Many of them are the first in their families to get a college education. Others enjoyed successful careers before deciding college could help them realize new dreams. Regardless of what brought them to California State University, Northridge, the members of this year’s graduating class are determined to use what they learned at CSUN to make a positive impact in the lives of others.

The cheers may be deafening this week when more than 11,600 students are eligible to take part in CSUN’s 2022 commencement ceremonies. Each student has a personal story of hard work, perseverance and success. Below are just some of their unique stories:

Marcela Alvarez
Marcela Alvarez

Marcela Alvarez, M.A. in Multilingual and Multicultural Education, Michael D. Eisner College of Education

As a first-generation college graduate and daughter of Mexican immigrants, Marcela Alvarez said she understands the power of education to transform lives. It’s why she became a teacher.

“I want to serve my community,” said Alvarez, 27, of the San Fernando Valley. “It’s important for students to have teachers who look like them, who have shared experiences, and who can teach them to be proud of who they are and help them appreciate the power an education has in helping them achieve their dreams.”

Alvarez grew up in a neighborhood just blocks from CSUN, and her parents had hoped she and her two siblings would attend the university. “It’s why my parents bought the house where they did,” she said.

But she was determined to follow her own path. After high school, she headed north to the University of California, Davis, and earned a bachelor’s degree in Chicano studies, with a minor in education, in 2016. While at Davis, Alvarez, who speaks fluent Spanish, had signed up with the nonprofit Teach for America. Upon graduation, she was sent to teach dual-language second graders in a public elementary school in San Antonio, Texas.

Alvarez admitted she knew very little about San Antonio beyond what she’d read on Wikipedia. She said the move was a culture shock, particularly in the classroom.

“Despite serving students who looked like me, who spoke the same language as me, I was the ‘radical’ Californian who had come to live in San Antonio,” she said, adding that she worked hard to find ways to connect with her students.

It wasn’t until her students saw a screengrab she had from the film “Blood In, Blood Out,” starring Jesse Borrego, who was born and raised in San Antonio, that things clicked and she found a something that connected her to her students — support for Borrego. Even then, she said she had a hard time adjusting to Texas teaching practices. She said fellow teachers would look askance at her when she worked to include Mexican folktales or similar cultural references into her curriculum.

Discouraged at the lack of support she had for bringing cultural references into her classroom, Alvarez returned to California after three years and took a position as second-grade teacher with Para Los Niños in downtown Los Angeles. She also applied to get a master’s degree at CSUN, per her father’s suggestion.

“He said, ‘You want to serve your community. You want to be a better teacher. If you want to do that, then you should do that in your community,’” Alvarez said. “There was some give and take, but he was right. Coming to CSUN taught me how to be a better teacher.

“I have found a brilliant, amazing, supportive community,” she continued. “I have been part of a school that really wants to make changes in Los Angeles — and not just in Los Angeles — and it’s right here in my backyard. I am on the precipice of starting a doctoral degree, and that would not have happened without the support of the faculty and staff at CSUN.”

Alvarez will begin work on her doctoral degree this fall at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her research will focus on how pre-service programs are preparing teachers to incorporate their own cultural identities and practices to meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.

She will be taking part in the Michael D. Eisner College of Education’s commencement ceremony, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 21.

Sonny Greenback
Sonny Greenback

Sonny Greenback, B.A. in Psychology, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Sonny Greenback, 64, of Santa Clarita, ran a screen-printing business for 30 years when, a little more than six years ago, he mentioned to his oldest son, Johnnie Lee, that he was considering going to college. His son was at Pierce College in Woodland Hills and interested in studying music or film.

“He did a semester there, and I didn’t even know,” said Greenback, a single father of four. “We were talking and I told him ‘I’m thinking about going back to school,’ and he said,  ‘Dad, it would be so cool if we went together. Let’s do that.’”

The two were making plans to attend Pierce together, when, a month later, they were shot. Johnnie Lee, who was 28, died and Sonny Greenback suffered a wound to the head. The person who pulled the trigger was Sonny’s oldest daughter, who was living with untreated Schizophrenia and was experiencing a mental breakdown at the time. Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder in which people interpret reality abnormally.

Greenback spent 18 months in therapy, coming to terms with the loss of his son and endless questions about what he could have done to prevent the incident. With the help of his therapist, he learned to forgive his daughter and gather the courage to leave his home, where he had sequestered himself with his surviving son and younger daughter following the shooting.

