Commencement | June 10, 2013 | Spotlight

Class of 2013 features numerous success stories

CSULA’s Commencement set for June 14-15

Cal State L.A.’s Class of 2013 will leave a legacy of accomplishments to inspire those who follow. More than 5,000 students have triumphed and excelled to achieve their college dreams. Featured below are just a sampling of the amazing students who will graduate and move onto further graduate studies, or successful careers in the global workforce.

Cal State L.A.’s Commencement will be held Friday, June 14, and Saturday, June 15. The Friday ceremony will honor graduates in the Charter College of Education, College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology, and College of Health and Human Services. The Saturday ceremony will honor graduates in the College of Arts and Letters, College of Business and Economics, and College of Natural and Social Sciences.

For more about the CSULA Commencement:

College of Arts and Letters

Graduate student transforms master’s thesis into a successful solo performance

Pictured: Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni.
Casting a light on the topic of racial identity, CSULA graduate student Fanshen Cox DiGiovanni will bring her one-woman play, “One Drop of Love: A Daughter’s Search for Her Father’s Racial Approval,” on stage at the Hollywood Fringe Festival this month. DiGiovanni’s solo performance, which is based on her master’s thesis, is co-produced by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chay Charter, and has received rave reviews. Upon completing her MFA in television, film and theatre with a focus on acting and performance at CSULA, she plans to take her show on the road, touring colleges and universities throughout the country. DiGiovanni shared that she chose to attend CSULA for its practical, collaborative experience and the opportunity for scholarly work. She said, “I learned a lot from the program, acquiring the knowledge and skills to produce and perform my own work.” Additionally, DiGiovanni is co-creator and co-host of the award-winning weekly podcast “Mixed Chicks Chat” and a co-founder and co-producer of the Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival in Los Angeles. On screen, she has appeared in the Academy Award-winning film “Argo,” “Days of Our Lives,” and “The Young and the Restless.” On stage, she has performed in “Closer,” “The Vagina Monologues,” “Long Time Since Yesterday,” “Guys & Dolls,” and “Bodas de Sangre/Blood Wedding.” A Los Feliz-Los Angeles resident, she holds a bachelor’s degree in Spanish and minor in education from University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, and a master’s degree in TESOL from Columbia University Teachers College. While at CSULA, she received the Hollywood Foreign Press Association scholarship, Emeriti Association’s Fellowship, Alumni Association scholarship, Ochari Michael D’Aeillo scholarship, and the Golden Eagle Award of Excellence.

15-year-old senior gets an early start in law school

Pictured: Rena Nakasaka.
Rena Nakasaka—the youngest graduating senior at Cal State L.A.—will be receiving her bachelor’s degree in English with honors this spring. Nakasaka was admitted to Cal State L.A. at the age of 12 through the Early Entrance Program (EEP), now under the auspices of the university’s Honors College. EEP admits extraordinarily gifted youngsters—some as young as 11—directly into college, providing the early entrants with monitored evaluation, regular counseling sessions, and the opportunity to study with like-minded peers. Nakasaka is among more than 10 other EEP graduates receiving their baccalaureate degrees this year. Despite her academic workload, Nakasaka is an active member of the G.E. Honors Club, and has served as secretary of the CSULA Speech and Debate Club. A Dean’s List student, Nakasaka is also a member of CSULA’s Phi Kappa Phi chapter, the oldest, largest and most selective collegiate honor society in the U.S. When she has a break from her studies, she enjoys sinking her teeth into a good book, and her favorite author is Oscar Wilde. In the community, she has volunteered for the “Big Sunday” local service organization, helping to build a middle school garden and donating food and supplies to the homeless. After graduation, Nakasaka plans to spend her summer traveling before pursuing her law degree. She has already been accepted to several law schools with scholarship, but has not made her final decision. “I’ve always been interested in law ... I knew that it’s what I really wanted to do,” she said. “I’m so glad that I’ve been accepted to some of my top choices for law school. At this point, I want to focus on criminal defense and prosecution, so I can help implement and enforce the law and contribute to society.”

