Campus: CSU, Northridge -- May 14, 2001

Despite Odds, Students Realize Dreams At Cal State Northridge

When Cal State Northridge officials hand diplomas to more than 6,800 new graduates later this month, they will recognize more than academic achievement. They will also reward the tenacity and dedication of individuals who overcame obstacles - many seemingly insurmountable - that could have kept them from reaching their goals.

"Many of our students are the first in their families to attend college. Some have worked full-time jobs while carrying full course loads. Others have had to deal with challenging family obligations, often as single parents," said CSUN President Jolene Koester. "Their determination to overcome the obstacles before them and succeed academically inspires and reminds us of the importance and value of higher education."

Here is a short list of some of these extraordinary graduates:

  • Antoinette Acosta, B.S. in Civil Engineering
    Acosta, 27, admitted that when she graduated from an Arizona high school, she had no idea what she wanted to do. She enrolled at the University of Arizona but dropped out when she got married at age 20. Three years later, she was divorced and had a one-month-old son.

    "I had to get myself in gear if I was going to provide for the both of us," she said.
    She moved in with her parents, who had since moved to Bakersfield, and enrolled first at the local community college and then at CSUN with the goal of becoming an engineer.
    For the past few years, she has commuted between Bakersfield and Northridge, dividing her time between a full-load of engineering classes and her son. An internship last summer at Warren A. Minner and Associates, a Bakersfield engineering firm, turned into a part-time job
    that also demanded her attention.

    Throughout it all, Acosta said, she kept her eye on her main objective - her son, now 4.
    "When I'm home, I don't do homework until he's asleep. He comes first," she said. "I want to be an example for him. I want to be a strong role model for him so that when he grows up he will be able to admire his mother."

    Acosta, who has maintained a 3.7 GPA while at CSUN, will receive her diploma on Wednesday, May 30, at the College of Engineering and Computer Science ceremony at 4 p.m. at the University Club. Acosta plans to continue working at Warren A. Minner and Associates and get a master's in engineering.
  • Lydia Aguirre, B.A. in Sociology
    Aguirre dropped out of high school and ran away from home at age 15. By age 17, she was a single mom determined to get her life back together. She enrolled in a Santa Barbara continuation school and graduated from high school in 1996.

    Determined to make a better life for herself and her daughter, she enrolled first at Santa Barbara Community College, where she got an associate's degree in anthropology and liberal studies, and then transferred to CSUN's Ventura Campus, now Channel Islands, in 1999.

    Aguirre, 23, admitted commuting between Camarillo and Santa Barbara, where she also works at the community college as a transfer advisor, can be arduous, but said it is worth it. She would like to become an academic counselor at a community college.

    "I want to reach that population that hasn't really been exposed to the educational system," she said. "I want them to know that even if they've made some wrong decisions in the past, they still have a second chance if they get an education. Like I did."
    Aguirre, who is the first in her family to get a college education, will receive her diploma at 10 a.m. on Friday, May 25, at Channel Island's ceremony.
  • Linette Astourian, B.S. in Psychology
    Growing up in Syria of Greek and Armenian parents, Astourian never really felt she fit in. The fact that she was a girl who spoke her mind, Astourian said, made her really stand out in a community that favored more traditional behavior.

    Her family immigrated to the United States when she was 14, and after three tough years in New Jersey finally moved to California and settled in Whittier. Worried that their opinionated daughter would become too American, her parents arranged her marriage immediately after high school.

    Despite family opposition that said she should stay home and take care of her two daughters, Astourian, now 36, tested the waters of independence, with the support of her husband, by enrolling at a community college. She loved it. It took her five years, but Astourian got her associate's degree and then transferred to CSUN in 1998 to study psychology. Throughout it all, Astourian worked, first at her husband's jewelry shop and now with the Armenian Relief Society in Glendale helping new immigrants adjust to their new home.

    "I want to go on to graduate school and eventually become a clinical psychologist. I want to work with immigrant children to help them deal with adjusting to coming to the United States," she said. "I know personally how hard it is. It's not just the language issues, but cultural ones that the whole family has to adjust to."

    Astourian, who now lives in La Crescenta, will receive her degree on Wednesday, May 30, at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' commencement at 6:30 p.m. on the Oviatt Library Lawn.
  • Eriko Iwata, B.S. in Nursing
    Iwata came to the United States with the idea that she could polish her nursing skills with an American education and return home to Japan in just a couple of years. That was nearly six years ago.

