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Newsroom – California State University, Northridge

Hard Work, Determination Pay Off as Students Prepare for Graduation

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(NORTHRIDGE, Calif., May. 11th, 2011) ―

More than 10,300 students are expected to walk across a stage at California State University, Northridge later this month 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 examples of just some of those truly unique stories:

Brittany Comegna, B.A. in Cinema and Television Arts

Brittany Comegna, B.A. in Cinema and Television Arts

Brittany Comegna, 20, of Moorpark, said she chose Northridge because of its reputation for meeting the needs of deaf people, her brother had come here and, more importantly, it has a very good Department of Cinema and Television Arts (CTVA).

“Growing up, I spent the first half of my life not watching TV because captions were not widely available. Most of the programs that had captions were news programs and I was too young to really understand the topics being discussed,” said Comegna, who is deaf.

“When I reached the age of nine, more programs were becoming captioned and I came to watch TV religiously,” she said. “At the time, my English was not up to standard but, as I began to watch more TV, I read more and became more hungry for knowledge. For me, TV opened the world of education and helped me become part of American society. Deaf people are very visual people, so I was naturally drawn to CTVA.”

The fact that none of her classmates knew American Sign Language (ASL) nor could an interpreter be with her at all times—a degree in cinema and television arts with an emphasis in multimedia production often required more time working with her peers on a project outside the classroom than in—didn’t phase her.

“I didn’t mind,” she said. “I come from a hearing family. I also spent three years at CSUN going to speech therapy every week so I can communicate with hearing people verbally should I decide to waive the use of paper and pen.”

While in high school at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont she created Working Hands to Warm Hearts, for which she had volunteers knit scarves for deaf women and children at a domestic violence shelter. When the yarn ran out, she’d give of her time. When she came to CSUN, she began working part-time at the Deaf Studies Resource Center.

Despite the demands of her major and her job, she still managed to put her passion for helping people to work. She landed an internship in fall 2009 helping the U.S. Deaf Sports Federation at the Deaflympic Games in Taiwan. The post tapped into the skills she learned in her multimedia classes.

“I worked overseas for three weeks from dawn to midnight everyday, shooting competitions and displaying the videos on the Web for people at home to view,” she said.

While the people she worked for used ASL as a primary mode of communication, at the games “a flurry of different sign languages were being thrown around. I picked up some Universal Sign (Language) to communicate with other deaf people,” she said.

Comegna finished her studies in December and will take part in the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication’s ceremony scheduled for 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 24, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library.

In July, Comegna starts a job with AmeriCorps in Washington, D.C. When that’s done, it’s off to grad school. She would like to get a master’s degree in quantitative research methods. Her goal is to do media research for the entertainment industry.

Terriel Cox, Master’s in Social Work

Terriel Cox, Master’s in Social Work

Terriel Cox lived in 11 different foster care homes and attended five different elementary schools by the time she was 11-years-old. Her father was not in her life and her mother was an alcoholic who struggled with substance abuse.

The native of San Diego said she could have been one of the hundreds of youth in California’s foster care system that never go to college but a social worker changed her life. When Cox first arrived at Cal State Northridge in 1998, she began a mission to help young people like herself who have been raised in the foster care system.

That’s why the 30-year-old will graduate this month with a master’s in social work and be honored with the prestigious Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student. She will be among several students recognized during the university’s Honors Convocation ceremony at 6 p.m. on Monday, May 23. The award is presented to a CSUN graduate student who shows the best record of distinguished scholarship, has a minimum GPA of 3.5 and has made significant contributions to their field of study.

Cox has a 3.83 GPA. She earned her bachelor’s degree in communications from Northridge in 2003.

“My goal is to be a support and provide those aftercare services to foster care youth when they are emancipated,” Cox said. “I want to let them know that they too can achieve their dreams.”

Cox credits much of her success to CSUN’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP). She was a “special admit” student and attended the Summer Bridge transitional program the summer before starting college in 1998. She said the staff in EOP supported her “emotionally and academically.” She has served in several leadership positions on campus and in the community. She was a resident advisor and received the Resident Advisor of the Year award, the University Village Apartments Team Leader Award and Best Mentor Award. She has helped pilot Northridge’s EOP Resilient Scholars Program, which provides support and assistance to college students who have been emancipated from the foster care system.