College of Business and Economics

Grad described as ‘father of the year’

Pictured: Bill Morales.
According to some of his CSULA professors, William (Bill) Morales should be given the title of “father of the year.” Morales chose to put his higher education on hold, so he can support his family financially and educationally. At the time, he had only graduated from South Gate High School, but did understand the value of a higher education and encouraged others around him to go to college. Both his daughters have since graduated from CSU Fullerton and UC Davis, respectively. His wife earned her bachelor’s degree in political science and subsequently a Master of Science in Public Administration from CSULA. Now, his son is completing his first year at Pitzer College. Over the years, he has been building upon his professional career, having been employed in various positions with Lockheed Aeronautical, Art Center College of Design, Avid Technology and Panasonic. Morales eventually decided to pursue a career in management. But, it was not a simple task for Morales to go back to school. His previous academic credits were so outdated that they were not acceptable. However, with the moral support of his family as well as his personal efforts, Morales began the pursuit of his dream, a college degree at East Los Angeles City College, where he earned an associate degree in liberal arts before transferring to CSULA. Eight years later, while working full-time, he is finally graduating this spring at age 50 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an option in operations management. He said, “Amazingly, the plan worked out as I was just promoted to executive director of post production at Fox NE&O. Having the degree was most definitely a major benefit in being considered for this position as the company requires candidates to have experience with high level of business knowledge and education.” An Arcadia resident, he will be graduating with magna cum laude honors.

President’s Scholar lands a job at JPL after graduation

Pictured: Angelica Sagum.
Launching a new mission of discovery and adventure, Angelica Sagum will soon play a key role in the guidance and control team for Mars Exploration Missions. Sagum has been hired to work as a business administrator for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory after graduating from CSULA this June. She will receive her bachelor’s degree with an emphasis in management and a minor in economics on Commencement day. A Dean’s List and Honors College student at CSULA, Sagum is a recipient of the Golden Eagle Scholar Award and a Congressional Certificate of Recognition. In addition, she was admitted in 2009 to the University as a President’s Scholar, an honor that includes full tuition renewable for four years of full-time enrollment. In fall 2011, Sagum was one of 23 college students selected to participate in the Panetta Institute’s Congressional Internship Program, developed for those of exemplary scholastic achievement and interest in politics and public policy. “I wrote a full-spectrum report that was published in a major newspaper on ‘Transforming Wartime Contracting in Afghanistan and Iraq,’ and I had the opportunity to lead a few legislative bills related to healthcare and education,” explained Sagum, who interned for the office of Congressman Joe Baca (CA-43rd District) in Washington D.C. On campus, Sagum has served as an orientation leader and a campus tour guide. She was also formerly president of the CSULA Academic Honors Association/President’s Scholars Club and a speaker for the University’s Alumni Association. In addition, she represented the University as an ambassador for the CSULA’s Department of Admissions and Recruitment and the CSU Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative. Currently, she is working with CSULA Professor Veena Prabhu on her Honors thesis focusing on “Organizational Commitment and Retention: A Comparative Study of Public and Private Sector Employees.” Sagum is an Eagle Rock resident.

Charter College of Education

Doctorate in educational leadership teaches autistic children through art

Pictured: Kelly Kotowski.
A special education teacher, Kelly Ann Kotowski uses art as a means to teach studio-based classes while working with children with autism. Recognized for her creative approaches, Kotowski communicates the importance of providing opportunities that help students’ creativity come forward in ways that are meaningful to them. Her doctoral dissertation is titled “The Calling Canvas, Weaving Words and Images: A Narrative Inquiry into the Creative Voice of Students with Autism Participating in a Creative Lunchtime Program.” According to CSULA Professor Lois Andre-Bechely, Kotowski’s research is “sure to open many minds about the ways in which art can impact children on the autism spectrum.” A recent report by the Center for Disease Control found that approximately 1 in 150 children, 8 years of age, have Autism Spectrum Disorder. Kotowski has taught in a private school in Los Angeles for many years, working as an education specialist in the visual arts. Her diverse background combines her creativity and her work with students in special education with qualitative research. She has been interested in working with children with autism because she enjoys watching the children grow and express themselves through art. Kotowski said, “The CSULA doctoral program was enriching and challenging, giving me the knowledge and tools to combine my passion of art and education in new and exciting directions.” She earned her bachelor’s degree in studio art from Mercer University and a master’s degree in special education at Salem College. This month, she will be conferred a doctoral degree in educational leadership during an official hooding ceremony at Cal State L.A.’s Commencement. Her goal is to continue working within the areas of art and special education after graduation.

