Of the approximately 3,700 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.
Natalie Castillo, 2023 Wolfson Scholar
Natalie Castillo came to California State University, Northridge in 2018 as a first-generation college student and has since become a role model for young underrepresented students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). She will be graduating later this month from CSUN with bachelor’s degrees in biology and in Central American studies.
Castillo, 22, has been named this year’s Wolfson Scholar, the top honor 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 thought back to all the struggles I went through in college, all the studying and all the things I had to sacrifice to get here,” Castillo said when she found out about the honor. “It made me emotional just to reflect on my journey to this point.”
During her time at CSUN, Castillo was heavily involved in research on the invasive brown widow spider and presented her research at CSUN and at regional and international conferences. She was awarded the CSUN NSP Presidential Scholarship two years in a row, which supported her research. She spent last summer researching the potential effects of climate change on Andean pollinators in Colombia funded by the National Science Foundation.
“My goal is to have a career where I can do research and apply my knowledge to real-world problems,” Castillo said. “Right now, I’m really interested in studying vector-borne diseases and finding solutions to combat them.”
Castillo also majored in Central American and transborder studies, an aspect of her identity, she said, that is important to her. She became an advocate for the undocumented community as she witnessed the struggles and trauma that come with that identity.
With her immigrant parents hailing from El Salvador, she came to understand the trauma her parents faced and became an advocate for the undocumented community.
In 2020, Castillo joined Dreams To Be Heard, an advocacy group on campus that supports the immigrant community and helped fundraise small grants for 21 CSUN students twice during the pandemic. She also has found time to support students seeking citizenship in the San Fernando Valley and become a champion for immigrant rights.
“Growing up and seeing my parents and other people struggle and not have the opportunity to go to school, motivated me to do this,” Castillo said. “Just knowing all this has helped me be more empathetic and understanding.”
Though she was a full-time student, Castillo helped support her family with work as a tutor and as an assisted living coach for adults with intellectual disabilities. Throughout this all, she held a 3.96 GPA in her double major, while also volunteering in the biology department.
“Ms. Castillo is a student leader and a role model for others to follow,” wrote Beatriz Cortez, professor and chair of the Department of Central American and Transborder Studies, supporting Castillo’s nomination as this year’s Wolfson Scholar. “She is a first-generation student who is an active, independent, resourceful learner and who has great regard for the knowledge that her family and her community can give her, even if outside academic circles.”
Castillo is graduating with hopes of entering a Ph.D. program in entomology, where she plans to further explore the biological control of pests and vector-borne diseases.
“Hopefully I can do research in Central America and apply everything I’ve learned at CSUN to make a difference in communities where there is great need.” Castillo said.
The other students being recognized at Honors Convocation are:
Shanelle Wikramanayake, Recipient of the 2023 Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Wikramanayake was exposed to and interacted with unique plants and animals. Set to graduate with a master’s degree in biology, she plans to pursue a career in conservation genetics, with an expertise in the South Asian region.
During her time at CSUN, Wikramanayake presented her thesis research at seven symposiums, wrote 10 grants to fund her thesis and eight grants to support a collaborative research project on the conservation of Sri Lankan butterflies and lizards.
To date, Wikramanayake has co-authored five publications and is expected to publish three additional papers from her research. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, she also carried out independent research on the conservation genetics of an endemic lizard from her native Sri Lanka.
Wikramanayake has been an active member of the CSUN Women in STEM (WiS) group and Behavior, Ecology and Evolution Research (BEER) club, later becoming president. She also did weekly STEM outreach to K-12 students and worked at a local public school for one-and-a-half years. For many of these students, she said, it was the first time they had access to STEM enrichment.
Wikramanayake will start a Ph.D. program at Colorado State University, Fort Collins in fall 2023.
“I hope by sharing my story I can increase belongingness in herpetology, ecology and field studies, and inspire other students from diverse backgrounds to pursue these fields,” she said.
Tania Parker, Outstanding Graduating Senior
After overcoming many obstacles as a youth, including entering the foster care system, Parker is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in childhood and adolescent development.
During her tenure at CSUN, she was part of the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP); the EOP Resilient Scholars Program, which is for current/former foster youth; Project Rebound, for formerly incarcerated people, and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) program.
Parker, who has a son, began her education at Moorpark Community College before transferring to CSUN in the fall of 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parker said she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in social work and become an advocate for those in the foster care system.