(l) Angelina Finau, Wolfson Scholar

(m) Kimberly Madhwani, Outstanding Graduating Senior

(r) Sunshine Williams, Outstanding Graduating Senior

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

Angelina Finau, Wolfson Scholar

Among those to be recognized will be Angelina Finau, this year’s Wolfson Scholar, the top award given to a graduating senior. It is presented each year in memory of CSUN’s first vice president, Leo Wolfson. Not only must the student have an exceptional academic record, but he or she must also have made significant contributions to CSUN or to the community through co-curricular and extracurricular activities.

“I’m still processing the fact that I’m getting this amazing honor,” said Finau, 21, of Van Nuys, who will receive her bachelor’s degree in political science in two weeks. “I can’t believe that this girl whose family comes from these little islands in the Pacific, Tonga, that nobody has ever heard of — I’m nobody special — is getting this award.”

Finau gets teary-eyed when she thinks about her time at the university, and the opportunities it has presented her. She has helped find ways to improve the university’s graduation rates while working in CSUN’s Office of Student Success Innovations; researched water conservation habits of Los Angeles renters; explored ways to improve the performance of students in general education classes; appeared as the lead witch in a production of “Macbeth;” and spent a semester in Washington, D.C., where she got to shake hands with former President Barack Obama as CSUN’s Panetta Congressional Intern.

In addition to all of that, she has maintained a 3.9 GPA and volunteers as a student judge and coach for her former high school’s speech and debate team, and at New Horizons, a nonprofit that works with persons with disabilities.

“I’ve gotten to do so many things, I have been so blessed,” Finau said. “I remember being in Washington, D.C., on the steps [of the Lincoln Memorial] and thinking, ‘How is this possible for a girl from a little island that nobody has heard of?’ It was because of CSUN. If you have that burning desire to do something, it’s possible, but you’ve got to seize the opportunities, and you have to have people to believe in you. The people here at CSUN believed in me.”

Finau, whose parents emigrated from Tonga in the 1980s, said she also found support from her family — in particular, her older sister, who has disabilities.

“She reminds me what it means to be kind, even when you’re really stressed out,” she said. “And she reminds me that, even if it is my worst day, I am doing something positive for the community.”

Finau said her time as a Panetta intern in the fall of 2015 helped her focus on what she wants to do with her life.

“What I learned was that no matter what talents you have, it is your civic duty to give back and change as many lives a possible,” she said.

To that end, Finau plans to attend graduate school in the fall, “because knowledge gives you the power and increases the resources you have to make a difference in people’s lives,” and eventually go to law school, she said.

Finau will be taking part in the commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. on Sunday, May 21, on the lawn in front of the Delmar T. Oviatt Library, located in the heart of the CSUN campus at 18111 Nordhoff St. in Northridge.  (CSUN’s 2017 commencement ceremonies can be watch live online at www.youtube.com/CalStateNorthridge.)

Kimberly Madhwani, Outstanding Graduating Senior

For Kimberly Madhwani, the college experience is only halfway over. The biochemistry major will be attending the University of Wisconsin, Madison in the fall and will spend the next five years working on a doctorate in neuroscience and genetics.

Madhwani attended CSUN with plans of going to pharmacy school, but everything changed when she joined the Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (RISE) program.

“Doors opened as a result of coming to CSUN, and I haven’t regretted any of the decisions I have made since I came here,” Madhwani said.

Even as a Presidential Scholar, Associated Students senator, leadership member of the CSUN Women and Science Club, and re-establishing member of the Chemistry and Biochemistry Club, Madhwani has kept strong grades and even had time to publish and present her research to the American Society of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and at the Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science. She also completed two summer research internships at the University of Miami and the University of California, San Francisco.

Madhwani’s parents also pursued careers in science — her father was a chemist in India, and her mother was a nurse in the Philippines before they moved to the United States and took jobs in other career fields. Madhwani and her younger brother, who also is attending CSUN, are continuing the family’s love of science.

“[My parents] are both hard workers, and I carry on that with my work ethic in science,” she said.

Madhwani is thankful for her time at CSUN and the people who encouraged her along the way. She credited much of her success to the faculty mentors and peer mentors who urged her to apply for the opportunities she has received, and assured her that she was just as qualified as anyone else.

“I’m a very proud Matador,” Madhwani said. “Moving forward, I will scream from the top of my lungs that I am from CSUN, and I would not be anything if it weren’t for the people I’ve met here.”

Madhwani 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.

Sunshine Williams, Outstanding Graduating Senior

If you asked a younger Sunshine Williams if she was a leader or a follower, she would immediately have answered the latter. “I’m not big on conflict,” she said. “I like to go with the flow.”

But the 35-year-old graduating creative writing senior has done nothing but lead during her two years studying on campus. During her first year, she tackled editing at The Northridge Review. Last year, she became the president of the Northridge Creative Writing Circle. This semester, she took a writing position at the CSUN Career Center; became the lead editor of C.A.P.T.U.R.E.D., the Department of Africana Studies’ scholarly journal; was elected an Associate Students senator for the College of Humanities and served on the MataCare Emergency Grant board.

Williams regularly spent at least 10 hours every weekday on campus, but still managed to maintain a 3.96 GPA overall, joined three honor societies on campus and was the recipient of the 2017 AIFS Generation Study Abroad Scholarship. She is busy, but she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I realized I was the happiest when I was here,” she said.

Williams faced a difficult road to CSUN. Growing up in poverty in rural Texas, homeschooled by a single mother, she earned her associate’s degree in music from Northeast Texas Community College at age 18, got married and started her life as co-owner of a real estate appraisal company.

Before age 30, however, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer, split from her husband and decided to move to Los Angeles for a fresh start.

“By that time, I had a fairly good idea of who I was, but I still had no notion of what I wanted to do with my life,” Williams said.

She found her calling her very first semester at CSUN. “I ended up in a class with professor Christopher Higgs, and watching him I thought, ‘I want to do that — I want to teach!’”

After graduation, she plans to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees in literature, hoping to eventually return to teach at CSUN.

“I realized that this was my path,” she said. “It’s changed my life.”

Williams will be taking part in the commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 20, on the lawn in front of the Oviatt Library.

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