“I felt I was dying to live, but was actually only living to die,” Greenback said. “I didn’t want to go out and associate with people. I had severe PTSD, panic attacks and anxiety. I was really isolated, when my therapist suggested that I go to Piece College.”

Greenback had been involved with a program that helps people fighting addiction for a number years, and the therapist suggested he formally study the subject at a college far enough from home that he would not run into people who knew his family’s story and inadvertently trigger his PTSD and anxiety.

He enrolled at Pierce and thrived in the program, so much so, that when one of his professors suggested he continue his education and earn a bachelor’s degree in psychology, something clicked.

“It hit me that I had a calling,” Greenback said. “The person who shot me and my son was mentally ill. They were a young adult who was found not guilty by reason of insanity by the courts. I thought: ‘You know what? I want to make a difference trying to help young adults with mental illness.’”

Once he completed his associate’s degree in social and behavioral sciences and addiction studies, he transferred first to CSU Channel Islands, and then to CSUN.

Greenback said he is grateful for the support and understanding he has received from the university’s faculty and staff, particularly Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES).

“I don’t think I would have made it without the note takers and extra time on tests,” he said, singling out his DRES Advisor Deborah Brasil, who met with him weekly. “When I first started, I had doubts, given my severe PTSD, that I would make it. Something would spark my anxiety and then I’d be sitting in the back of the class crying. But the professors understood, and DRES provided me the support when I needed it.”

Greenback plans to continue his studies at CSUN. He wants to get a master’s degree in social work so he can work with young adults with mental illness. In the meantime, he’s reveling in the fact that he has earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology.

“I can’t believe, given everything that I have gone through over the past few years, that I’ve gotten to where I am at,” he said. “At times, it’s still unbelievable. It just shows that if somebody has the desire to do something, they can do it. You just have to put you heart into it, and have the willingness, the drive, to get it done. In my case, pursing an education saved my life.”

He credits his late son, Johnnie Lee, with his success.

“He’s been my inspiration,” Greenback said. “I know he’s proud. He’s given me that extra strength at times when I needed it. He’s always been there for me. He’s been my angel watching over me.”

Greenback will be taking part the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 21.

Joanna Maddela
Joanna Maddela

Joanna Maddela, B.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, with a minor in Chemistry, College of Science and Mathematics

In high school, Joanna Maddela, 23, of Tarzana, admitted she went with the flow and tried not to draw too much attention to herself. An immigrant from the Philippines, Maddela wanted to blend in.

“I had already transferred from one school to another,” she said. “I am hard of hearing, and I was very worried about my accent and my identity. I didn’t know what to do, so I kind of followed what my friends were doing. That led to my first exposure to research.”

Following a friend’s example, she signed up with the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine high school program and spent a summer studying lung cancer. Until that point, Maddela, one of seven children, wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life.

The friend, who was interested in studying microbiology, applied to CSUN, and Maddela followed her. She said she knew she made the right choice when someone at a hospital helping her with her hearing aids mentioned the university’s reputation for meeting the needs of deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

“I was still trying to get comfortable in my own skin, and when I heard that, I knew CSUN was where I belonged,” she said.

Her freshman year, the first-generation college student was working as a manager at McDonald’s and trying to figure out a career path when she met biology professor Ray Hong, who is co-director of the MARC/RISE programs, now known as U-RISE, with biology professor MariaElena Zavala. He encouraged her to apply to the program, which is designed to increase the number of underrepresented scientists engaged in biomedical research and provides students with financial support and training on how to be principal investigators (lead researchers) on research projects. The students are paired with faculty mentors and work on a long-term research project.

Maddela spent the past three-and-a-half years working in biology professor Jonathan Kelber’s lab, searching for new ways to inhibit metastasis — the process of cancer cells moving from their original site of growth to, and growing in, other tissues in the body — in one of the hardest-to-treat forms of breast cancer, triple-negative breast cancer.

She has been active in the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science, which supports underrepresented people pursuing careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. She also was a tutor for fellow students in the chemistry department and homeless schoolchildren.

“Coming to CSUN, I really learned a lot about who I am, came to terms with being hard of hearing and learned what I am capable of,” Maddela said. “Someone at CSUN’s National Center on Deafness told me that I am going to be one of the few hard-of-hearing people in a profession dominated by the hearing. That motivates me.”

Maddela will start work on a doctoral degree this fall at Brown University in Rhode Island, where she hopes to continue doing cancer research and dive into work on stem cells and immunology.

“I’m an immigrant, a woman of color and I have a disability, and I am going to Brown University to get my Ph.D.!” she said. “It feels surreal. There’s some part of me that still doesn’t believe it. But that’s one of my motivations for going to grad school. There aren’t enough of us in grad school. I need to be there so I can make a difference.

“Someday, I hope to be working in academia with my own lab, doing research,” Maddela said. “I want to be like Dr. Zavala, giving back to the community and helping people of color succeed in the field. I will continue being a mentor, sharing my experience and being there for people like me.”

Maddela will be taking part in the College of Science and Mathematics’ commencement ceremony, at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 20.

Maria Martinez
Maria Martinez

Maria Martinez, B.S. in Computer Science, College of Engineering and Computer Science

Maria Martinez, 35, of East Los Angeles, doesn’t formally graduate with her degree in computer science until this weekend, but she already has a job, with a six-figure salary, as an associate software engineer with the Walt Disney Co., and she is excited about her future with the multinational entertainment and media conglomerate. It’s something she didn’t even think possible a decade ago.

Martinez grew up as one of four daughters of a single mother, who all lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Gardena. Martinez never finished high school and didn’t earn her GED until four years after she would have graduated. She didn’t see a future for herself. Her life was in a downward spiral that included drug use. In 2010, she ended up in prison and served six years for robbery. Her younger sister, a software engineer at a game company, came to visit her a year before she was to be paroled and asked Martinez what she planned to do when she got out.

“I said, ‘That’s a long time from now,’ and she said, ‘No, that’s a year from now,’” Martinez said. “Prison and the real world are really two different worlds. I never thought about getting out and going home, because that’s just too depressing.”

Her sister insisted Martinez consider going back to school and studying computer science. She pointed out that Martinez seemed to be a natural at math in high school, even though she only had gone as far as geometry. A year later, in 2016, Martinez’s sister enrolled her in community college computer science classes.

Society had changed in the six years she was in prison, and Martinez suffered from culture shock.

 “People would talk about things and I had no idea what they were talking about, particularly when it came to technology,” she said. “When I came out, I still had a little Razr flip phone and people were opening their phones with a swipe of their fingers. It was like, ‘Wow!’”

After a year in community college, Martinez started looking for a college to transfer to and discovered CSUN’s Revolutionary Scholars, a student-led program that empowers formerly incarcerated people of all ages to pursue their degree. “I didn’t even know people with my background were actually pursuing higher education,” she said.

Martinez discovered one of the founders of the program, Lily Gonzalez, was someone she had spent time with in jail, so she reached out. In addition to co-founding Revolutionary Scholars, Gonzalez earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at CSUN and is now coordinator of the university’s Project Rebound, an initiative designed to help guide formerly incarcerated students on their academic journey and connect them with campus liaisons committed to their success.

“She took me on a tour, and that’s when I met individuals who were part of Revolutionary Scholars,” she said. “They were just so accepting. They didn’t ask me about my background, why I went to prison or anything like that. They did not see me as defined by my past; they saw me as who I was becoming now. They saw me as me.”

Martinez said she found a “home” at CSUN.

There were times, she said, when she questioned whether she had what it took to complete her degree, given her non-traditional path to college, the fact that she was often the only woman in her classes and that she has a learning disability.

She recalled struggling to grasp concepts that her classmates in one course seemed to understand naturally.

“I had a meltdown during a midterm,” she said. “The professor told me, ‘Don’t do this to yourself. You know this.’ I told him I didn’t. He was so very patient. He told me he knew I did. He gave me time to collect myself and complete the midterm. I got an A in the class.

“Everyone is so nice at CSUN,” she said. “I was honest with my professors. I shared my story, and they were there for me, always willing to offer help when I needed it.”

Martinez wanted to offer that same support to other formerly incarcerated people, so she reached out to Homeboy Industries, the largest gang rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world, to volunteer to teach computer science boot camps. She also served as a mentor to other students in Project Rebound.

When the internship she had this past year at Disney turned into a permanent job offer, Martinez joined the company’s Latinx group to increase the number of Latinx individuals who work at the company. She is also formalizing a pathway to increase internship opportunities for CSUN computer science students at Disney. Most important to her, the company has given her permission to create a similar program for formerly incarcerated people.

“It’s important to open doors for other individuals,” she said. “Like I tell everyone, ‘There’s another route you can take, and I’ll help you if you are willing to put in the time. If I can do it, you can do it.’

“You have to create opportunities for people,” Martinez said. “Not everyone comes from the same background. Sometimes you have to help them lift the barriers to opportunity.”

Martinez will take part in the College of Engineering and Computer Science’s commencement ceremony, at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 20.

Nelson Mejia-Gonzalez
Nelson Mejia-Gonzalez

Nelson Mejia-Gonzalez, B.A. in Child and Adolescent Development, College of Health and Human Development

Nelson Mejia-Gonzalez, 22, of Van Nuys, can relate to children in school — whether elementary, middle or high school — who work hard, but keep to themselves and their small friend groups and hope that they aren’t singled out because they are different, whether it’s the color of their skin, country of origin, sexual orientation or how they identify. It’s the reason he chose to major in child and adolescent development when he got to CSUN.

“I believe that when most adults see children, they don’t really see them,” Mejia-Gonzalez said. “All they see is a child playing with toys and stuff like that. They don’t understand children know what’s going on around them. They don’t really see them, or understand how the traumas children experience as they grow up impact them in so many different ways.”

Mejia-Gonzalez said his time in middle and high school volunteering with LA’s Best, an afterschool enrichment program that serves the Los Angeles Unified School District, inspired his desire work with and advocate for children.

“Just seeing how I was able to build connections with children and how they knew I was there for them, I knew I wanted to work with children in the future,” he said.

Mejia-Gonzalez is the middle of three children, and the first in his family to go to college. He admitted that his parents, immigrants from El Salvador, are supportive of his accomplishments, but they don’t really understand what is involved in getting a college degree.

“I know they are proud of me, but they don’t really understand all the hard work that is involved,” he said, with a laugh. “Sometimes, they’ll ask me to do something when I’m in the middle of a major project or homework. They don’t understand that even though I am at home, I’m still working. I know that’s an experience shared by a lot of children, particularly children of immigrants, whose parents never got a chance at higher education.”

Mejia-Gonzalez said his experiences as the son of immigrants, a person of color and first-generation college student who struggled to come to terms with his sexual orientation will help him better understand the needs of young people.

“It’s one of the reasons that I chose to study child and adolescent development at CSUN,” he said. “Yes, it’s close to home. But it also offers classes that I didn’t see at other schools — classes that truly focus on helping children, whether with abuse, coping with a medical environment or autism.”

He spent his first two years at the university concentrating on his studies, but by his junior year he was more involved on campus. He served as a peer mentor for fellow child and adolescent development students and was an active member of the Child and Adolescent Development Association, which provides support to a number of community organizations, including some that help the homeless. He also had an internship with child and adolescent development assistant professor Rika Meyer, helping her with her classes and organizing workshops.

Mejia-Gonzalez has applied to graduate school and hopes to begin work on a master’s in social work in the fall.

“I really want to do social work with schools,” he said. “I feel like the education system needs changes. I want to be able to assist in making those changes, whether it is through shaping public policy, helping change the curriculum or working one-on-one with students.”

Mejia-Gonzalez will be taking part in the College of Health and Human Development’s commencement ceremony, at 8 a.m. on Monday, May 23.

Yvette Sams
Yvette Sams

Yvette Sams, B.A. in Cinema and Television Arts, with a screenwriting option, Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication

It’s highly unusual for a college student, just weeks away from earning their bachelor’s degree, to have their first full-length screenplay, “A Royal Surprise,” turned into a movie streaming on BET+ and another script being optioned as the pilot for a new show. But then Yvette Sams, of Beverly Hills, is not your typical college student.

Born in New York and raised in Maryland, Sams loved to write as a child. When she graduated from high school, she enrolled in college with the idea of majoring in merchandising. “But my life kind of went in a different direction,” she said.

She got married and when she was seven months pregnant with her son Ryan, she started a background casting company in Los Angeles, figuring with  that running her own business she would be able to spend more time with him when he was born. “Didn’t work out that way because the business took off,” Sams said.

By the time Ryan was in middle school, she was divorced, living in Las Vegas and working in radio advertising. She often would write advertising copy and develop programming for her clients.

Determined to do more writing, Sams took a job with Nevada Family Magazine and wrote a column called “Single Parenting in the City,” that would often include stories about her son.

“I did a few columns and my son was like, ‘Do you really have to talk about this?’” she said. “Needless to say, the column didn’t last much longer.”

But her passion for writing didn’t diminish. She joined Nevada Wellness Magazine, where she wrote a column and helped with advertising. She became managing editor of a startup magazine for adults over the age of 40. She also did marketing and advertising consulting.

When a friend who worked in entertainment public relations offered Sams an opportunity to help her put on entertainment industry-related events, she returned to Southern California. Between producing red-carpet and other events, she still found time to write.

“When I moved back to California, one of the things I wanted to do was get serious about screenwriting,” she said. “I want to tell stories, family-friendly stories of faith, love and redemption. I don’t want to just write them, but produce and direct them as well.”

That dream led her to Los Angeles Valley College.

“I was just going to take a screenwriting class or a production class,” she said. “But my son was in the middle of getting his MBA at the time and he said, ‘Mom, why don’t you take more classes?’”

Before she knew it, she was completing her associate’s degree and her son and her professors were encouraging her to continue her education. She transferred to CSUN in 2020.

“There was a minute when I was transferring when I was like, ‘What are you doing?’” she said, adding that she took a breath and told herself she was “okay.”

“It wasn’t really about the degree,” she said. “It was about completing what you started. That’s the type of person I am — when I start something I finish it.”

Sams loved her time a CSUN, saying she found “a nugget” in every class she took. “There were a lot of nuggets along the way that continue to shape and mold me and have helped me grow in ways that have nothing to do with screenwriting or film production, but just in life in general.”

Sams was hired to write “A Royal Surprise” before she had enrolled at CSUN, and wrote screenplay while juggling a full course load during her first semester. As for the pilot, “Edge of the South,” that was written this past year in one of her classes. A couple of other scripts she wrote in class are also being “shopped around.” In the meantime, she has founded her own production company, 9012 Productions, named after her childhood address.

In addition to launching her film career, Sams still finds time to support other aspiring filmmakers, particularly women and people of color.

“When you get to a certain point, you want to make sure you reach back and mentor others, just like you were mentored,” she said.

Sams will be taking part in the Mike Curb College of Arts, Media, and Communication’s commencement ceremony, at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 22.

Jessica Steiner
Jessica Steiner

Jessica Steiner, B.A. in Asian American Studies, College of Humanities, and B.A. in Anthropology, College of Social and Behavioral Sciences

Jessica Steiner, 22 of Santa Clarita, said she “found herself” at CSUN.

Growing up, Steiner always did what she thought was expected of her. In high school, she got good grades, was a favorite with her teachers and was a member of the school’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. But she had never given any thought to her future. So, she followed her friends’ lead as they applied to college. Many of her relatives are nurses, but she wasn’t sure she was cut out to be a nurse. Instead, she chose biomedical technology as a major.

“When I transitioned to college, a lot of my self-identity began to crumble, and I was lonely because I didn’t know who I was anymore,” she said.

Most of her friends were scattered at universities across the state, and she realized that biomedical technology was not for her. The only classes that captured her attention her freshman year were her electives in Asian American studies. She spent the following summer reading up on every major CSUN offered — “there are about 70,” she said — hoping to find something that interested her. There were two: Asian American studies and anthropology.
A conversation with Asian American studies professor Gina Masequesmay helped Steiner realize that  double-majoring was possible. “I was like, ‘I can do that?’” she said.

 A few weeks before the start of her sophomore year, Steiner met with anthropology advisor Kevin Zemlicka to see if she could add anthropology to her studies. Before the day was over, he had registered her for classes and introduced her to every faculty member in the department. Within weeks, he invited her to be part of a research project with CSUN’s Autonomy Research Center for STEAMH (ARCS). She was soon at work examining risk perception and public acceptance of unmanned aerial systems, drones, as they become more integrated into the national air space.

At the same time, she became involved with, and eventually became an intern for CSUN’s Asian American Studies Pathways Project — a student retention initiative designed to address the unique issues of Asian, Pacific Islander and Desi American students.

“ARCS and the Pathways Project were so integral in my journey becoming comfortable with who I am and what I want to do with my life,” said Steiner.

Her involvement on campus “snowballed” with the start of the pandemic, she said. She became chair of diversity and inclusion for Associated Students, CSUN’s student body government; a member of CSUN’s police advisory committee; a member of the University Student Union’s LGBTQ advisory board; was a member of the Asian-American Pacific Islander Strategy Group that worked in collaboration with Student Outreach and Recruitment to increase Asian American and Pacific Islander enrollment at CSUN; and a member of the advisory committee for the University Student Union’s RISE Center, examining how the campus’ various cultural centers will be incorporated into union’s remodeled facilities.

