Story Student Success

True Grit: Uplifting Stories from the CSU's Class of 2019

Alisia Ruble


​Clockwise from top left: San Diego State's Erica Alfaro, CSU San Marcos' Stephen Vandereb, Stanislaus State's Livier Camarena Sanchez, Fresno State's Arnold Treviño, CSU East Bay's Chunli Cao and Cal State LA's Matthew Keels

​​​​​​The California State University is committed to fostering a vibrant community of diverse students, opening its doors to educational opportunities for nearly half a million students per year, some with unique stories of perseverance and grit.

This commitment to inclusive excellence has resulted in CSU students being more successful than ever. Completion rates have reached all-time highs and equity gaps between underrepresented students and their peers have begun to close. The university continues to invest in strategies to boost student success through Graduation Initiative 2025

Meet just a few of the remarkable graduates from the class of 2019 who stand as proof of the transformative power of a CSU education.

Erica Alfaro – San Diego State University

Erica Alfaro’s educational journey was anything but easy. Her parents were farmworkers in Southern California, and though neither received a formal education, they always encouraged their daughter to pursue a higher education, even as she worked long hours with them in the fields.

Alfaro became a mother at sixteen, yet she continued to push herself, finishing high school through a homeschool program and earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology from California State University, San Marcos in 2017.  

With the support of her parents and mentors within the CSU, Alfaro continued to defy odds by enrolling at San Diego State University where she earned a master’s degree in education this May. She plans to work as a school counselor to encourage underrepresented students to continue their education.

Alfaro honored her parents for their sacrifices with a graduation photoshoot in the strawberry field her mother used to work in. The photos became widespread after Alfaro posted them to social media and her story serves as inspiration to first-generation students everywhere.

Read her full story​.

Stephen Vandereb – California State University San Marcos

Although Stephen “​Vee” Vandereb always exhibited strong academic skills, growing up in a crime-plagued neighborhood in Oceanside, California presented numerous obstacles. Vandereb was briefly involved with a local gang and, at age 16, found himself homeless and about to be a father.​

Despite roadblocks, Vandereb finished high school with honors and joined the Marine Corps to begin building a life for his daughter. After serving four years in the military, he enrolled in MiraCosta College and returned home to care for his two younger siblings. 

Vandereb flourished when he transferred to CSU San Marcos in 2016, taking advantage of volunteer opportunities and becoming involved in veterans programs. Vandereb helped found an academic honor society for transfer students, won several awards for academic achievement and worked as a student assistant in the campus’ Graduate Studies and Research department.  

This May, Vandereb graduated cum laude with a long list of honors to his credit and served as a commencement speaker, telling his story to a rapt audience of admirers. He plans to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees and return to CSUSM as a sociology professor.

Read his full story.

Livier Camarena Sanchez – Stanislaus State University

The oldest child in her family and a first-generation college student, Livier Camarena Sanchez has always persevered when it comes to her education. As a child of migrant parents, she was grateful for the sacrifices they made for their children, but felt lost when she first attended college. 

She found direction at Stanislaus State, though, saying the positive impact her professors and support staff had on her kept her motivated to continue her education.

While studying at Stanislaus State, Camarena Sanchez received the California State University Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement—the highest systemwide honor available to CSU students—for her promising research in the field of biological sciences. 

Camarena Sanchez studied the relationship between airborne proteins in the Central Valley and allergies and is a bioanalytical chemistry and molecular genetics research assistant working on optimizing the surgical protocol for nephrectomy procedures in rats.

Camarena Sanchez’s own experience with medical hardship has inspired her to pursue a career in gynecology, focusing on women’s preventive care in underrepresented communities in the Central Valley.

Read her full story.

Arnold Treviño – California State University, Fresno

At the age of 21, Treviño was sentenced to life in prison for a crime he committed while under the influence, but a desire to turn his life around helped fuel his academic journey when he was released. 

Following his release in 2011, Treviño quickly made up for lost time. He earned his associate’s degree from Porterville Community College and transferred to Fresno State, where he interned with Project Rebound, a CSU program available at 9 campuses that supports formerly incarcerated students on their path to earning a degree.

Treviño earned his bachelor’s degree in 2017 and received a master’s degree in social work this May, leaving the campus with a 4.0 GPA and the prestige of being selected as a 2019 Dean’s Medalist for his work with Project Rebound and Focus Forward, where he mentored youth at the Juvenile Justice Campus in Fresno and helped reunite families.

Treviño continues to help others in the prison system through a therapeutic horticulture program he co-facilitates at the Avenal State Prison, where he spent seven years. He will pursue a career working with those who have been impacted by the criminal justice system. 

Read his full story.

Chunli Cao – California State University, East Bay

From birth, the odds were not stacked in Chunli Cao’s favor. She was born into a family of farmers in a tiny remote village on the corner of Yibin, in the southeastern part of Sichuan province, China, which only provides a nine-year compulsory education.

Cao’s family was unable to continue to pay for her education, and she went to work for a battery factory at 15, where she worked 12-hour days for less than $200 per month. She saved for several years to attend night school, still sending money to help care for her family, and eventually moved to Oakland, California in 2011. 

This May, Cao graduated with a bachelor’s in math from Cal State East Bay where she has also applied for graduate school. Following graduate school, she plans to work as an engineer at a major tech company. 

Read her full story

Matthew Keels – California State University, Los Angeles

United States Army veteran Matthew Keels knows first-hand the struggles military personnel face and is using his passion for social work to connect them to the services they need to be successful, both in their personal lives and on their path to a degree.

Keels was still a teenager when he became a father for the first time and enlisted in the military to help secure his family’s future. Although he was financially able to provide for his family, the long periods of time spent away from his children, and the duties of his position, took a toll on his mental health.

While enrolled at Cal State LA, Keels served as veterans affairs representative for Associated Students, Inc., and president of the Cal State LA chapter of SALUTE, a national honor society that recognizes academic excellence among military veterans.

In his two years on campus, the U.S. Army veteran has already drawn new attention to issues faced by fellow veterans at Cal State LA and has focused on strengthening support that promotes success and makes services easier to access. 

Keels graduated this May with a bachelor’s degree in social work from the Rongxiang Xu College of Health and Human Services. After graduation, he plans to pursue a master’s degree in social work and continue to expand his advocacy and service to veterans.

Read his full story

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