More than 9,200 students are expected to walk across a stage at California State University, Northridge later this month as they celebrate their graduation from the university before thousands of family members and friends.
Each student has a personal story of hard work, perseverance and success. Below are examples of just some of those truly unique stories.
Jose Escobar Castro, B.A., Cinema and Television Arts and Central American Studies
Jose Escobar Castro, 21, of Westlake in Los Angeles, isn’t used to having the spotlight thrown on him. He is usually the one behind the camera.
As a cinema and television arts major with an emphasis in multimedia, Escobar Castro has used what he has learned in the classroom to tell the stories he has discovered while a student. One video he created is about Central American studies professor Beatriz Cortez, who has returned to her love of painting and is capturing the images of Cal State Northridge’s physical plant management staff on canvas.
“That’s what I’d like to do,” Escobar Castro said, “take what I’ve learned at CSUN and find a way to tell the stories of people most people don’t hear about, like those in the Central American community.”
Escobar Castro’s parents are Central American immigrants who received only an elementary school education and instilled in their children the belief that getting a college education was the key to success. The family lives near MacArthur Park, but his parents leapt at the chance to send Escobar Castro to schools in the San Fernando Valley when overcrowding left little space for him at the neighborhood school. He would get up every day at 5 a.m. to catch a bus that would take him first to Parkman Middle School and then Taft High School in Woodland Hills.
Escobar Castro, who has a license but does not drive and lives in Westlake with his family, still gets up at 5 a.m. to catch the bus to school, but this time to CSUN. He uses his time on the bus and subway to do homework and read. He said he applied to the University of Southern California, but found that Northridge was a “better fit.”
“It had everything I was looking for,” he said, including the opportunity to learn more about the countries his parents came from, Guatemala and El Salvador, and the rest of Central America.
“Now I know more about Central America than they do, but they have the life experience of living there,” he said.
Being the first in his family to attend college, Escobar Castro admitted there has been a lot of pressure on him to serve as a role model for his extended family. His sister, Leslie, attends CSUN, and his family hopes his cousins in Florida will follow in Escobar Castro’s footsteps.
Escobar Castro will receive his cinema and television arts degree during the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication’s ceremony scheduled for 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 22, on the lawn in front of Delmar T. Oviatt Library. He will receive his Central American studies degree during the College of Humanities’ ceremony at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23, on the Oviatt Library lawn.
Bonnie Cheeseman, Master’s in Education Administration
Bonnie Cheeseman, 54, of Simi Valley, once lived a life that most people would envy. She had worked her way up from an administrative assistant position at 20th Century Fox to become a Madison Avenue marketing executive. She regularly flew from New York to Los Angeles and Las Vegas for business, staying in high-end hotels. Limousines would whisk her to meetings, often waiting until the wee hours of the morning while she finished her work. But she was miserable.
These days, the limos and luxury business accommodations are gone. But Cheeseman cannot wait to go to work every morning.
“I am one of those lucky people who just loves what they do,” she said. Cheeseman is an English-as-a-second-language teacher at Pasadena City College and UCLA American Language Center, specializing in workplace English. She has spent the past couple of years in Cal State Northridge’s Department of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies so she can use her passion for helping others master the English language and American culture more effectively as an education administrator, perhaps as a counselor.
“I love to teach, but I want to do more as an educator,” she said. “I have learned so much while I’ve been here. I have so much respect for the faculty members. They have challenged us and treated us with respect. They understood that those of us in the program were professionals, and they treated us like professionals, and created an environment where we learned from them and from each other. It was a fabulous experience.”
Cheeseman admitted that when she graduated from UCLA in 1982 with a bachelor’s in English and American studies she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do with her life. She still wasn’t sure a decade later when she quit her job as a marketing executive until she saw an ad for a part-time position as an English-as-a-second-language teacher.
“I really wanted to make a difference in people’s lives, to feel that I was making a contribution to the world,” she said.
Cheeseman said once she stepped foot in a classroom, she never looked back.
For several years, Cheeseman also worked as a comedienne. She was successful enough to serve as a master of ceremonies at Los Angeles’ legendary The Comedy Store, working with such talents as Damon Wayans. She was scheduled to introduce Wayans one evening when she realized that while she enjoyed stand-up, it wasn’t her true calling. She invited a young comedian to take her place and decided to devote herself to teaching.
