Jayme Alilaw, 28, of Northridge, has been driven by her passion and love for music to overcome many obstacles. She enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserves at 18, married at 19, gave birth to a daughter and was deployed. But the vocal performance major never gave up her dream.

“I do not lament any of these life events because they have led me to this point,” Alilaw said. “Though music, education and military seem to be in direct opposition, they have collaborated brilliantly in order to equip me for what I am to pursue: a career as an opera diva.”

She will be the first in her family to obtain a master’s degree. She has achieved a 3.93 GPA and has been selected as a recipient of the Association of Retired Faculty Memorial Award scholarships.

Her passion is educating audiences about African-American art song composers. She is considered an “outstanding talent” as an opera singer, garnering recognition in leading roles with CSUN’s Opera Theater, OperaWorks and most recently in a world premiere production at UCLA. As an opera singer, she performs roles from both the soprano and mezzo-soprano repertoires. A 2008 Los Angeles District Winner in the Metropolitan Opera national auditions, she was a finalist in the Palm Springs Opera Guild competition and winner of the Performing Arts Award from the Fine Arts Club of Pasadena. She was inducted into Pi Kappa Lambda Musical Honor Fraternity in 2007.

Driven by her deep passion for traditional “Negro” spirituals, Alilaw organized a concert collaboration of vocalists and instrumentalists called “An Afternoon of Spirituals” at the California African American Museum. She was invited to present her research on African-American art song and perform at the National Council of Black Studies Annual Conference in March and her writings on the topic have been published in Operagasm magazine. Alilaw was also the second place award recipient at the CSUN Annual Student Research and Creative Works Symposium. She is currently working on a project titled “Black Voice: African American Art Song Composers in Recital.”

She will receive her master’s degree during the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication at 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 18, on the Oviatt Library Lawn.

Cindy Fierros, M.A. in Psychology

Cindy Fierros

Cindy Fierros, 27, of Whittier, will be heading to the University of Utah in the fall to begin work on her doctorate in education. She is confident that the extensive opportunities she had to conduct research at Cal State Northridge have given her the skills she needs to attain her ultimate goal, a faculty position at a university. She wants to teach and research ways to improve the educational opportunities and achievement of Latino students.

One of six children and the first in her family to go to college and to attain a graduate degree, Fierros, the daughter of immigrants, understands the value of an education.

“I really want to focus on ways to empower Latino and Latina students and make them aware of the opportunities that exist for them to get an education,” she said.

Fierros was working on her bachelor’s degree in math at UC Irvine and working with children with autism when she realized that psychology and teaching were what she wanted to do. “I majored in math because I had been good at math in high school,” she said. “But then I discovered psychology.”

Recognizing that she needed to bolster her research skills if she was going to get into a good doctoral program, Fierros searched online for a master’s program that would suit her needs. Cal State Northridge came up at the top of the list.

“I had no intention of attending CSUN because I didn’t want to live in the Valley,” she said. “But when the website came up and I saw who the professors were and the opportunities the psychology program presented for doing research, I knew it was where I belonged.”

Enrolling in 2008, Fierros hit the ground running. She assisted psychology professor Michele Wittig with research on ethnic identity among adolescents. She helped psychology professor Gabriela Chavira with a study that examines the influence of family, peers, schools and neighborhoods on the academic achievement and behaviors of Latino youth. She also examined the challenges and resources undocumented students face in the K-16 educational system.

“While the numbers of Latino and other minority students going on to college are increasing, they are still small,” Fierros said. “The success of a whole community depends on people getting an education. Young people need to know what the opportunities are and that

they have a right to them, and they need to be aware of the resources they possess to help them succeed. For me, this is a very personal issue.”

Fierros will receive her master’s degree during the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 19, on the Oviatt Library lawn.

Olga Kramarova, B.A. in Psychology with a minor in Russian

Olga Kramarova

Juggling three jobs while going to school full time to study psychology and Russian “is not that hard, if you love what you’re doing,” according to Olga Kramarova, 21, of Tarzana. In addition to working in the Human Factors Lab in the Department of Psychology, Kramarova also tutors her fellow students in statistics, teaches dance and performs regularly as a member of her own dance company.

“I love what I am studying, human factors, and I love dance, so none of this seems hard,” she said. Given her admitted drive to do the best she can, Kramarova, who has a 4.0 grade point average, said she wouldn’t expect anything less of herself. “Though my mom kind of thinks I’m crazy.”

