One wasn’t so serious in high school.
One admits her path to graduation was not clear or simple.
One entered college with no real idea of what she wanted to get out of it or do with her life.
And another ended up after a semester on academic probation and, a couple of years later, real probation.
That these Cal State Fullerton students evolved into what the university considers some of the best and brightest of the Class of 2017 is testament to a lot of factors.
They credit their parents and their professors. They praise programs and mentors. They pulled through with hard work and perseverance. Many saw a ray of inspiration or really listened to a nugget of advice.
All of them are changed from the moment they first set foot on campus.
As Nhu Vu, an honors student and Howard Hughes Medical Institute Research Scholar, said: “Something inside me changed when I entered college and I wanted to see what I could do (and could not do).”
These students took time out of preparing for graduation to share their path to this moment, their memories, their plans and their lessons learned.
Loi Nguyen, chemistry, headed to doctoral studies at Princeton; researcher in the lab of Allyson Fry-Petit; synthesized and structurally analyzed compounds of interest to computing and solar technology
“I always believe that there is light at the end of the tunnel,” said Nguyen about the hard work and studying that brought him to where he is today.
His tunnel began in Vietnam, where the rest of his immediate family remains as he follows his dreams and their dreams for him, said Allyson Fry-Petit, assistant professor of chemistry.
“Loi is a hard-working, gracious and humble student,” Fry-Petit said. “He loves to learn for the sake of learning, and he has made big sacrifices for his education. He had to work to pay for his education on his own.”
Nguyen said he liked Cal State Fullerton because he could take undergrad classes and fulfill his research interest. He credits Fry-Petit for guiding him and giving him great advice.
He plans to work this summer at a tutoring center, then move to Princeton for a doctoral program. He wants to become a chemistry professor.
First, though, he plans to give himself some days off.
Stacy Schkoda, biological science with honors; headed to doctoral studies at North Carolina State University; director for Associated Students Inc. for the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics
“Before I transferred to CSUF, I was unaware of the sheer number and magnitude of possibilities to become involved on campus,” Schkoda said. One such program was STEM2, one of whose goals is to help transfer students pursue a bachelor’s degree in the sciences. The program helped Schkoda build a support network at CSUF and challenged her to new heights.
She went on to win a scholarship in the Southern California Ecosystems Research Program, a two-year formal research program, where she designed and carried out an independent senior thesis. She has been working with faculty mentors Kristy Forsgren, assistant professor of biological science; and Garrett Struckhoff, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, studying how a plant-based hormone influences reproductive development in zebra fish.
“The open-mindedness and enthusiasm of the faculty helped shape a hybrid project between biology and environmental engineering and has allowed me to integrate an inter-disciplinary approach when approaching new questions,” Schkoda said.
Working as a supplemental instruction leader for the biological sciences department made Schkoda realize how much she enjoys helping students understand concepts in biology and nudged her toward a career in academia. She would ultimately like to work as a professor at a university where she can continue research and work with students.
“I just enjoy the satisfaction from accomplishing a difficult task,” Schkoda said. “I owe many of my study skills to the hard work of my parents, who helped show me that learning really can be fun. I try to live with the mindset ‘Leave things better than you find them,’ which explains a bit of my motivation to continue environmental research in higher education.”
Ameya Agavekar, information systems graduate student; Outstanding Student Scholarly and Creative Activities Award recipient
Gauri Agavekar taught her son how to live a life with high intellectual standards. Gurudev Agavekar taught his son that almost every person on earth has potential to achieve extraordinary things but that not all of them realize that.
“My father taught me how to stay hungry and how to follow your dreams,” says Ameya Agavekar, who is performing research in cognitive science and predictive analysis – how we can make better decisions using sophisticated automated decision models and intuitions.
He plans to gain experience at a well-known company such as Disney, Nasdaq or S&P, then obtain a doctorate in data science and business intelligence.
“I want to achieve the industry-specific skills to solve real-world problems using analytics and statistics,” Agavekar said. “I want to contribute my small share in the field of analytics for a better future mankind.”
Associate professor Daniel Soper taught him how to think outside the box and go beyond academics to solve real-world problems.
“I always thought that, along with me, several students are taking the same coursework and learning the same skills as I am. What I am doing different? How I can be different from them?” Those questions inspired him to pursue research work with Soper.
Agavekar’s parents didn’t celebrate his small achievements, he said. “When I told them about my current research achievement, (my father) looked at me, smiled and said, ‘All right! What’s next?’ ”
Nhu Vu, biochemistry, magna cum laude; headed to doctoral studies in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison; recipient of this year’s American Institute of Chemists Award; recipient of the Society for Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science undergraduate student poster presentation award in chemistry-analytical chemistry for her research on how aerosol particles, such as sea salt or desert dust, interact with light
Vu said she is still far from figuring out her future.
“When I was young, I learned that part of the purpose of being a human being is contributing to your community,” Vu said. “This has definitely been a major driving force throughout my undergraduate experience at CSUF.” She didn’t know what her purpose was or how she could contribute to her community, but she liked science and math.
An analytical chemistry lab sparked her interest in instrumentation and chemical methodology, and her experience in Paula Hudson’s atmospheric/analytical chemistry research lab solidified these interests into lifetime aspirations.