“The thing is, I love teaching,” she said.
Not too long ago, Cheeseman discovered that her great-grandfather ran a teachers’ college in Maine in the late 1800s and was an important figure in his community. Despite all his accomplishments, he told a reporter that all he ever wanted to be known as was “an educator.”
Cheeseman agrees. “It’s the best thing around that you can do,” she said.
Cheeseman will be taking part in the Michael D. Eisner College of Education’s commencement ceremony scheduled to take place at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 24, on the lawn of the Oviatt Library.
Pablo Corá, B.S. in Accounting
Pablo Corá, 39, of Los Angeles, had his “come to Jesus moment” about six years ago, when a doctor found a growth on his vocal cords and recommended surgery. A high tenor, Corá had a successful singing career. He was a founding member of the award-winning Concord Ensemble, a member of the Grammy Award-winning Los Angeles Chamber Singers & Cappella and a member of the internationally acclaimed Los Angeles Master Chorale. He has performed on stages around the world, including at Disney Hall and the Hollywood Bowl.
The surgery was successful and Corá was able to continue his singing career. But the incident forced him to think about his future.
“If I couldn’t sing, what would I be doing?” Corá asked himself. “I realized that I was happiest when I was learning, and now it was time for me to learn something completely different.”
He settled on accounting because he felt it was a field that would allow him to draw on his experiences in the arts, and perhaps some day lead to the directorship of an arts or cultural program. Corá said he did research, talked to people in the field and found out that Cal State Northridge had one of the most respected accounting programs in the state.
“It really is considered one of the best,” he said.
He applied and had to convince a skeptical department chair that he was serious about studying a field that seemed so antithetical to his career in the performing arts. He assured her that he was willing to “start from scratch,” despite having earned a bachelor’s in music from Ithaca College and a master’s in voice performance from Indiana University, Bloomington.
Corá, a native of Argentina, threw himself into his classes and discovered he had a passion for accounting. He soon became a member of the College of Business and Economics’ Honors Program and drew the attention of officials with the international accounting firm KPMG, who chose him to serve as their campus ambassador. Last year, KPMG officials offered him a job. Upon his graduation, he will begin working in the company’s Los Angeles audit practice.
In addition to his classes and work with KPMG, Corá volunteered for several community-service projects with such organizations as Habitat for Humanity and the Alzheimer’s Association, as well as with an animal-rescue organization. All the while, he continues to sing.
Though he will serve as a liaison between the campus and KPMG, Corá admitted he is going to miss the day-to-day routine of being a CSUN student. In particular, he said he will miss the faculty, who “demonstrated a passion and dedication to their work.”
“They not only cared about what we were learning at the time, but they cared about what’s out there for us when we graduate,” he said. “They are inspiring, and I hope that I approach my own professional career with that kind of commitment.”
Corá will take part in the College of Business and Economics’ commencement ceremony scheduled for 8 a.m. on Thursday, May 24, on the lawn of the Oviatt Library. He has been invited to sing the national anthem during the ceremony.
La Ronda Jones, B.S. in Health Administration
La Ronda Jones, 32, of Reseda, has big dreams. She hopes some day to hold a position where she can help set healthcare policy for the nation.
“That’s what I want to do, and with what I have learned here at CSUN it may just be possible,” she said. “CSUN has certainly given me the tools to achieve my dreams.”
Fifteen years ago, Jones was a teenager in South Los Angeles with a newborn son. Determined to succeed, she made arrangements for his care and walked the two miles to her high school to ensure she graduated on time, becoming the first in her family to earn a high school diploma.
After spending a few years in the workforce, Jones enrolled at Pierce College with the plan of becoming a nurse. But after a couple of classes, she realized that what she truly wanted to do was become an administrator who ensured that patients received the best care possible. As someone with hepatitis C and hyperthyroidism and who lost her parents early due to health problems, Jones said she understands the importance of access to quality healthcare.
Jones transferred to Cal State Northridge in fall of 2010 to pursue a degree in health administration and immediately felt at home. “I knew this was where I belonged,” she said.
She loved her classes. She said she was challenged and engaged by faculty who set high goals for her, yet understood the demands she faced as a working mother with now two children and health issues.