“California State University, Northridge has taught me that I can be an agent of change, and I can make a difference,” said Cox, who upon graduation, will work for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services as a social worker.

Cox is among several graduate students who received prestigious awards this year. Four graduate students have been selected to receive the Association of Retired Faculty Memorial Award. The award recognizes and provides financial support to graduate students for excellent scholarship and creative activity. The award will support a project that is part of a master’s program. The determining factors for the award are based on a record of distinguished scholarship, a minimum GPA of 3.5, and contributions to the field.

Cox will take part in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences‘ ceremony scheduled for 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 24, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library.

Niosha Edalat, B.S. in Biology

Niosha Edalat, B.S. in Biology

Niosha Edalat, 24, of Northridge, has no doubt what she is going to be doing after she graduates from Cal State Northridge. She is headed for dental school and hopes to become a pediatric dentist who works with children with special needs.

“I like the challenge and I know I want to work with kids, and I definitely know that I want to focus on working with special needs kids,” she said. “If I can help people in a positive way, then I want to do it.”

Edalat was born in Iran, but her parents migrated to Sweden in 1990 in the aftermath of the Iraq-Iran War. She was three at the time and only spoke Farsi. She quickly learned Swedish and as she grew older added French, Danish and Norwegian to her repertoire. Edalat, her parents and four brothers became Swedish citizens. It wasn’t until her oldest brother moved to the United States to go to college that the family considered moving again.

Her older brother, who had attended CSUN, convinced her and the rest of their siblings that Southern California, and Cal State Northridge in particular, was the place they could truly call “home.” Edalat, who mastered English only a few years ago, said he was right.

“I am really sad that I am going to have to leave here,” she said. “CSUN has really become my second home. I spent a lot of time here, a lot of time in the library. The teachers were really approachable. I really felt comfortable here.”

Edalat is petite, dark eyed, dark haired. She said she knew she stood out growing up in Sweden, where everyone else seemed to be tall, blond and blue eyed.

“Here, I was just like everyone else,” she said. “I may have been a Persian Swede, but another student may be Indian and Muslim and another Persian and Jewish or Hispanic and something else. It seemed like everyone was all mixed up, and yet we were all the same.”

That respect for everyone’s uniqueness led her to form the campus’ first Swedish Student Club. “A lot of our members are not tall, blond and blue eyed, but immigrants who grew up in Sweden and are now here,” she said. It also contributed to her desire to work with children who are “different.”

While volunteering with the Down Syndrome Association of Los Angeles, she learned there were very few programs for teenagers with Down syndrome that let them enjoy the same activities with their friends—bowling, dances, movie nights, parties—that their typical-learning classmates did. She decided to help establish one. She also spent a lot of time volunteering with MEND (Meet Each Need with Dignity) and other community-based organizations, helping to provide dental care to residents in underrepresented communities.

It was while doing that volunteer work that she discovered that there were dentists who would not take on special needs children as patients.

“I couldn’t believe what parents were telling me. Kids with special needs may be different, but everybody’s different,” she said. “They deserve good dentists like everybody else.”

Once dental school is over, Edalat, a U.S. resident, hopes to return “home” to Southern California and open a dental practice with three of her brothers, who all attended CSUN. The fourth brother, who also attended CSUN, is planning a career in computer science.

Edalat will take part in the College of Science and Mathematics’ commencement ceremony scheduled to take place at 3:30 p.m. on May 24 on the lawn south of Manzanita Hall on the southeast side of the campus.

Matthew Keyawa, B.S. in Electrical Engineering, and Nicholas Keyawa, B.S. in Mechanical Engineering

Nicholas Keyawa, B.S. in Mechanical Engineering, (left) and Matthew Keyawa, B.S. in Electrical Engineering

Matthew and Nicholas Keyawa, are nearly inseparable. The 23-year-old Northridge residents are identical twins whose successes have mirrored each other and made them exemplary students at California State University, Northridge.

“Cal State Northridge has really helped my brother and I come into our own skins,” said Nicholas, the younger of the twins by four minutes. The Granada Hills Charter High School graduates both say they were “painfully” shy and introverted in high school.

“We were the kids who stayed after school doing physics experiments,” Matthew said. “We didn’t have any friends.”

