Campus: CSU Fullerton -- July 1, 2005

Blind Cal State Fullerton Graduate Moves Closer to Her Dream Of Teaching at College and Helping Victims of Violent Crime

Sunshine Lawson, a single mother of three who graduated with highest honors from Cal State Fullerton two years ago, is returning to New York City, where she was blinded as the result of a violent criminal assault and once lived in a homeless shelter with her children.

This time, Lawson will pursue doctoral studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, which has awarded her a full-funding package for full-time study that is expected to take about four years. The package includes all tuition and a stipend of $13,000 a year. The midtown Manhattan institution is a senior college of the City University of New York.

In 2003, the Buena Park resident graduated summa cum laude with a double major in criminal justice and ethnic studies. A native of Puerto Rico, she was the recipient of the President's Associates Scholastic Award as Cal State Fullerton's top scholar, having achieved a perfect 4.0 GPA in both of her majors and was a student commencement speaker at each of her department's graduation exercises.

CSUF criminal justice professor James Lasley characterized Lawson as "the best student I've had in 15 years of teaching."

Lawson's return to the Big Apple is major step in her dream to become a college professor of criminal justice and to pursue a personal quest to help victims of violent crime and be an advocate for civil rights.

Despite her success in landing the scholarship, Lawson now faces the hurdle of finding funds for moving and travel expenses. She is hoping to get support from a foundation, community organizations or individuals and head East at the end of July.

In New York, she will be relying on a fixed income, and her stipend, which will be used for books, supplies, transportation and to hire a reader.

Her academic achievements and the undergraduate criminal research she conducted at CSUF were major factors that impressed college officials in New York, she said.

Lawson was aided in her efforts to pursue graduate studies through the Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, which assists students seeking a master's or doctoral degree. The program named for the astronaut who perished in the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster provides opportunities for students to engage in research and develop the skills and mentor relationships critical to success at the doctoral level.

McNair chapters are located throughout the country, including on the campuses of Cal State Fullerton and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"I admire Sunshine's perseverance in pursing her studies," said Gerald Bryant, director of the McNair program at Cal State Fullerton. "She has a strong belief in herself and has never used her blindness as a crutch."

Ernest Lee, assistant director of the McNair program at John Jay College, said he was "very impressed" with the research Lawson presented at a national McNair conference.

Todd Clear, executive officer of John Jay College's criminal justice doctoral program, first met Lawson a few years ago. "She's an amazing story," he said. "We can't wait for her to get here. She will be a terrific addition to our program."

Current plans call for two of Lawson's three children to accompany her to New York. Serenity, 18, graduated this month from Sunny Hills High School in Fullerton. Mauris, 16, is a junior at the school. Her oldest son, Messiah Irizarry, 20, is serving in Kuwait with an Army Reserve unit.

Her return to New York City will complete a circle for the 36-year-old, who arrived there from Puerto Rico at age 10. She grew up in poverty, married at 16, endured an abusive home life and had three children.

Lawson lost her sight more than 10 years ago in New York as the result of a gunshot to the head during an attack. At the time, she was attending school and working.

Following the tragedy, she and her children lived in a New York homeless shelter, where she was befriended by a legally blind worker at the shelter who gave her a cane and taught her how to use it. He also nicknamed her Sunshine because of her optimistic attitude in the face of misfortune.

When first blinded, Lawson taught herself how to diaper her children, make formula and iron her kids' clothes.

The New York State Crime Victim Board later relocated the mother and her children to Fullerton. She enrolled at Fullerton College, graduating at the top of her class with an A.A. degree in sociology. She then transferred to Cal State Fullerton, where she repeated her academic success.

Lawson said she is grateful to the board for its help in relocating her to California, which led to a new life and scholarly achievements. Ironically, Lawson once thought of attending John Jay College in the days when she could see.

In addition to teaching in the field, Lawson has a personal mission. "My goal is to be an advocate for victims of violent crimes - both adults and children," she said. "I aspire to empower students so they will be able to be an advocate for their needs in the context of their families and community."

She also has a personal goal to one day undergo cosmetic surgery - a "tummy tuck" - in connection with losing more than 100 pounds in the past several months.

Lawson's story is scheduled for inclusion in a book about McNair Scholars being written by Carl McNair, brother of the late astronaut.

Media Contacts: Paula Selleck, Public Affairs, (714) 278-2414 Gerald Bryant, director, Cal State Fullerton Ronald E. McNair Scholars Program, (714) 278-7667 or Ernest Lee, assistant director, Ronald E. McNair Post-Baccalaureate Program, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, (212) 237-8760 Todd Clear, executive officer, Criminal Justice Doctoral Program, John Jay College of Criminal Justice, (212) 237-8470

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