College of Engineering, Computer Science, and Technology

Graduating senior is electrical team lead for CSULA’s award-winning EcoCAR 2 team

Pictured: Ren Fang.
With a childhood love of gadgets and all things electronic, Ren Fang always wanted to work within the automotive, computer science or technology industry. His father, an engineer, served as a role model for him, and inspired his passion for engineering. Fang, who is now working toward a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering with a specialization in computers and controls, is a member of CSULA’s award-winning EcoCAR 2 team. The CSULA EcoCAR 2 team recently garnered 2nd place overall in Year Two of the EcoCAR 2: Plugging In to the Future collegiate engineering competition. The prestigious three-year engineering competition consists of 15 North American universities working to modify a 2013 Chevrolet Malibu into a functioning hybrid vehicle. As the EcoCAR 2 team’s chief electrical engineering, Fang was responsible for leading the electrical team component as well as directing his senior design team. “He has shown dedication, commitment, technical expertise and leadership of the highest value,” said Professor David Blekhman, the team’s faculty adviser. Due to the intense EcoCAR 2 competition schedule, Fang has delayed his graduation slightly, but plans to work in the area of controls engineering, once he has completed his final degree courses. He also hopes to further his studies and achieve a master’s degree in electrical engineering while working full-time. He has recently passed the Engineer in Training Exam. He is also a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and the Society of Automotive Engineers at CSULA. Fang, a Montclair resident, said, “The EcoCAR program is a great opportunity for people to get experience in an engineering competition that places you, not only front and center for companies looking to hire graduates, but gives you intimate real-world knowledge of the automotive industry.”

College of Health and Human Services

Grad student to make a difference in social welfare

Pictured: De’Shay Thomas.
With a desire to use her knowledge to effect change, De’Shay Thomas is tenacious in pursuing her goals in the field of social welfare. Thomas, who will complete her master’s degree this month, has been accepted to a Ph.D. program in social work with full funding at the University of Arizona in Phoenix. Thomas shared that participating in the Bridges to the Doctorate Program, which is a collaborative pre-doctoral program between CSULA and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has helped lay the foundation for her interest in pursuing a career focusing on health disparities research, program development and teaching. Also, she credits her family and CSULA faculty members for the support and mentorship. Thomas, who grew up in single parent household in Bakersfield, CA, is pleased to be the first in her family to pursue a higher education. But, moreover, she takes pride in her list of scholarly accomplishments already on her resume. She has co-authored a chapter with CSULA Professor Raquel Warley, entitled “F.I.T. Camp: A Biopsychosocial Model of Positive Youth Development for At-Risk Adolescent,” to be featured this summer in a forthcoming textbook, Neuroscience in Social Work: Implications for Policy, Practice, and Research. She has worked closely with Warley on developing a professional training regarding an innovative model of counseling and psychotherapy. This intensive course was implemented for the first time on April 6, 2013, at the Second Annual Meeting of the Forensic Social Work Caucus for USC. She is also co-authoring an article related to this model of practice, which will be submitted for publication in the Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. Earlier this year, she presented at the Claremont Graduate University’s 14th Annual Student Research Conference. She has also attended the Interuniversity Consortium for Political and Social Research seminars related to her areas of interest.

Overcoming drug abuse, criminal justice major is now on his way to graduate school

Pictured: Jeffrey Bellissimo.
Faced with the decision to either go to a rehabilitation center or to state prison, Jeffrey Bellissimo chose to turn his life around and receive treatment for his addiction to methamphetamine. Growing up with a lack of self-esteem along with an overshadowing fear of failure, Bellissimo turned to drugs as a way to cope with his struggles, which led him to self-sabotage. However, as a result of choosing to fight his drug abuse head on, he discovered a support system that is motivating and inspiring him to live and thrive. With a renewed sense of self-worth and confidence, Bellissimo now wants to help those with similar experiences like those who came to guide and support him when he was at his lowest point in life. “I dug deep into my soul to clear away the wreckage of my past… Seeing that most people do not escape meth addiction, I consider it as miracle that I did. Being granted the opportunity to change has allowed me to recognize my value, and to humbly share my life with others,” he said. An Eagle Rock resident, he has volunteered at the Burbank Healthcare Center, SOBER International in Montebello, as well as 2nd Call in Inglewood. In addition to being nearly five years sober, Bellissimo will be graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice this month. “Jeffrey is one of the best students that I have ever taught,” said CSULA Professor Jane Gauthier. “Since being treated and his return to school, Jeffrey has maintained an extremely high GPA, which we are certainly proud of.” Bellissimo was recently accepted into CSULA’s graduate program, specializing in forensic social work. “Being able to spend time with high-achieving students, great professors, and supportive friends has encouraged me to be the best person and student that I can be,” he said. A Dean’s List student, Bellissimo is also a recipient of an Aves scholarship. After finishing graduate school, he wants to pursue a Ph.D. and become a professor but his major focus is to assist with youth offenders, substance abuse, and gang intervention.