A workshop by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health Resource Center for preconception peer educators led to her founding and then serving as president of the CSUN Preconception Peer Educators. The group has been recognized by the federal government to hold its own workshops to train certified peer educators on the issues surrounding preconception health and sexually transmitted infections.
Her work as a peer educator led to an invitation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health Resource Center to speak in Washington, D.C., Chicago and San Francisco to lecture on preconception health. The March of Dimes in Washington, D. C. also extended her an invitation to speak. A staff referral from CSUN’s Educational Opportunities Program (EOP) led her to a program called INROADS, which led to an internship at Kaiser Permanente in Panorama City. She now works part time at Kaiser as an advocate for patients and their needs.
Jones credited Cal State Northridge’s EOP, College of Health and Human Development and Student Health Professionals Pre-Entry Program for making all she accomplished, and hopes to accomplish, possible.
“These programs truly molded me into who and what I have become,” she said.
Jones’ illnesses have been in remission for most of her time at Northridge. Three months ago, her doctor told her they were back. She convinced him to hold off treatment, which is very similar to chemotherapy and includes similar side effects, until after commencement.
“I wanted to graduate first,” she said.
Jones will take part in the College of Health and Human Development’s commencement ceremony scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, May 22, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library. She plans to start graduate school at Cal State Northridge this fall and eventually get her doctorate in health policy and administration.
César Soto, Master’s in English
For César Soto, failure is not defeat. Rather, failing is an opportunity to learn and grow. “All the obstacles I’ve faced have only made me better,” he said.
Soto, 32, grew up as one of eight children in a working-class family in Pacoima where the kind of hard work you do with your hands was valued. An avid reader, Soto said he felt “different.” When he dropped out of school in the 10th grade and took on a series of menial jobs, Soto continued to read on the sly, concerned that his passion for literature wasn’t “macho” enough.
“Where I grew up, what it meant to be a male did not include the love of reading,” he said, adding that his parents, who obtained a grade-school education and were concerned about their family’s survival, didn’t know how to support their son’s passion.
Soto recognized that manual work was not what he wanted to do all his life and applied to Valley College, but he ended up failing his classes and dropping out.
“I just wasn’t ready yet, but I knew that college was something I wanted to do,” he said.
After a couple of years, he returned to Valley College. This time, he aced his classes and set his sights on a four-year university: Cal State Northridge. He reached out to CSUN’s Educational Opportunities Program director, Jose Luis Vargas, who exchanged emails with Soto, offering him advice and encouragement.
“You know, I think I only met the man once, but his support and encouragement in those emails made all the difference,” Soto said.
Soto transferred to Northridge with the goal of becoming a doctor. But after struggling in a couple of biology classes, he realized that medicine was not for him. It was while fulfilling am English major core requirement, Literary Theory, that Soto found his “calling.”
“I did really well, and I realized this is what I loved,” Soto said.
He switched his major to Honors English, and his grades took off. He earned his bachelor’s degrees in English and Chicana/o studies from Cal State Northridge in 2007. He remained at CSUN to earn his master’s in English. His emphasis is British Romanticism.
Soto, who is this year’s Nathan O Freedman Outstanding Graduate Student, admitted British Romanticism seems an unlikely choice for someone who grew up in the working class neighborhoods of Pacoima.
“But those authors were revolutionary, exploring such topics as feminism and the experiences of the ‘other,’” he said.
Soto’s time at CSUN has not been entirely immersed in books. He spent three years as a residential advisor, four years as a tutor in the Chicana/o Studies Writing Center and the past two years as a teaching associate in the English department, a privilege awarded few graduate students.
For the past few weeks, Soto had been weighing offers from all seven schools to which he applied for doctoral studies. He chose the University of Notre Dame, where his doctoral research will focus on the similarities between the revolutionary aspects of the works by British Romantic authors and Chicana/o literature of the 1960s and 1970s.
He has also been awarded a Ford Foundation Pre-Doctoral Fellowship, which includes an annual stipend of $20,000 for three years of doctoral work. Of the more than 1,300 people who applied, only 60 received fellowships.
Soto will be taking part in the College of Humanities’ commencement ceremony scheduled for 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 23, on the Oviatt Library lawn.
Learn more about the gradautes: