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Members of the graduating class of 2024 found a home at California State University, Northridge. It was a place that empowered them and gave them the tools to break cultural and generational barriers, and to fulfill dreams first imagined decades earlier.

More than 10,900 students are eligible to take part in CSUN’s commencement exercises this week. Each student has a personal story of hard work, perseverance and success. Below are examples of just some of those stories:

Demi De La Vara, B.S. in Biochemistry & B.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology

Demi De La Vara
Demi De La Vara

Demi De La Vara’s original plan when she enrolled at CSUN seven years ago was to lay the educational foundation for becoming a veterinarian by obtaining a degree in biochemistry.

She changed her mind in 2021, when she miscarried during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. The doctors she saw didn’t believe she had been pregnant and, attributing her symptoms to COVID, sent her home without proper treatment. Three weeks later, she went into hemorrhagic and septic shock due to the doctors not removing the placenta.

“I recovered, but it was a long process mentally and emotionally,” De La Vara, 25, said. “What happened to me shouldn’t have happened. I don’t know if it happened because I am a Latina, but they would not listen to me. I knew then that I needed to change my career goals. I want to become an OB/GYN. I want to make sure that what happened to me never happens to anyone again. The community deserves doctors who listen to their patients and advocate for them. I don’t want to be a doctor who sees everyone as a number.”

De La Vara kept her major in biochemistry and added two degrees in biology, completing both a bachelor’s of arts and a bachelor’s of science in biology. She also signed up for a trade school course in Riverside to become an emergency medical technician (EMT), just to be sure medicine was the right career choice for her, and it was. 

“I love being an EMT, and I know that I can do medicine as a career,” she said.

Fall semester of 2021, De La Vara commuted from the home she shares with her father in West Covina two days a week to Riverside to do training as an EMT, and then three days a week to CSUN. She admitted the commute put a strain on her studies for a while, but she vowed not to give up.

She was given the opportunity in spring 2022 to do research in Ecuador as part of the Tropical Biology Semester, which gives science students a rare opportunity to study abroad; did research in the labs of two professors; and was president of the student group Women in Science this past semester. On the weekends, she works as an EMT. All this even though she and her father were homeless during the spring of 2023, when a Christmas morning fire in their apartment building left them displaced for most of that semester.

While her father has a college degree, no one else in De La Vara’s family does. She said she appreciates the struggles that first generation college students go through to obtain their degree. She shared some wisdom she recently got from her godmother.

“She said, ‘No one truly knows what you went through, the sacrifices you have made and how lonely it gets, but you did it!’” De La Vara said. “It’s a lonely road and sometimes it can seem very lonely. But we can do it as long as we believe we can do it. That’s all that matters. You just have to not listen to the outside noise.”

Upon graduation, she will work as an EMT full time, while she studies for the Medical College Admission Test.

De La Vara will receive her degrees on Friday, May 17, during the commencement ceremony for graduates of the College of Science and Mathematics.

            Edna Garcia de la Torre, B.A. in Gender and Women’s Studies & B.A. in Psychology

Edna Garcia de la Torre
Edna Garcia de la Torre

If there is any word that describes Edna Garcia de la Torre’s journey to get her college degrees, she said it is “perseverance.”

“I have always been a person who says ‘yes, this situation is tough,’ but instead of sitting down and crying about it, I want to try to figure out a solution,” said Garcia de la Torre, 50, of Santa Clarita.

Garcia de la Torre fled Mexico in 1992 at age 17 and five months pregnant. She was hoping for a fresh start for herself and her child in the United States. She was assaulted the first day she was in this country and, a year later, had to escape the home of an aunt, where she had sought refuge, because her uncle was abusive. Within a couple years, she was a single mother with two daughters to care for, including one with severe health problems.

Garcia de la Torre came up with a plan to survive: find a job that was close to where she lived because she didn’t have a car and arrange for after-school care so that she could work and still have time with her girls when she was done.

As her daughters grew up and became independent, and she became a legal U.S. resident, Garcia de la Torre decided it was time to focus on herself.

“My identity had been being a mother and taking care of my daughters,” she said. “I had to find a different way to live my life and figure out what was important to me.”

She enrolled at the College of the Canyons to study psychology and excelled in her classes. She became involved with a student group, My Gen My Fight, that works to draw attention to modern-day slavery and human trafficking. Impressed with her commitment to helping others, her professors encouraged her to apply to CSUN to get her bachelor’s degree.

“When I got accepted, I was so excited and my kids were so happy for me, but then I got scared,” Garcia de la Torre said. “I didn’t know the university or how it works. It was a little intimidating.”

 She did what she always does when confronted with a problem — research. She familiarized herself with the university’s website and the campus, and reached out to potential advisors and faculty members who could help her.