The latter project was particularly important to Steiner, who said she found a home away from home at the Glenn Omatsu House, a meeting place for CSUN’s Asian American students.

“It was kind of a game-changer for me,” Steiner said. “It was somewhere I could be around people who were like me. We weren’t always working on the same thing, but we kept each other accountable and made sure everyone was all right. It became an anchor for me, and a place for empowerment.”

Steiner, who officially graduated in December 2021, returns to CSUN this fall to get her master’s degree in anthropology. She is working on a five-year research project for the ARCS, looking to model trust between humans and machines. The project is a collaboration with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The agencies want to understand how humans and machines, particularly autonomous robots, will work together in the future.

Building on her experiences as an undergraduate, Steiner said her master’s thesis will examine student belonging and placemaking on university campuses.

“My experience at CSUN is not atypical. Other students go through this — where they’re kind of lost and feel like they need to push through everything until they find a community and flourish,” she said. “I was someone who really struggled. But I found my place at CSUN. I found my people at CSUN, and then I became the person I needed me to be. And I could start being that person for others.”

Steiner will take part in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ commencement ceremony, at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, and the College of Humanities’ commencement ceremony, at 8 a.m. on Monday, May 23.

Camille Villaflores
Camille Villaflores

Camille Villaflores, B.S. in Accounting, David Nazarian College of Business and Economics

Numbers are magical, at least to Camille Villaflores, 22, of Northridge.

“At first, growing up, I thought numbers were gibberish, but something I was very interested in figuring out,” she said. “I wanted to learn more about what they meant and why they were there. In learning about numbers, I discovered that I can help other people learn more about the numbers in their lives, where those numbers are coming from and how to make their numbers, their money, grow. And that’s pretty cool.”

Villaflores said she enrolled at CSUN in 2017 because its Department of Accounting is known as one of the best in the state.

“I was so scared at first,” she said. “Everything was so different from high school. I didn’t know a lot of people; the classes were much harder and the teachers much more professional. But at the same time, there are so many resources made available to you — the faculty work to connect you with as many different professionals and mentors as possible, and the faculty are always there for you when you need them.”

By the end of her junior year, Villaflores was offering her accounting skills at CSUN’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) clinic, which provides free tax services to low-income individuals. She started out as a tax preparer, helping people file their taxes. Three years later, she was a lead supervisor with the program, answering all tax-related questions for clients and doing the final review before the paperwork was electronically filed with the Internal Revenue Service.

In addition to her work with VITA, Villaflores had a job with the University Library’s Teacher Curriculum Center, which provides resources to K-12 teachers, where she used her communication and organization skills to guide patrons and keep the center’s lending materials in order. She also was an active member of CSUN’s Filipino-American Student Association and Accounting Association.

But numbers are her passion. She spent the past year working as an intern with GHJ, an accounting and advisory firm headquartered in Los Angeles with team members and clients throughout the United States. The firm has offered her a full-time position starting this fall. She is spending the summer preparing for the certified public accountant exam.

Villaflores said the internship exposed her to the tax and audit sides of accounting. “I was actually leaning more toward specializing in audits at the very beginning,” she said. “But after my internship, I decided to choose tax because I felt there’s so much more structure. I love that there is always a place for all the numbers.

“When you’re doing taxes,” she explained, “you are learning more about what is behind the numbers and where they are coming from. That’s knowledge that I can use to help my community.”

Her goal, she said, is to someday develop a community-based program that teaches  financial literacy to young adults, in particular high schoolers, covering such topics as what are taxes and why one pays them and how to make informed decisions when they are spending money.

“Sometimes, their parents aren’t able to teach them, or expect them to learn along the way on their own,” Villaflores said. “It’s hard enough making that transition to adulthood. I don’t want them to feel lost once they enter the real world.”

Growing up, Villaflores said, all the business leaders in the movies she watched were men.

“All we saw were men in suits, leading everyone,” she said. “It still kind of feels that way. And there still aren’t many women of color in business. I want to change that. I am going to be a woman of color in a business suit, leading.”

Villaflores will be taking part in the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics’ commencement ceremony, at 8 a.m. on Sunday, May 22.


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