Kramarova was born in the Ukraine, and moved to the United States, specifically the San Fernando Valley, when she was two. She left Taft High School in Woodland Hills for independent study and enrolled at Valley College with an eye on a career working with people. She stumbled onto the field of human factors psychology, the study of how people interact with technology.

“I wanted to work in human resources and thought that was what human factors was. I heard CSUN has one of the best human factors programs in the country, so I transferred here after finishing my general ed requirements at Valley College,” she said.

Arriving on campus two years ago and looking for an elective, Kramarova mistakenly enrolled in psychology professor Robert Youmans’ graduate human factors class.

“He pushed me beyond my limits. I was thinking and writing in ways I never knew I could,” she said. “And while human factors didn’t turn out into what I expected it to be, I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

Kramarova has been accepted into the human factor graduate program at Cal State Northridge and will begin work on her master’s degree in the fall.

She will receive her bachelor’s degree during the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 19, on the Oviatt Library lawn.

Daphna Ozery, M. A. in Educational Psychology

Daphna Ozery

The journey to her master’s degree has not been an easy one for Daphna Ozery, 48, of West Hills. But it’s one she would do again in a heartbeat.

Ozery and her husband, Moshe, moved to the United States from Israel in 2001 with their four children, who were then between the ages and 2 and 12. The Ozerys struggled the first couple of years as they helped their children adapt to a new culture, new schools and a new language. The children spoke Hebrew, not English.

“There were a lot of nights where we all cried because it was so frustrating and my

kids were having such a hard time in school because they didn’t speak English,” Daphna Ozery said. “But the next morning, I would drop them off at school and I would literally see them straighten their backs and shake their heads, and they were ready to face the day. These kids inspired me.”

With the support of her husband and her children, Ozery decided to follow a long-held dream of getting a college education. She had taken some classes at Hebrew University in Israel, but dropped out to become a stay-at-home mom when her children were born.

“My husband knew I wanted to go college and he urged me to go back to school when we came here,” Ozery said. “We knew it was going to be hard, but he said we’d figure out a way. So I called CSUN to see what I needed to do.”

She enrolled at Northridge in 2003 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in psychology. In addition to her studies, she held down two jobs—technical writer and manager of a house for adults with autism—and juggled the demands of family life.

“There were a lot of late nights when my kids and I would all be sitting down at the table doing our homework. I’d be up until one in the morning studying and then have to get up early in the morning to get them ready for school,” she said. “I think I’ve been a good role model for my kids, showing them that you don’t stop going for your dreams, even when it’s really difficult.”

Ozery has devoted the past two years on research for her master’s degree, often using her children and their classmates as subjects to test hypotheses. Interested in why people do what they do, she created her own research instrument to measure the development of altruism in adolescence.

Ozery has a daughter at UC Davis and another slated to start her studies at Cal State Northridge this fall. As for herself, she is going on for her Ph.D. in human development.

“CSUN really opened the door for me and really fostered my love of learning,” said Ozery, pointing specifically to psychology professor Howard Lee and educational psychology professor Adele Gottfried as inspirations. “I hope to some day come back here with my Ph.D. and teach.”

Ozery will be receiving her master’s degree during the Michael D. Eisner College of Education’s commencement ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 20, on the Oviatt Library lawn.

Elmer Solis, Interdisciplinary Master’s in Gerontology and Kinesiology

Elmer Solis

Elmer Solis, 26, of Northridge, admits he is an “old soul.”

While a student at Burroughs High School in Burbank during the late 1990s, most of his friends were adults, long out of school and confidently handling their responsibilities. During the four years he was in the Marines, which included a tour in Iraq in 2004, his serious, no-nonsense approach to his job earned him several awards and a quick rise through the ranks to sergeant.

“I think I understand what it means to be older. I always have. So, it was natural for me to pursue studies in gerontology. And now, coping with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), chronic back pain and other problems, I think I understand the aches and pains of an older generation a little more,” he said with a laugh.

Solis would like to open a center that specializes in serving adults as they age,

offering exercise programs designed to compensate for the physical limitations that come with getting older as well as access to chiropractic and physical therapy specialists.

“Getting older doesn’t mean you can’t be active and stay in shape, you just have to do it safely,” he said.