Her first semester, she started with only six or eight units of classes, but realized that, if she wanted to graduate in four years, she’d have to increase her course load. By her third semester, she was taking 18 units while juggling work demands. Something had to give.

She reduced the number of units she was taking and took classes during the summer and winter sessions but kept her jobs. She worked as a housekeeper two days a week, caregiver for an elderly woman two days a week and manager of a Calabasas shopping center, which she also pressure cleans once a month. She also became a mentor with Community for Achievement in Psychological Sciences and added another major in addition to psychologygender and women’s studies.

“Despite of all the experiences that I had, I really didn’t have a vocabulary to put into words all the things I went through,” she said. “Gender and women’s studies empowered me — gave me the words — and I met amazing women who are passionate about what they are doing, their futures and the things they want to do, and that empowers me as well.”

Garcia de la Torre will begin work on her master’s degree in social work at CSUN in the fall. 

She will receive her bachelor’s degree in psychology on May 18 during the commencement ceremony for the graduates of the Departments of Africana Studies, Anthropology, History and Psychology in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. She will receive her bachelor’s degree in gender and women’s studies on May 19 during the commencement ceremony for the graduates from the College of Humanities.

            Keyly Sandoval, B.S. in Family and Consumer Sciences, with a minor in Gender and Women’s Studies

Keyly Sandoval
Keyly Sandoval

Before she could read, Keyly Sandoval’s mother was encouraging her daughter to go to college. Her parents immigrated from Guatemala when her mother was pregnant with her to ensure better opportunities, especially educational opportunities, for their child.

“She’d say ‘I want you to be somebody,’” said Sandoval, 24, of Tarzana. “Every day, since I was in pre-K, she would tell me, ‘You are going to college.’”

The problem was, Sandoval wasn’t sure she was cut out for college. A high school counselor convinced her that she could succeed in college, so she applied. Her grades weren’t the best, but the counselor told her about CSUN’s Educational Opportunity Program (EOP) and the support it would offer students like her. She decided to give it a shot and was accepted.

“EOP gave me a chance,” she said. “They look at students who have potential but because of their community or life circumstances may not be able to reach that potential without a little bit of help. They create a community, a big family, that makes you feel supported and provides you with a mentor and people who you can trust and can relate to you. And I am forever grateful.”

Sandoval enrolled at CSUN in 2018 with an eye on getting a degree in criminology and justice studies but wasn’t sure if the major was the best fit, even though she hopes to one day practice law. She eventually switched majors to family and consumer sciences, with an emphasis on working with children and families. 

“Families are essentially what helps a child develop to the best of their abilities,” she said. “I don’t come from a perfect family, no one really does. I wanted to be able to have the knowledge to help other families.”

It’s knowledge that she said that will carry over to her future family law practice. She recently completed an internship with a family court judge and found that her major provided her unique insight into some of the cases that appeared before the court. 

“I have a deeper understanding of why things are the way they are, and why the child’s needs should always be placed before the parents’,” she said. “Most times, you’ll see the children are stuck in the crossfire of the parents. They kind of forget the child in the effort to get their point across. But the judge is so amazing and reminds them that we’re here because we want what’s best for the child.”

In addition to her internship, Sandoval has served as an EOP mentor, volunteered at CSUN’s Women’s Research and Resource Center providing support to fellow students in need and was president of The F Word (the Feminist Student Association for Community Learning in Intersectional Transnational Transfeminism), an all-inclusive feminist club. She also works part-time for an athleisure wear company, as a research assistant job on campus and has a side gig tutoring children in English and math. She joked that she sets aside Mondays for sleep.

Sandoval called her time at CSUN “eye opening.”

“I discovered things about myself that I didn’t know,” said Sandoval, who took some time off from her studies to deal with medical issues. “I was about to figure out my goals. I came in with a mentality that this is what I want to do. Then somewhere along the line it completely changed. I think being able to have that open-mindedness to accept that things won’t always go the way you planned is a good thing.”

Sandoval is scheduled to receive her degree during the commencement ceremony for the College of Health and Human Development on Sunday, May 19. In the meantime, she’s studying for the LSATs.

            Jordan Washington, B.S. in Business Administration – Financial Analysis

Jordan Washington
Jordan Washington

Jordan Washington is determined to do all he can to eliminate the generational financial inequities that impact his family and other families of color.

“I’ve always been fascinated by finance and money and came to college with a goal of breaking down those generational barriers and making a difference,” said the 23-year-old Oakland native, who has a position waiting for him when he graduates in the San Francisco offices of the private wealth management division of the global investment firm Goldman Sachs.

