Roxxette Zepeda, Outstanding

Graduating Senior

Maria Akopyan, Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student 

Braulio Diaz, Outstanding Graduating Senior 

Of the approximately 2,100 graduates invited to take part in California State University, Northridge’s Honors Convocation on Saturday, May 13, six individuals were singled out for special recognition as outstanding graduating students. Three stories will appear in this issue of the San Fernando Valley Sun/El Sol, and three more will appear in next week’s edition.

Roxxette Zepeda, Outstanding Graduating Senior

In a life of so many closed doors, it was a CSUN recruiter who opened a window for Roxxette Lezly Zepeda. The 17-year-old was late to class, running down the hallway of Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles, one day during her senior year.

Joel Monroy, a recruiter for the university’s Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP), stopped her in the hallway and asked, “‘What are your plans after high school graduation?’” Zepeda recounted recently. “I said, ‘I’m getting married, in an arranged marriage to an older man in Mexico.’ He asked me, ‘Do you want to?’ And I said, ‘No! I want to be a nurse.’ He invited me to apply to CSUN’s nursing program, through EOP.”

Zepeda’s first visit to CSUN was for her interview, on her 18th birthday. She was accepted through the EOP Residential Bridge Program, which gave Zepeda and gives other low-income, first-generation college students a summer home in the freshman dorms on campus and support transitioning to university life.

Five years later, Zepeda is completing her Bachelor of Science in public health in CSUN’s College of Health and Human Development. This fall, she begins a graduate program at the UCLA School of Nursing. She plans to pursue a master’s and Ph.D. in clinical practice and neonatal research.

She defied her family and an arranged marriage to pursue a college degree. She has finished college on her own — at times overcoming homelessness, hunger and wrenching family upheaval. But her maternal grandparents and other relatives, Zepeda said, have come around to support her because they see how far she has come.

Though she was born in LA, Zepeda was raised by her maternal grandparents at their ranch near Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, until the age of 11 because her teenaged parents were unable to care for her. When her father won full custody, he brought her back to LA. Her mother has been in and out of jail due to a drug addiction, Zepeda said.

“When I graduated from high school, my father expected me to find full-time employment and a husband. I had a different agenda,” she said. “When I was accepted to CSUN, my father gave me an ultimatum: him or college. … Even though I have known hunger and did not always have a place to stay, I took challenging classes, volunteered, mentored and conducted research. I kept moving forward with my education because I knew that was my future.”

In 2015, Zepeda was accepted into CSUN’s BUILD PODER research training program, which aims to increase diversity in biomedical research fields and prepare participants for Ph.D. programs. As part of her research, Zepeda volunteered at several area hospitals. She also worked as a peer mentor and EOP student office assistant, where she often mentored freshmen.

Zepeda will be taking part in the commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Saturday, May 20, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library.

Maria Akopyan, Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student 

Maria Akopyan was finishing her first year of graduate school when she received an award from the Association of Retired Faculty. While attending an event celebrating this achievement, she saw the announcement of the 2015 Nathan O. Freedman Award, given annually to the top graduate student during CSUN’s Honors Convocation. She filed that away, intending to apply when she was close to completing her own graduate work.

After three years of research in evolutionary biology – specifically the courtship behavior and evolution of color and genetic variation in red-eyed treefrogs –  and a perfect 4.0 GPA, Akopyan is the 2017 Nathan O. Freedman Awardee, with a spot in Cornell University’s Ph.D. program waiting for her in the fall. She has received 14 scholarships or awards in her academic career, including the 2017 Mack I. Johnson Memorial Research Award for Outstanding Graduate Student.

It’s been a remarkable journey for Akopyan, whose parents, Robert and Seda, immigrated to the United States from Armenia in the late 1980s. She is a first-generation college student who has had to forge her own path, fueled by an appetite to conduct research and a drive that “comes from this immense sense of gratitude that I have for my family, and the sacrifices they’ve made,” she said.

“I don’t lose sight of that,” she continued. “Having that in the back of my mind, I can’t see any other way of living other than working really hard and making them proud.”

Akopyan credits the CSUN community, in particular her master’s adviser, biology professor Jeanne Robertson, for giving her the foundation to succeed. She was put in charge of a research team that included two undergraduate students, something she hardly saw during her undergraduate years at UCLA.

“[Robertson] was really adamant about fostering a relationship where I could benefit from having undergrads help me and they could benefit from the research experience,” Akopyan said. “It’s something that’s very special about CSUN.”

Akopyan said she chose Cornell to continue for her doctoral studies largely because its collaborative environment matched that of CSUN’s. She added, “it really takes a village to do research.”

She said it’s heartening to look back and see how far she has come in three years.

“I wouldn’t even recognize myself if I could go back in time,” Akopyan said. “It’s still really surreal. I feel like someone is going to wake me up and say, ‘just kidding you’re really not going to Cornell.’ I could not have done it without the amazing community here.”

Akopyan will be taking part in the commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Monday, May 22, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library.

Braulio Diaz, Outstanding Graduating Senior 

While a student at William Howard Taft Charter High School in Woodland Hills, Braulio Diaz came across astronomer Carl Sagan’s reflection on the “Pale Blue Dot” — a photograph taken by the Voyager 1 space probe that shows Earth as a tiny speck from billions of miles away.

Diaz, a computer engineering major with visions of working in aerospace, said Sagan’s words piqued his interest in space exploration. But Sagan’s larger message on humanity, and how the Earth is our home and we need to take care of each other resonated with Diaz.

“That whole speech really touched me, and that’s the way we should live — respect everybody for who they are and live in harmony,” Diaz said.

Diaz was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and came to the United States as a 1-year-old with undocumented status. He is a recipient of a CSUN Dreamers Scholarship, which gives undocumented students — who are not eligible for federal financial aid — the funds they need for a college education. He said he wants to be an inspiration for fellow undocumented students who have a lot to offer schools, communities and society.

Since the day he set foot on the campus as a student, Diaz has been committed to making the most of his experience at the university and taking care of others.

As a freshman, he became a University Ambassador and gave tours to perspective students and their families in English and Spanish. For three years, he served as a Student Housing resident assistant and was promoted in his fourth year to serve as the community center manager. He was elected by his peers to represent CSUN’s College of Engineering and Computer Science as a senator with Associated Students. Diaz also represented CSUN at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities annual conference in Denver in 2014 and was nominated for Resident Assistant of the Year, two years in a row.

“I wanted to be involved,” Diaz said. “I didn’t want my experience just to be going to class and then going home. I wanted to develop relationships with people and give back, be an active member of CSUN. And it helped develop my love for CSUN.”

Diaz will be taking part in the commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Monday, May 22, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library. May 22, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library.