The COVID-19 pandemic has changed much about the past academic year, including how California State University, Northridge will be celebrating commencement.
This year, CSUN marked the graduation of its students with an all-university virtual commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 15. College-based virtual ceremonies — where each graduate will be recognized by name and with a photo — are scheduled to take place May 21-24. In addition, a series of in-car commencement parades will take place the week of May 25.
There are more than 11,500 graduates in the class of 2020-21. Each student’s story is unique. Here are a couple of their stories:
Michelle Alcantara, B.S. in Biotechnology and Cell and Molecular Biology, with a Minor in Chemistry, College of Science and Mathematics
Michelle Alcantara, 24, of Simi Valley, is the first to admit that she wasn’t the greatest student in high school. The same could be said about her first year at CSUN. She started out as an accounting major because her mother worked at an accounting firm, not because she was interested in the subject. She wasn’t excited by her classes, and it showed in her grades.
Alcantara considered dropping out — “it didn’t seem like college was for me,” she said — but decided to stick it out for the rest of the academic year. Then she took general education classes in chemistry and biology.
“They were the only classes I got an A in my freshman year,” Alcantara said. “I always felt I wasn’t a good student, that I wasn’t competent enough to belong in a science field. But these classes captured my attention, and really pushed me. I went to my advisor and said that I wanted to switch my major.”
The first-generation college student found she excelled in the sciences. Her grades soared. She became a University Scholar and, eventually, a Presidential Scholar. (Both scholarships are merit based.)
She also became part of BUILD PODER (Building Infrastructure to Diversity and Promoting Opportunities for Diversity in Education and Research), CSUN’s undergraduate biomedical research training program, where she worked with health administration professor Kyusuk “Stephan” Chung to develop a Spanish-language video to educate the Latino community about end-of-life care options that extend beyond putting a loved one in the hospital.
Alcantara spent the summer of 2018 at the University of Michigan, where she studied mutational changes in the brain tumor called Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. She spent the summer of 2019 at the University of Oregon doing virology research on a soybean pathogen.
Her time in Oregon complemented the research she has been doing for the past two years with CSUN biology professor Yoshie Hanzawa on understanding the genetic expression of soybeans at a cellular level.
“Soybeans are actually really, really essential,” Alcantara said. “Not only are they food — so high in protein for humans and animals — they actually are an alternative to regular diesel. They make really clean burning renewable energy.
“To understand how soybeans can optimally be reproduced and the pathogens that can destroy soybeans is really essential — not only for a cleaner Earth, but a healthier Earth.”
The pandemic interrupted Alcantara’s research, but it cemented her dream of becoming a medical doctor who conducts research, an M.D-Ph.D. She helped care for her grandmother until she died last year. Her grandfather tested positive for COVID-19 in November 2020, and died in January 2021 after weeks in intensive care.
“We’ve all lost so much because of the pandemic, some more than others,” she said. “My research was interrupted. We couldn’t go to class. Some of us lost family members, loved ones, and have holes in our hearts that can never be filled. But it has also reaffirmed that I am on the right path, that I (italics)do(italics end) want to be a physician-scientist, where I can look into these types of diseases, influence health policy and provide care to the communities who will be most directly impacted.
“We are going to face other diseases in the future, not just mutations of COVID-19, and we know that these diseases hit my community — the Latino community — the indigenous community and the Black community the hardest,” Alcantara said. “I want to use science and medicine to help these communities.”
Alcantara, who is graduating with honors in biotechnology and cell and molecular biology, will return to CSUN in the fall to pursue her master’s degree in biology, and complete the research she is doing in Hanzawa’s lab, before applying to M.D.-Ph.D. programs the following year.
More CSUN 2021 graduates will featured in the next edition of the San Fernando Sun/El Sol.