More Excellence from the CSUN 2020 Grads

More than 11,700 students were eligible to walk across the stage as a Cal State University, Northridge graduate, and celebrate the completion of a major milestone in their educational journeys.

Four students were featured in last week’s edition of the paper, and four others are featured this week. Each student’s experience is unique. Below are just some of their stories, which have been edited for space:

Ashley Grace, B.A. in Child and Adolescent Development

Ashley Grace, 31, started working as an actor at age 16, and her career took off. Ten years later and a number of successful television shows and films, including the “The Arrangement,” “StartUp,” “True Detective,” “Chronicle” and “True Blood,” Grace was about to get married and was reflecting on the path her life had taken.

“I realized that I kind of bypassed what I had always felt my passion in life was — to work with children,” she said. “My circumstances led me to film and TV and, because it was working out for me, I never really challenged myself as to whether or not that was what I wanted to do with my life. I realized that if I didn’t go to college, I wasn’t going to have the opportunity to explore options in the future because I wasn’t, frankly, going to be qualified.”

She started at Santa Monica City College to get her general education requirements out of the way. Ready to transfer in 2017 to a four-year institution, Grace, then pregnant with her first child with husband and actor Toper Grace, weighed her options. She considered going to another university, but then thought, “or should I go to the school that has the best program for my interests, child development, which was CSUN?”

Her major became clear when she learned a child in her extended family was suffering from abuse and neglect and needed to be removed from their home. Grace struggled to help from hundreds of miles away.

“I knew, from first-hand experience, how difficult the social welfare system and foster care system are because I was trying to navigate them for a child I loved very much,” she said. “I realized that this is a place where I can get involved.”

Just months after starting at CSUN, Grace had to take a break from school when her daughter was born with health complications.

“It really freaked me,” she said. “I was thinking, ‘Am I never going back to this?’ But I quickly realized that if you are really passionate about something, and it’s also playing out in your life, it’s a priority to you.”She returned to school in 2018, and immersed herself in her classes.

She also began volunteering with Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that advocates for children who have experienced abuse and neglect. Grace combined what she learned in classes with her film and television experience for her senior honors project, a short film about CASA of Los Angeles’ work.

Grace, now about to give birth to her second child, said that the pandemic has given her time to think about the future.

“In the short term, we’re living in a world where I’m not exactly sure what things are going to look like tomorrow, or what things are going to look like next year,” she said. “I’ve realized that my passion really lies in helping children.”

Danielle Snali, B.A. in Religious Studies

Danielle Snali, 22, of Woodland Hills, arrived at CSUN in 2016 with plans to study communication disorders, but then she took an introduction to religious studies course and “fell in love,” she said.

Snali quickly changed majors, and the rest, at least for her, is history. She will be starting classes this fall at State University of New York at Binghamton, where she will be pursuing a doctoral degree in history, with an emphasis on 20th century gender and women’s history. She was awarded that university’s highly competitive Clifford D. Clark Diversity Fellowship.

“I love history,” she said. “It’s my favorite subject. I love learning about history, the history of religions, gender history, women’s history, social history, oral history … History is very important. It helps us understand why our system is currently constructed the way it is. Learning history helps us become more open minded and understand what is going on in the world. As you can tell, it’s my passion.”

While at CSUN, Snali worked as a new student orientation leader, a student assistant in the College of Humanities’ dean’s office and archived materials in the special collections of CSUN’s Delmar T. Oviatt Library. She even gave a lecture at CSUN’s new faculty orientation on how to help students with learning disabilities succeed in higher education. She based her lecture on her experiences as someone on the autism spectrum.

Snali said CSUN’s switch to virtual learning during the pandemic led to an even greater appreciation for all the roles the job of university professor entails.

“All of my professors did a really wonderful job transitioning from in-person teaching to online teaching,” she said. “What I appreciated even more was, they were regularly checking in on us, making sure everyone had access to the internet and laptops, and making sure that everyone was okay. Everyone’s situation was different, and they really tried to make sure that everyone had what they needed.”

Esteban Bautista, B.S. in Biochemistry

Esteban Bautista’s journey to CSUN was a long one filled with missteps and even failure. But it also provided lessons that are helping to pave his way to graduate school. Bautista, 28, of Pasadena, will be starting a doctoral program this fall at the University of California, Irvine, where he will be studying the nanotechnological applications of chemistry in biological systems.

“I went into community college after high school, but I really struggled,” he said. “I went into community college underprepared. I didn’t take education seriously for the first couple of years. When I got serious, there was still a learning curve I needed to overcome because the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) courses were really difficult for me. 

“I had to retake calculus a couple times. I actually had to retake general chemistry, as well as chemistry 102. But I did it because I wanted to challenge myself.”

He also saw it as a way to push back against hateful stereotypes of Mexicans and Mexican Americans that were being put forward by certain politicians, and as a way to blaze a trail in a field that does not traditionally attract people of color.

“I recognize that there are a lot of people out there who don’t study this subject because of barriers that exist in our society, especially for people of color like myself,” he said.

What attracted Bautista to the field of biochemistry was the ability to manipulate matter.

“That’s basically what biochemistry is — manipulating matter in the world around you,” he said. “I thought it was so cool. I wanted to become a scientist because of that. I still think it’s the coolest thing ever, to study chemistry. I am really happy I am going to be doing it for the rest of my life.”

Bautista said he realizes that as he moves forward in his career he will be serving as a role model.

“I did outreach with BUILD PODER (Building Infrastructure Leading to Diversity and Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research) as an undergraduate, going to middle and high schools, doing chemistry experiments,” he said. “I could see it in the kids’ faces — the ‘Wow! You’re going to be a scientist and you look like me!’ I tell them ‘it’s hard, and you have to spend a lot of time and work at it, but you can do it.’

“It’s unbelievable how far I have come,” Bautista said. “I needed a lot of help and it did take a long time, but I did it.”

Crystal Venegas, M.A. in Clinical Psychology

Crystal Venegas’ parents didn’t have an opportunity to go to college but were determined to make sure their children had a chance at a college education.

“It was seen as a ticket to freedom or a better life, and that motivated me,” said Venegas, 28, the eldest of three. “I had to get an education, not only for myself, but for my mom and dad, and my daughter and my brothers, who look up to me.

“Even though I was a teenage mom, I didn’t let that deter me,” she said. “I was doing this not only for my family, myself and my daughter, but also for other students who find themselves in similar situations — where they might have a child during their first semester of college and don’t see themselves continuing. It was very important to be that person who is representative of the community of scholars who are also parents.”

Venegas said her academic journey was never easy, but she never faltered. Pregnant at age 17, she enrolled at Los Angeles Valley College. She started out as a part-time student while she cared for her young daughter and worked a retail job.

When her daughter entered kindergarten, Venegas was ready to go to school full time, and transferred to CSUN in 2015. She tailored her academic schedule around her daughter’s, and her family — including her daughter’s father — stepped in whenever needed to ensure Venegas had time for her studies.

She graduated with honors from CSUN in 2018 with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and child and adolescent development in applied developmental science. Now graduating with her master’s degree, Venegas has been awarded the 2020 Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student, one of the university’s top academic honors.

When she starts a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at UCLA this fall, Venegas will continue research she started at CSUN. She said her experiences as a researcher and clinical psychology student during the pandemic underscored her desire to understand mental health issues in Latinx populations.

“While we are all experiencing the pandemic, it impacts us differently depending on our socioeconomic class, our race, our ethnicity,” she said. “And that has an impact on mental health.”