But Cal State Northridge opened up an entirely new world for them. Both loved math and science so much they declared majors in engineering. They have worked as engineering, math, and physics tutors for the College of Engineering and Computer Science and as new student orientation leaders. Both are finalists for the Wolfson Scholar award, the university’s highest honor for a graduating senior, and currently work part-time as engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Matthew is helping with the power subsystem for a satellite scheduled to launch in 2016, and Nicholas is aiding in the research of thermoelectric materials to convert heat into electricity.

“CSUN is an awesome school. You can really get one-on-one with your professors,” Nicholas said.

“I felt the sciences better helped me understand the world, which helped me understand more about myself,” said Matthew. Nicholas said “ditto.” They said Northridge professors have been so supportive they don’t call them “professors.”

“We call them mentors,” Matthew added.

While the twins spend a lot of time together, they have distinguished themselves individually. Nicholas, who has a 4.0 GPA, is the top graduating senior in the Mechanical Engineering Department. He will be the 12th student in the entire history of the College of Engineering and Computer Science to graduate with a 4.0 GPA with a major in mechanical engineering and minor in electrical engineering, according to Hamid Johari, professor and chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He has been accepted into Northridge’s master’s program in engineering and plans to study control systems.

Matthew has a 3.98 GPA. He also will pursue a master’s in engineering but with a focus on communications and power electronics. He would like to earn a doctorate at Caltech.

“We’ve made the best friends here,” Nicholas said. “Ditto,” said Matthew.

Matthew and Nicholas Keyawa will take part in the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s ceremony scheduled for 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 25, on Manzanita Hall Lawn.

Zitlalic Ley , B.A. in Political Science

Zitlalic Ley , B.A. in Political Science

Zitlalic Ley, 24, of Northridge, who runs the steeplechase for Cal State Northridge’s track and field team, stumbled as she landed in the first water jump during a meet nearly three months ago. Before she could get out of the way, a competitor landed on her foot. Ley continued the 3,000-meter race, which include 35 barriers. She came in third, despite a nagging feeling there was something wrong with her foot.

When she finally looked down, blood was streaming out of her shoe. The spike on the other runner’s shoe had slashed her foot above the heel, missing her Achilles tendon by fractions of an inch. She needed 12 stitches to repair the damage.

The team’s trainers were stunned that she walked to them for help, let alone that she finished the race. Ley, who also runs cross country for CSUN, shrugged off their concern: “All I could think of was finishing the race and doing the best I could. I was annoyed that I couldn’t go as fast as I thought I should.”

Ley admitted that even if she knew about the injury, she probably wouldn’t have pulled out of the race. Her goal was to finish the race and get a good time. She wanted to qualify for the Big West Conference finals. That was all that mattered. She qualified.

That single-mind focus drives Ley academically as well.

She, her mother, three sisters and a brother legally immigrated to the Los Angeles area from Mexico when Ley was 17. Determined to succeed, Ley, who had already earned a high school diploma in Mexico, enrolled in high school again..

She didn’t think her new high school was teaching her English quickly enough, so she decided to take English classes in the evening at adult school. In the meantime, she went out for the cross-country team. Despite her grueling schedule, she earned stellar grades at both schools, and her performance in cross country drew the attention of the coach at Glendale Community College.

She adopted a similar regimen at Glendale Community College, only the time set aside for adult school was now filled with a job waitressing. The pace eventually caught up with her. She was so tired that she began to slow down in her cross-country races. She cut down her work hours and took on a different sport, steeplechase. She was named All-American in steeplechase two years in a row and 2009 Women’s Athlete of the Year.

Her talent and top grades drew the interest of several universities, but she chose CSUN “because it’s a (NCAA) Division I school and they have one of the best programs for my major, political science.”

In addition to racing and maintaining top academic standing, she worked part-time as a mentor and tutor for her fellow CSUN athletes and held several internships, including one with the Mexican Consulate in Los Angeles, interviewing immigrants about legal issues and one with Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes.

She also establish a mentoring/tutoring program for at-risk youth at Northridge Academy High School. Ley designed it to ensure that there will be a constant flow of Cal State Northridge students to give encouragement and support the high school students after she graduates.

Ley will take part in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences‘ graduation ceremony, which begins at 8 a.m. on Wednesday, May 25, on the Oviatt Library Lawn.

In the meantime, she’s preparing for the Big West Conference finals and looking forward to a summer internship in Washington, D.C. with MALDEF, the nation’s leading Latino legal civil rights organization. She’s also begun prepping for the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). She wants to be an immigration attorney.


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