    Iwata, 37, quickly discovered that what she learned in Japan was not up to American standards, nor was her English strong enough for a university program. With the support of her husband, a magazine editor who remained at home in Tokyo, Iwata enrolled in Glendale Community College to brush up on her language skills and to get the general
    education requirements she needed to transfer to CSUN.

    Iwata, who brought her now 12-year-old son with her to America, transferred to CSUN in 1997 and immediately embarked on a full course load. Juggling childcare, classes and later a job as an intensive care nurse at Cedars Sinai Medical Center has not been easy. But Iwata is determined to take what she has learned in the United States back home to Japan.

    "In Japan, the doctors are in charge. The nurses basically don't have any say in the care of the patients," Iwata said. "Here, nurses are part of the team, and they have a more clinical approach to what they do. The nurses in Japan would love to do what American nurses do."
    Iwata, who lives in Glendale, currently maintains a web site for Japanese nurses on American nursing practices as well as how to apply to an American university to study nursing. She is also writing a series of articles for a Japanese nursing magazine about her experiences here in the United States.

    Iwata will receive her diploma on Thursday, May 31, at the College of Health and Human Development's commencement at 8 a.m. on the Oviatt Library Lawn. She plans to get her master's in nursing at UCLA, then practice in the United States for a couple of years before she returns to Japan.
  • Theresa Leonard, B.A. in Liberal Studies
    By most people's accounts, Leonard shouldn't be here.
    When she was in first grade, she, an older sister and her mother were kidnapped. When she was 12, her father was murdered. About a year later, her mother was arrested in connection with her father's death and Leonard was put in foster care.

    Leonard married a minister by age 19. After suffering eight years of abuse, she took her two children and left her husband. She remarried another pastor, but again ended up in an abusive relationship. That marriage lasted 11 years and produced one more child. After her husband was arrested for a "heinous sex crime involving a child," Leonard got the courage to leave him even though he had her convinced he could track her down even while behind bars.

    After undergoing months of therapy, Leonard, now 42, decided it was time to do something for herself and her children - get an education. She enrolled in a community college. About that time she met the man who would become her current husband. Once she got her associate's degree, they married and moved to California to start a new life for their family in 1996.

    Leonard, who works at CSUN as a sign language interpreter for deaf and hard-of-hearing students, wants to become an elementary school teacher.

    "I firmly believe the abuse has to stop somewhere," she said. "I want children to know that love is out there. At least when they go to school they will know that their teacher loves them and that they will be treated with the honor, dignity and respect they deserve."

    Leonard, of Canyon Country, will receive her diploma Friday, June 1, at the College of Humanities' commencement at 8 a.m. on the Oviatt Library Lawn. She plans to enroll in CSUN's credential program this fall.
  • Jeremy Sonenschein, B.S. in Kinesiology
    All Sonenschein ever wanted to be when he was growing up was a commercial pilot. But after two years at a training facility in Arizona, his dreams were dashed when he learned he was color-blind.

    Disillusioned, he returned to Van Nuys and at his mother's urging to "get out of the house," enrolled at CSUN in 1996. After trying a variety of majors, including political science and pre-med, he settled on kinesiology. He hopes to some day become a student affairs administrator at a university.

    While carrying 16 to 18 units each semester, Sonenschein still found time to volunteer in the community. It's a passion he developed in middle school when a teacher assigned him to work with autistic children as part of a class project. "I loved it," he said. "I really enjoyed the feeling I got helping people."

    While at CSUN, he has volunteered with the Los Angeles Music Center, Tree People, the Wildlife Way Station, as an emergency medical
    technician with the Los Angeles Fire Department, the Sierra Club, various political campaigns, CSUN's University Student Union and the American
    Red Cross, where he is a member of a disaster response team, teaches CPR and first aid and works with at-risk youth.

    In addition to his volunteer work and his studies, Sonenschein, 24, also holds two part-time jobs, as a personal trainer at the Northridge YMCA and as an emergency medical technician for a Torrance-based private ambulance company.

    Sonenschein will receive his diploma on Thursday, May 31, at the College of Health and Human Development's commencement ceremony at 8 a.m.
    California State University, Northridge has more than 29,000 full- and part-time students and offers 58 bachelor's and 50 master's degrees. Founded in 1958, it is the only four-year university in the San Fernando Valley.

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