College of Natural and Social Sciences

Sociology undergraduate draws inspiration from health setback

Pictured: Betania Santos.

Rather than feel sorry for herself and for her loss, Betania Santos resolved to perform well academically and use her experience to benefit others. Over the past few years while at CSULA, she endured the painful loss of both her sister and her mother to cancer, and now is helping her father battle liver cancer. Understanding that she is at a higher risk for breast cancer as a result of an inherited genetic mutation, Santos chose to undergo a prophylactic bilateral double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery when she was 20. With determination and drive, Santos will complete her bachelor’s degree in sociology this June and continue onto a master’s degree in sociology. Her goal is to attain a doctorate so she can conduct research on the social aspects of cancer, treatment, and post-operative adjustment. A La Puente resident, Santos has been involved in community service, assisting with the development of a variety of programs for underserved youth. She is also filming a documentary following the RAISE LA campaign and looking into the personal lives of hotel workers who live under the poverty line in Los Angeles. Additionally, she has helped launched CSULA’s Sociology Club. Since fall 2012, she has put on multiple successful colloquia bringing in guest speakers. Most recently, Santos received an Associated Students, Inc. Student Achievement Award for her academic accomplishments. She also garnered an award from CSULA’s Center for the Study of Genders and Sexualities to conduct a pilot study of breast cancer survivors using the social network she developed while her sister was fighting this disease. “I believe that my sister saved my life,” said Santos, despite still feeling heartbroken. “If it weren’t for her experience and battle, I wouldn’t have made the choices I made to save my own life. I hope to continue to make my sister proud and help other women who are making these difficult decisions.”

Hearst Scholar digs his way to a dynamic future in Mayan archaeology

Pictured: Mario Giron-Abrego.
Mario Giron-Ábrego, who will graduate this spring with a master’s degree in anthropology at CSULA, has conquered many obstacles to reach his goal: admission to a Ph.D. program in archaeology at Boston University, with a focus on the Maya Civilization. At the age of six, Giron-Ábrego was left in the care of his grandmother, who had difficulty supporting him while living in his native Guatemala. Despite the hardships, Giron-Ábrego was still able to pursue his childhood dreams in Maya archaeology, often attending free monthly visits to the Museo Nacional de Arqueología y Etnología, a national archaeological and ethnological museum in Guatemala City. At 14, Giron-Ábrego left Guatemala and traveled with his cousin through Mexico for more than two months with no funds to support them. He finally arrived in the United States, where he was reunited with his mother after several years, and spent his first few years learning to speak English and assimilating into American society. He then applied and was accepted to CSULA but had to wait for his permanent residency that would allow him to enroll. Once at CSULA, he took courses on Maya civilization and cave archaeology, which he described as providing the essential background for his future fieldwork in the tropical jungles of the Maya Lowlands. He became one of only five students selected to work at the renowned “Midnight Terror Cave,” as well as the “Actun Yateel Ahau Cave,” both sites in Belize. He financed his fieldwork research with Cotsen Fellowships for Archaeological Research in 2008, 2009 and 2010. After each season of research, Giron-Ábrego presented his investigations at the Society for American Archaeology meetings. He has also contributed to the specialization with a number of publications in hieroglyphic decipherment, under the direct affiliation to CSULA. His accolades also include the CSU Trustees’ Hearst Award, the CSU Foundation Board of Governors’ Scholar, the CSU Sally Casanova Pre-doctoral Scholarship, Golden Eagle Award of Excellence, and the Emeriti Association’s Mary Gormly Memorial Fellowship. In 2012, Giron-Ábrego became the first CSULA student, and one of only two in the CSU system, ever to win the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans. Most recently, he was recognized with the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Graduate Student Award, and was also awarded the CSU Doctoral Incentive Forgivable Loan. Under the program, if Giron-Ábrego accepts a faculty position in any of the 23 CSU colleges after graduation, one-fifth of his loan is forgiven for each year of service in the CSU system.