oscar sosa cordova
Story Graduation Initiative

Graduation Initiative 2025 Equity Spotlight: Cal State Fullerton and Cal State LA

Alisia Ruble

Here's a closer look at the efforts of two universities that have created supportive environments to foster student success.​

oscar sosa cordova

​Cal S​tate Fullerton civil engineering senior Oscar Sosa Cordova. (Photo courtesy of Matt Gush/Cal State Fullerton)


As the nation's greatest engine of economic mobility and prosperity, the California State University (CSU) has been guided by its Graduation Initiative 2025 to set a new national standard for providing high quality affordable degree opportunities.

Since the launch of the initiative nearly 15 years ago, the CSU has nearly doubled its four-year graduation rate. These improved outcomes, combined with enrollment increases, have contributed to an additional 150,000 bachelor's degrees earned. Despite improved graduation rates, eliminating equity gaps—the difference in graduation rates between students from historically underserved backgrounds and their peers—remains an ongoing challenge. 

“We recognize this important opportunity to engage and collaborate with our larger community to narrow equity gaps so that all students have an opportunity to earn a life-changing college degree," says Jennifer Baszile, CSU associate vice chancellor of Student Success & Inclusive Excellence. “This work is a moral imperative for the CSU, and it is essential for meeting California's need for a thriving, diverse workforce."

In addition to the CSU's work to radically improve student outcomes through an interactive professional development experience and a drive to elevate Black student success, among other efforts, the CSU's 23 universities continue to identify innovative strategies to instill a sense of belonging in students and ensure they persist to graduation.

As CSU campuses around the state keep the momentum of GI 2025 going strong, here's a closer look at the efforts of two universities, Cal State Fullerton and Cal State LA​, that have created supportive environments to foster student success.​

Cal State LA's Career-Engaged Departments Program

One of the ways the CSU is helping students overcome academic challenges on the road to graduation is by shifting classroom culture. Its universities are offering professional development for instructors to equip them with the necessary tools to better connect students with their future careers and create a deep sense of belonging.

The Career-Engaged Departments Program—possibly the first of its kind in the country—is a yearlong faculty learning community offered through Cal State LA's Center for Effective Teaching and Learning (CETL) that takes an equity-minded, critical look at the professional abilities that the workplace will demand from graduates.

Cal State LA Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Amy Bippus, Ph.D., says students often change their majors because they don't see how their courses are going to lead to a career path and may spend unnecessary time and money to discover their passion.

Over the course of the two-semester program, a team of department faculty work together to participate in six workshops and complete one individual workshop assignment, participate in two check-in sessions and embed three team-created career-relevant deliverables into a course to certify that course as “career-engaged."

“We are helping faculty to identify equity-minded, career-relevant activities that they can put into their courses," Bippus says. “These are non-major course redesigns. They are simply things faculty can do to help students understand how they're preparing themselves for a career."

These include problem solving, working in a world where AI is increasingly pervasive, communication with technology, problem diagnosis and critical reading and writing. Workshop session topics include group work as professional practice, teaching using disciplinary values and considerations for BIPOC students in career-relevant courses.

Since Cal State LA piloted the program in spring 2022, faculty groups from 16 academic programs—just under one third of the university's total programs—have either gone through the program or are in progress.

Cal State LA Associated Students, Inc. President Yahir Flores, a first-generation college student, changed his major four times since enrolling at Cal State LA in part because he couldn't see how his major's required courses would benefit his future career. He says he thinks the Career-Engaged Departments Program helps students engage more with the curriculum because they can envision themselves in their careers sooner.

“I've been able to experience that, in some of my courses, professors are really bridging the connection between the career field and what we're learning in class and how the course is going to help further our interests within that field," Flores says.

Flores says he hopes that, with more faculty participating in programs like this one, students will also see additional avenues for success in their majors and feel encouraged to explore more.

First Year Connections at Cal State LA

With funding from the Chancellor's Office, Cal State LA this year established the First Year Connections (FYC) program, which works closely with faculty teaching critical first-year courses to instill a sense of belonging in students from their first term at the university.

The program provides training that helps faculty understand the importance of creating community in the classroom, particularly for beginning students. Some of the suggestions for faculty include learning and using students' names, bringing personal experiences to the classroom and helping students create relationships with their peers through activities like forming a study group.

“It's not just about the curriculum; it's about making sure students feel connected to the faculty member and to each other," Bippus says.

Students also have access to peer mentoring through the FYC experience, which Flores says is integral to building community on campus.

“Fifty-seven percent of Cal State LA students are first-generation college students, and they're navigating higher education at times without typical support," he says. “Being involved in peer communities makes students feel like they deserve to be on campus, and they provide a chain of resources for being successful in school and in future careers."

Cal State LA also assigned a “belongingness" coordinator to each of the required courses for both the math and English sequences. They, along with a course coordinator, work with faculty to embed equity-minded practices into the curriculum and classroom culture.

These efforts build upon Cal State LA's work to promote equitable learning practices and reduce DFW (D-F-Withdraw) rates. The Critical Course Redesign for Equity and Student Success program—a combined effort between the CETL and the Center for Academic Success (CAS)—is especially aimed at improving student outcomes in the most foundational classes.

With a focus on multi-section gateway courses, the program works with faculty to redesign challenging courses taken early in the college career to ensure the classes meet students' academic and social needs and are culturally responsive.

