Justin Bracks, B.S. in Astrophysics and Katharine Charnay, B.A. in Honors English.

A record 11,627 students are eligible to graduate from  California State University, Northridge this year. Each journey to that degree is as unique as each student, as are their destinations once they leave CSUN.

Some are headed overseas to realize childhood dreams of professional sports careers. Others are headed into business, law school or teaching. Some even have plans that could change our understanding of the universe. Below are just some of their stories:

Justin Bracks, B.S. in Astrophysics

Justin Bracks, 31, of Pasadena, will be spending the next several years building a balloon-borne telescope that will launch several million dollars worth of equipment into the stratosphere from a research station in Antarctica, in an effort to get a better understanding of our universe.

“The telescope will spend several months floating over Antarctica, gathering data. When it lands we’ll have to trek out to wherever it ends up and retrieve our data” said Bracks, who will be doing that research as a doctoral student in astrophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, which has offered him a fellowship to cover the costs of the six years it will take him to get his Ph.D.

The University of Pennsylvania and Antarctica are a far cry from Compton, where he lived as a young child. He started teaching percussion in high school as a way to make money. Once he graduated, he continued working as a musician. When jobs became scarce during the 2008 recession, a friend connected him with a position at a dance studio. When he got a call offering him the job, he almost turned it down.

“But I hadn’t eaten for two days and there was nothing in my refrigerator,” he said. “Hunger can be an amazing motivator.”

Bracks turned that job into a 10-year career as one of Southern California’s leading ballroom dancers and instructors. He designed and launched his own after-school dance program for disadvantaged children, and he opened his own dance studio in Pasadena. A chance conversation a few years ago with one of his dance students, a scientist, ignited his interest in physics.

He enrolled at Moorpark College to get the academic foundation he needed to study the subject and then transferred to CSUN in 2017. He chose CSUN because of physics professor Farisa Morales, who also taught at Moorpark.

“If you have someone willing and able to help you, that you genuinely enjoy being around, you go where they are instead of a world where nobody necessarily likes you and nobody necessarily wants to help you,” Bracks said.

He admitted that transitioning from successful business owner to college student took some adjustment. He didn’t turn his business over to his partner until his junior year at CSUN.

“I went from a sea of extroverts — artists, dancers, writers and actors who were all willing to explore emotionally — to a sea of introverts,” he said. “Introverts often think the worst of people, if only to protect themselves. During my time here, I’ve really been forced to take the introvert’s perspective. I have been forced to listen more. I have learned to survive in a much lower energy environment. Astrophysics and the people I study and work with within astrophysics have made me a more thoughtful person.”

Bracks said he enjoys and looks forward to the challenges astrophysics present him.

“Physics is not intrinsically fun and exciting,” he said. “You are not going to get sweaty and get an endorphin high afterwards.

“When I spent 14-hour days as a dancer, at least I got that. Fourteen-hour days working on physics, all you get is anxiety,” he joked.

“Dance was never something I wanted to do; it was something I ended up doing,” he said. “I learned and grew so much during my decade as a ballroom dancer. One of the things I learned and have taken with me is that hunger is an unbelievable, powerful motivator. I am proud of the work I did. But I was not as proud of that as I am of building radio antennas and balloon-borne telescopes. Leaving something to do something else that I had never known, that is what I am tremendously proud of.”

Bracks is expected to take part in the College of Science and Mathematics’ commencement ceremony at 6 p.m. on Friday, May 17. 

Katharine Charnay, B.A. in Honors English

Katharine Charnay admits her journey to CSUN was not a direct one. But along the way, she said, she has learned that she is stronger than she thought and how to turn her mistakes into lessons on which she can build.

“Failure can be used as a tool for learning. You can’t let it define your success,” she said. “You can’t let mental illness define your success. In order to succeed, you need to fail. I have learned from my mistakes, and have grown from them.”

When the 29-year-old Porter Ranch resident graduated from high school more than a decade ago, she headed to Portland State University in Oregon for college.

“But I became really homesick,” she said. “I was having a hard time. So, I came home.”

She ended up going to Santa Monica Community College, where she earned an Associate of Arts degree in liberal arts. With that degree under her belt, she enrolled at CSUN in 2014, eager to start work on a bachelor’s degree.

“I grew up down the street from the school and knew that it was a place where I would be intellectually challenged and satisfy my curiosity to learn about everything under the sun,” she said.

Before she could get fully immersed in her classes, Charnay had to take a medical leave from school to address her struggles with depression and anxiety. When she returned in spring 2017, she was nervous. She reached out to a couple of faculty members to share her concerns.

“What I found was a community that was supportive and that would help me thrive,” she said.

As she settled into the university, she joined a variety of clubs and groups, including the University Ambassadors, through which she volunteered at university events and served as a campus tour guide. While she walked backward and pointed out important buildings on campus, Charnay would share her experiences at CSUN, including her own journey to the campus, and answer questions. She also got a part-time job on campus as a supplemental instructor for freshman English composition classes.

To alleviate stress, she attended open-mic nights at local comedy clubs, where she would turn classroom and life faux pas into a comedy routine.

“I found that I enjoy speaking in front of large groups of people,” she said. “At first, I am nervous, but I enjoy getting people to laugh at something that I found very embarrassing.”

Charnay enrolled at CSUN with the intent of studying psychology. She changed her major a couple times before settling on English because it was “something where I could practice my writing and persuasion abilities. I could learn about different subjects and apply that knowledge,” she said.

She plans to take those skills with her to law school this fall. She is currently weighing offers from four schools. She said she expects to make a decision in a couple of weeks. A factor in her decision is her father, John Charnay, who died earlier this year of prostate cancer. Charnay said he was among her biggest champions. She said he believed in her ability to make a positive difference in people’s lives. She said she hopes to do that as a lawyer.

Charnay is expected to take part in the College of Humanities’ commencement ceremony at 8 a.m. on Monday, May 20. 

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