Solis, who was born in Guatemala, wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do when he left the Marines in 2005. He spent about a year exploring his options before enrolling at Valley College. A chance hiking class sparked an interest in kinesiology, the scientific study of human movement.

With a goal in mind, Solis set out to finish his college education as quickly as possible, taking as many units and classes as humanly possible. He finished his associate’s degree in less than a year and transferred to CSUN in 2007. He earned his bachelor’s in kinesiology last year.

Despite his heavy class load and a job with CSUN’s Veterans Administration office, Solis found time to volunteer with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Cardiac Rehabilitation Department and with the non-profit Partners in Care Foundation, helping the organization create veteran rehabilitation programs, as well as to serve on the Board of Directors of CSUN’s University Student Union.

Recognizing the need for student veterans like himself to network and share their unique experiences, he founded Cal State Northridge’s Student Veteran Organization last year. The group is now about 60 members strong, a size he says is large enough to keep it going long after he graduates. “I wanted to make sure it would be there for veterans five, six, ten years from now,” he said. “Most of us are veterans from the current wars, but we’re expanding, reaching out to our fellow veterans from Vietnam and other wars who are here on campus.”

Solis admits that a review of all he has accomplished in so short a time can be breathtaking. “When I set my mind to something, I don’t let anything distract me from what needs to be done,” he said. “It worked in the Marines, and it works in the civilian sector as well.”

Solis will be receiving his master’s degree during the College of Health and Human Development’s commencement ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 18, on the Oviatt Library lawn.

Yolie Vasquez, B.A., in Psychology

Yolie Vasquez

Yolie Vasquez

Yolie Vasquez, 23, of Oxnard, knew while she was in high school that she would one day attend Cal State Northridge. After all, it was where her sister, Sandy, went to college, and she raved about her experience. The only problem was, Yolie Vasquez didn’t know what she was going to study and admits she wasn’t quite prepared.

She began her time at Cal State Northridge in 2004, in remedial math and English classes. “I felt really bad. So, I made a goal: I told myself that I was going to reach for the top and get good grades,” Vasquez said.

With that in mind, Vasquez set out to take advantage of all that Cal State Northridge had to offer, including serving as a resident advisor, director of personnel for the student government, Associated Students, Inc., a student teacher assistant for the A.S. Children’s

Center, and a student representative on various university bodies, including the University Corporation.

In 2006, she chose psychology as her major. Hoping to some day get a doctorate in clinical psychology, Vasquez immersed herself in research. In 2008, she applied for and was selected as one of five scholars for the National Institute of Mental Health’s Career Opportunities in Research program at CSUN. She assisted psychology professor Gabriela Chavira on several research projects and presented at numerous professional conferences and recently submitted a manuscript for publication. She spent last summer assisting a UCLA professor in clinical psychology.

A research internship with the Family Stress Center in North Hills ignited her passion to study child abuse and neglect as well as the impact that exposure to intimate partner violence has on a children’s development, particularly in those families where the mother remains in the abusive relationship.

The psychology department recently honored Vasquez with its Richard Coleman Award, given to those undergraduate students who have demonstrated high scholarship and an exceptional record of service to the department, university and/or community. She also received the Western Psychology Association’s Robert L. Solso Research Award for Outstanding Research. Next week during the university’s Honors Convocation, she will receive one of the university’s highest academic honors, the Outstanding Graduating Senior Award.

She also was selected as a CSU Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Scholar for 2009-2010. That means the California State University will fund a unique opportunity for her to spend the summer doing pre-doctoral work alongside researchers from San Diego State University and University of California, San Diego, on a 20-year study that focuses on the impact that child abuse and neglect has on children. The subject’s one she is passionate about: Vasquez has already contacted the project’s director, San Diego State psychology professor Alan Litrownik, and extended her time on the project to a full year.

“This is a subject I really care about,” Vasquez said. “I’m one of seven children and grew up in a very loving, supportive family. Though my parents were immigrants and didn’t have college educations, they stressed to their children the importance of obtaining an education and following your dreams.”

Vasquez looked back with pride at all she has done during her tenure at CSUN, noting that she has come a long way from starting off in remedial courses to now graduating as an outstanding senior.

She will receive her bachelor’s degree during the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 19, on the Oviatt Library lawn.

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