“The keys to closing equity gaps are to create a sense of belonging, to make sure that every student feels seen and heard, feels like they can be successful, feels like the faculty members on the campus are there for them," says Michelle Hawley, Ph.D., associate vice president and dean of Undergraduate Studies at Cal State LA. “And the same holds true for the faculty members. If there is an equity gap, that needs to be addressed on an institutional level, and the faculty should not be in it alone."​​

Narrowing Equity Gaps at Cal State Fullerton​

Cal State Fullerton's College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS) has come close to achieving one of the key goals of GI 2025: They have significantly narrowed equity gaps between students from historically underserved backgrounds and their peers among transfer students.

CECS Associate Dean Sang June Oh, Ph.D., says it's hard to put a finger on exactly what one strategy this achievement can be attributed to since the college was doing “about seventeen things at once," but he highlights a few critical strategies that contributed to underrepresented students thriving at CSUF.

Firstly, CECS tailored academic advisement, offered through the college's Student Success Center, to be geared toward first-generation college students and built a culture of advisement as “relational" between students and faculty/staff advisors, not just information-sharing. They also restructured advisement so that lower-division students are advised by professional staff advisors and upper-division students by full-time faculty.​

The college eliminated or minimized academic and administrative barriers, including unnecessary prerequisite courses, course withdrawal processes and registration holds. Oh points to the use of Early Intervention, a mechanism to reach out to academically struggling students early, as critical, as well.

CECS has also worked to foster a culture of connectivity and increase student's sense of belongingness by holding events for students, staff and faculty to get to know one another and supporting various co-curricular activities such as the Engineering Ambassadors Network (EAN) program, Entrepreneur-in-Residence (EIR) and Women in Computer Science and Engineering (WiCSE).

The largest contributing factor, though, is a shared governance through trust and transparency or, as Oh affectionately calls it, the “Fullerton Way." He says faculty and staff have frequent informal lunches to understand one another beyond working relationships, and that college leadership has cultivated an “unbelievable trust" that has transpired into a synergistic outcome.

“In the College of Engineering and Computer Science at CSUF, trust is considered very important in carrying out the university's mission and college strategic goals," Oh says. “College and university leadership—including the president, provost, dean, department chairs, program coordinators and associate dean—have worked exceptionally well with quick decision-making and implementation of goals to support students." 

Additionally, the CSUF President's Office and the Provost's Office have provided extensive resources to CECS to support their student success model, including funds for classroom renovation and additional course offerings to meet the needs of underrepresented students.

“One of the most shocking examples is when our computer science enrollment was skyrocketing, and we needed an additional computer lab. I requested our dean, and within four days, we received approval from the provost with full funding for creating a new computer lab," Oh says. “And, when I say we need a class to be offered because of the needs of our Latinx students, for example—many of whom work during traditional course hours—Dean [Susamma (Susan)] Barua says, 'You have a blank check.'"

CSUF's CECS continues to welcome greater numbers of students from underrepresented backgrounds—enrollment for these students has increased 12.5% over the last five years—which Oh says is critical to diversifying the workforce.

“Engineering and computer science fields need a significant increase in the underrepresented minority (URM) population since diverse groups of people will generate and develop far better engineering products and software," he says. “It is vital to close the equity gap to attract more URM students."​

CSUF “Made Me Realize My Potential"

Civil engineering senior Oscar Sosa Cordova, a first-generation Latinx college student, has been directly impacted by some of these efforts. Cordova says as a child he was always “intellectually curious," but being the son of Mexican farmworkers who never received a formal education, he didn't see college as a realistic goal.

“My parents encouraged me to do my homework and get good grades, but they didn't have the resources or the knowledge to guide me through academia. I didn't have a network of support," Cordova says. “As a DACA student, I was told, 'Oscar, why are you even doing this? No one is going to pay for you to go and, even if you do graduate, no one will hire you.'"

After graduating from high school in 2015, Cordova began working in construction to help support his family and—he hoped—to save enough to afford college. He was making decent money, but he could see only people on his job sites who held at least a bachelor's degree had any career growth potential.

Cordova attended a local California Community College where he earned four associate degrees—in physics, mathematics, interdisciplinary studies in the sciences and mathematics and interdisciplinary studies in the arts and expressions, and a certificate in 3D modeling—and eventually transferred to CSUF. There he found community and mentorship through CSUF's McNair Scholars program, which prepares students from underrepresented backgrounds for doctoral studies, and CSUF's Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE).

Through programs and organizations like these, and with the support of CSUF'S CECS, Cordova was able to receive scholarships and professional development, participate in a range of research and scholarly activities, present his work at conferences and feel connected to his future career as a civil engineer.

“Moving to Cal State Fullerton has really shifted my reality," Cordova says. “CSUF has provided an immense number of resources—from supplemental instruction and tutoring sessions to the Student Success Center, to the Dreamer Center—that made me realize my potential and the amount of opportunities out there."

Now, the civil engineering senior serves as president of CSUF's SHPE and an ambassador intern for BRDG Bridge-to-Connect, which supports first-generation college students in STEM, and will graduate from CSUF with a bachelor's degree in spring 2024. He is considering attending graduate school in fall 2024.

“I am going to be a person who works hard and finds out what becomes of me rather than let the world dictate what happens to me."

The CSU launched an equity action plan in 2021 as part of Graduation Initiative 2025 efforts. Read the Action for Equity series' five installments on equitable learning practicesreenrollment effortsdigital degree plannersremoving administrative barriers and expanding credit opportunities.

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