Campus: CSU Northridge -- May 07, 2003

Determination, Hard Work Brings Students to Graduation

When Cal State Northridge officials hand diplomas to more than 8,200 new graduates later this month, they will recognize more than academic achievement. They will also honor the tenacity and dedication of people determined not to let anything stop them from achieving their goals.

"Many of our students are the first in their families to go to college. Some have juggled two jobs and full course loads. Others have dealt with family obligations, often as single parents, or extreme physical hardships," said CSUN President Jolene Koester. "These individual stories are truly what CSUN is all about. We are providing an opportunity for individuals, even under the most adverse circumstances, to accomplish their goals."

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

Bettina Austin, B.A., Sociology

Austin, 41, married immediately after high school. She and her husband struggled to make ends meet on minimum-wage jobs while raising their daughter in a small town in Pennsylvania until 1992, when they were both laid off.

A free semester at a local community college re-ignited a love for learning in Austin. She was preparing to transfer to a four-year university when she was in a car accident. Thrown through the windshield, she suffered severe head injuries and as a result had to relearn how to learn. "I had trouble processing things. If someone said something to me I couldn't remember what he or she said," she said. "People look at me now and they think I'm normal, but not normal for me. Nobody understands what it's like to have been one way, and then to have that all taken away." Austin spent two years in therapy before returning to school, only to learn in the last week of her first semester back that she had a large tumor on her ovary.

After recovering from surgery, Austin was ready to return to school in the fall of 2000 when her husband surprised her with the news that he wanted a separation. Her daughter now grown, Austin decided to follow up on her childhood dream of going to college in another state. She applied to CSUN.

She was midway through her first semester at CSUN in spring 2001 when her husband announced he wanted a divorce. She dropped out and went back to Pennsylvania to see if they could patch things up. Unsuccessful, Austin returned to CSUN.

"I was determined to get my degree," said Austin, the first in her family to go to college. "After I first got married, I realized that life wasn't quite like fantasy land. It was so important for me to get a degree that nothing was going to stop me; slow me down maybe, but not stop me."

Austin, who now lives in Reseda, would like to get a Ph.D. in sociology and has started research on the lives of truck drivers.

She will receive her degree at 8 a.m. on Friday, May 30, on the Oviatt Library Lawn at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' commencement ceremony.

Sister Claire Chang, B.A., Child and Adolescent Development

Chang, 40, of Los Angeles, does not know what she will do with her degree: "That's in God's hands." But whatever it is, she said she hopes to make a difference in the lives of people who live on the fringes of society.

Chang was born and raised in Taiwan, which her parents fled in 1949 following the rise of communism in their native China. Growing up, Chang would often hear stories of war and its impact on families and human suffering.

She got her associate's degree in business administration at Taipei Business College, and worked for a while in the music industry, composing music on the side.

But that wasn't fulfilling, so Chang became a social worker, helping unwed mothers and broken families, and assisting with adoptions. She would also rescue girls as young as eight-years-old from prostitution and set them up in halfway houses where they could receive counseling and education.

While working as a social worker, Chang felt a calling to become a nun. She came to the United States 15 years ago and joined the Society Devoted to the Sacred Heart. After working as a religious teacher with her order for several years, she decided to continue her studies. She chose CSUN specifically because it is non-secular, "and I wanted to experience a non-Catholic environment," she said.

Many of her fellow students were surprised to learn she was a nun.

"I don't wear a traditional habit, but once they saw me wear the same type of clothes and the same colors day after day, some of them realized I was a nun," she said. "I enjoyed CSUN. The professors were really respectful of me and the students would be very curious at first. But when they got to know me, we'd converse on a peer level."

Chang will receive her diploma at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 28, at the College of Health and Human Development's commencement ceremony on the Oviatt Library Lawn.

Stephanie Grabow, B.A., Liberal Studies

After serving four years in the Army, Grabow had a tough decision to make. She loved the military and had risen quickly through the ranks from private to non-commissioned officer. But she was a single parent, and if she wanted to continue her career in the Army she would be required to leave her daughter behind for long stretches of time while she served overseas.

"I really loved serving in the military, but I couldn't be away from my daughter that long," said Grabow, 31, of Camarillo.

Grabow said she was an average student in high school and had no intention of going to college when she graduated. She had been in the workforce for a few years when she got a call from an Army recruiter and accepted his offer.

Grabow said her military experience prepared her for going to school full time while being a single parent, and supplied financial support for her education in the form of the GI Bill. The first one in her family to go to college and a third generation single parent, Grabow is determined that she and her daughter, now 6, will break the cycle.