Washington was a student athlete growing up. He played basketball all through elementary, middle and high school and at Merritt College, where he earned an associate degree in business. As he considered his choices for his bachelor’s degree, CSUN stood out. Not only for its athletics program, but also for the strong reputation of the David Nazarian College for Business and Economics and, in particular, its Department of Finance.

“I played basketball my whole life, and my first goal in life was to become a professional basketball player,” Washington said, adding that when he arrived at CSUN in 2022 he fully intended to try out for the school’s basketball team as a walk on.

But, as he settled into his apartment at the start of his first semester, he realized that he was more interested in his studies than playing basketball competitively.

“I took a hard look in the mirror and was going to church with my grandmother and praying, looking for a purpose because I had been playing basketball for so long and it had started to feel more like a job than a passion,” he said. “Growing up, the role models for success in my community were athletes and entertainers. I felt like there was big need in my community for representation in the corporate space. I realized that that was my journey.”

Washington said he has always loved business and money.

“I remember I wrote a letter to myself when I was seven,” he said. “I wrote that I wanted to own a business and I wanted to have a billion dollars.”

During the pandemic, Washington taught himself stock trading. “I wanted to learn a new skill, something to improve myself,” he said.

 He learned how to read the stock market and started investing. He did some research, took $100 and bought some stock to see what would happen. “It turned out well,” he said.

Washington noted that generational wealth, which lends financial security for so many people, is often elusive in communities of color. 

“Most of that wealth is based on real estate, but you can’t invest in real estate if you are too busy focusing on making ends, putting a roof over your family’s heads and food on the table,” Washington said. “My parents did better than most, were there to help us make the right decisions, and my sisters and I never wanted for anything. But in today’s market, real estate is really out of reach for so many people.”

While at Goldman Sachs, he hopes to start a financial literacy program that will teach young people of color in Oakland how to handle money, make financial decisions and how to save and invest in something like the stock market.

 “I believe that in this world we are here to serve a purpose,” Washington said. “I feel as though helping young people learn how to manage credit, how to save their money, how to invest their money can ultimately lead to my community, and other communities of color, shrinking the wealth gap.”

Washington is scheduled to receive his degree during the commencement ceremony for the Nazarian College on Monday, May 20.

            Stephanie Wilson, B.A. in Africana Studies

Stephanie Wilson
Stephanie Wilson

Stephanie Wilson has lived a rich life. The single mother of two, grandmother of seven and great-grandmother of three has worked as an insurance agent for 10 years; in public relations for a hospital; did recruitment, fundraising and public relations for a Catholic charity; sat on a local board of the American Cancer Society; worked for a social marketing firm; and served as an AmeriCorps supervisor.

Along the way, while raising her children and fostering three of her grandchildren, she met with former U.S. Ambassador and social activist Sargent Shriver; attended a mass presided over by Pope John Paul; attended a celebration for the release of Nelson Mandela in Africa; served as a consultant for a collaboration with the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial and Father Greg Boyle’s Project Impact in Boyle Heights; trained as a volunteer facilitator for the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance; and managed a homework help center for marginalized students in northwest Pasadena.

Later this month, at age 73, the Altadena resident will become the first in her family to earn a college degree.

“My granddaughter started at CSUN in 2014, but she ended up dropping out and not finishing,” Wilson said. “I feel she dropped out, not because she couldn’t do the work, but because it was easier than continuing. I guess I really want to show her, and other people, that it’s possible.”

Wilson’s college journey started more than 50 years ago when she enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College immediately out of high school. She concedes that she was not a great student at the time and, when she became pregnant, she dropped out.

“I’ve actually attended several community colleges over the years,” she said. “But every time I would enroll, something very severe would happen and I would have to drop out. I became very shy about going to school, but it was always in the back of my mind that it was something I wanted to do.”

When the pandemic hit and her work moved virtually, Wilson decided it was time to go back to school. At first, she took just two classes from Pasadena City College, but before long she was taking a full course load. In 2022, she was awarded her associate degree and was one of two student commencement speakers. She then set out to earn a bachelor’s degree at CSUN. 

Wilson wanted to assure older people who are considering going back to college that they can do it.

“They don’t realize that there is a lot of support for them on campus, if they look for it,” she said. “I may have been the oldest student in my classes, but I have made friendships with classmates who are old enough to be my grandchildren. They have been there for me, just as I am there for them.”

Wilson will begin work on a master’s degree in Pan-African studies this fall at Cal State LA with the goal of someday teaching at a community college and developing a curriculum for intergenerational community building.

“I love being Black, and I love all the contributions that people that look like me that are part of the diaspora have made that go unnoticed,” she said. “I also think about how we’re losing a lot of our identity because we are assimilating into a society that doesn’t honor our history and contributions, that don’t treasure us. I want to do something about that.”

Wilson will be taking part in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ commencement ceremony on May 18.


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