Vu will work at Eli Lilly this summer, developing prodrugs, inert compounds that convert to active drugs in the body, “which is very exciting because I get to experience what chemists do in the working world, and participate in drug discovery for disease applications.”
She has been selected to join the Biotechnology Training Program at UW-Madison and hopes to pursue research developing methods and instrumentation to improve our measuring and analyzing capabilities.
She is considering joining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after that or going into teaching to have creative freedom in her research projects and mentor others.
Vu said she’s been lucky to have been influenced by such faculty members as Hudson and biochemistry professor Maria Linder and to have a group of friends as passionate about science as she is. At CSUF she also picked up the desire to do things out of her comfort zone.
“I am constantly in awe of what she is able to accomplish in a day much less her academic career,” Hudson said. “Nhu is also one of the most self-aware individuals I have ever met. She is constantly assessing what she wants in life and how she’ll get there.”
Omar Chavez, linguistics; first student to graduate from the CSUF Project Rebound program
After transferring to Cal State Fullerton from Chaffey College, Chavez said, he loaded up on too many classes so he could hurry up and graduate and teach English abroad. He hadn’t traveled much except for trips to Mexico. He was also working to help pay his tuition. But he ended up on academic probation. He cut down on classes and took off every other semester to work but couldn’t get out of academic probation so lost his financial aid. He grabbed an opportunity to make some quick cash illegally and got arrested in spring 2012.
“That was my wake-up call. It allowed me to stop lying to myself and see all that was wrong in my life,” Chavez said. He became determined to turn things around, finishing the semester before serving his time, where he read, wrote, exercised and read some more. Upon his release, he did everything he could to get back to CSUF, working for the Cheesecake Factory, rising through the ranks until he applied for a job that required a bachelor’s degree.
He approached Cal State Fullerton faculty and staff members and was referred to Project Rebound, which enrolls people in the university directly from the criminal justice system. He became a member of Hermanos Unidos and the Male Success Initiative and graduates this week. The first thing he’ll do is take his B.A. in hand to his probation officers and attempt to be taken off probation.
Chavez would like to continue his education, getting a master’s or doctorate in higher education, and would like to work for the university or for Project Rebound elsewhere. He’s engaged to marry a schoolteacher in Rosarito, Mexico, whom he met through their mothers.
Chavez said it’s important to build a relationship with not only other students, but with teachers as well. “That means going to their office hours and talking to them, and making your voice be heard by participating in class, and doing your best in your assignments and tests.”
He credits Lydia Velez, professor emeritus of modern languages and literatures, for expecting a lot from her students and challenging them while having a great heart, as well as Romarilyn Ralston, Project Rebound coordinator, for being an inspiration.
“Professor Judy Stambaugh, my political science teacher, told us at the start, ‘You are here to upgrade your brain,’ and that stuck with me.”
Allen Alvarez-Loya, mathematics; winner of this year’s Stiel Prize for Excellence in Mathematics; headed to the University of Colorado at Boulder to do doctoral work in applied mathematics
“What has helped me succeed is my focus. When I want to accomplish something, I can spend as long as I need to do it,” Alvarez-Loya said. “What allows me to be able to focus on school is the security that my parents have given me. All I am responsible for is my schoolwork. When I realized how lucky I was, I decided to take full advantage and study as much as I could.”
Alvarez-Loya said Tyler McMillen, associate professor in mathematics, was pivotal to his growth as a scholar. He will continue his research with McMillen before entering graduate school, after which he plans to become a professor or a researcher at a lab.
“He has always been around to help me whenever I have needed it,” said Alvarez-Loya, who is most interested in applied math, which includes differential equations and numerical analysis. “I like seeing the applications to real-world problems.”
Alvarez-Loya also credits Preparing Undergraduates through Mentoring Towards PhDs, run by Helena Noronha at Cal State Northridge, and a summer undergraduate research program at the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State.
Eduardo Chavez, geology; recipient of this year’s Outstanding Major Award in Geology; headed to Texas Tech for doctoral work; CSU-Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation Program scholar; best B.S. thesis poster award from the South Coast Geological Society
It was a trip to Yosemite that clinched Chavez’s interest in geology. He’d gotten turned on to the field by a high school teacher, then considered it as a major after taking lecturer Scott Mata’s class at Cal State Fullerton, then considered doing graduate work in it after studying a new provenance method for sedimentary rocks using laser-induced breakdown spectroscopy with assistant professor Valbone Memeti.
“Other sciences are done in labs. This is outdoorsy,” he said. “It still gets you out in the field.”
In his junior year, Chavez became president of the CSUF student chapter of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, which honed his leadership skills. Now he’s headed to Texas Tech, where he will pursue a doctorate with an emphasis in geochemistry. He’s particularly interested in magma bodies, zones of molten rock hundreds of yards or more below the earth’s surface.
“It’s really neat that there are a lot of tools to interpret the work that we don’t see at the surface,” Chavez said.
Chavez said he was motivated to succeed by his parents, who both have master’s degrees, allowing him to see the benefits of higher education.
“They seem to have a happy life. And I want to follow in those footsteps.”
“Ed has been a delight to work with,” Memeti said. “He is smart, motivated and enthusiastic, and really just the kind of undergraduate student everyone wishes they had.”
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