"I have become a much better person because of her. She was my inspiration for going back to school and sticking it out when it's 9:30 at night and all you want to do is to sleep and there's a paper to write and a test to study for," she said.

Grabow wants to be an elementary school teacher and will enter the credentialing program at CSU Channel Islands in the fall.

She will receive her degree at 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, May 29, at the College of Humanities' commencement ceremony on the Oviatt Library Lawn.

Jordan Kao, B.S., Information Systems

Kao's parents don't talk much about their lives before fleeing Cambodia. This much he knows: His Chinese father and Cambodian mother fled the political turmoil of their country in 1979 with three daughters. His parents could not find work for four years before they fled. The family barely survived through subsistence farming and bartering with their neighbors.

"I'm supposed to have four sisters," Kao said. "The youngest sister died of starvation, my mom told me. But she really doesn't like to talk about those days."

Kao was born in a hospital in Los Angeles' Chinatown and grew up in Echo Park. His parents struggled to make ends meet on his father's salary as an appliance repairman.

Kao, 22, of Atwater Village, was determined not to add to his family's financial burden so he's paid his way through CSUN with the help of financial aid, student loans and various jobs on campus.

He would love to get a job in information systems management and eventually own his own business. Kao will get his diploma at 8 a.m. on Thursday, May 29, during the commencement ceremony for the College of Business and Economics on the Oviatt Library Lawn.

Cynthia Olson, B.A., Sociology

One of Olson's most vivid memories of her time at CSUN is of squatting beside her desk and crying while taking an exam.

"It wasn't the test I was crying about," Olson said. "I don't know what people thought, but I was in so much pain."

Olson, 49, of Agoura Hills, had married right out of high school and worked through much of her young adulthood while raising two children. Now that she had the time and the resources, she decided to fulfill a lifelong dream and return to school. She enrolled at CSUN in spring 2000. But injuries she suffered during a traffic accident while working as an ambulance attendant in her 20s came back to haunt her.

During the past few years, she's had four surgeries on her right rotator cuff, which, being right-handed, hampered her ability to write and take notes. She postponed her studies for a semester last year when she had a three-level lumbar fusion in her back. The fusion had to be repeated this year.

"It was an incredible struggle at times - the pain was so bad sometimes that I couldn't think," Olson said. "But I didn't want to give up my goal."

She was unable to use her right arm at times, so professors came up with creative ways to accommodate her. One taped a test to her desk to make it easier to write, while another arranged for her to take an essay exam orally. This past semester, professors in three classes modified their curriculum so she could do most of her work on-line.

Despite her disabilities, Olson still managed an internship at the David Gonzalez Correctional Camp, tutoring young men for their GEDs. She said she would like to continue her relationship with the camp once she graduates.

Olson will receive her degree at 8 a.m. on Friday, May 30, on the Oviatt Library Lawn at the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Commencement.

Ari Soto, B.S., Manufacturing Systems Engineering

When Soto was 14, his stepfather fired a shotgun at him in an attempt to kill him. With his stepfather gone, Soto dropped out of high school to take care of his mother and three younger brothers.

His family immigrated to the United States only four years earlier and settled in a drug- and gang-ridden area of Canoga Park. Soto didn't have many options, and quickly realized that his best bet to take care of his family was to finish high school. His mom didn't work so the family got by on donations from local churches and charity groups and whatever income Soto brought in from part-time jobs.

Soto, 24, said he had no intention of going to college until a high school counselor convinced him to apply to CSUN just days before the admission deadline. He enrolled in 1996.

Despite his obligations, Soto's been active on campus. He started a non-profit, Technology Empowering Communities Hands-on, which recycles corporate technology castoffs into resources for middle schools, community centers and churches.

He has been determined to serve as a role model for his younger brothers.

"My little brother, he's 14, is my project. He's definitely college bound. He wants to be a marine biologist and I'm gong to make sure that happens," Soto said.

Another brother is a junior in high school and Soto expects he will go to college when he graduates. One brother dropped out of high school, but Soto convinced him to complete his education. The brother is now studying to become a nursing assistant. "I have hope for all of them," Soto said.

Soto has accepted a position with General Electric's management training program. Though he will be required to travel around North and South America, Soto said he will continue to support his family in Canoga Park to ensure that his brothers have a stable home so they can complete their educations.

Soto will receive his diploma at 4 p.m. on Wednesday, May 28, at the College of Engineering and Computer Science's commencement ceremony at the University Club.

Media Contact: Carmen Ramos Chandler (818) 677-2130

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