The 17th annual Distinguished Alumni Awards was a celebration of what’s possible with a California State University, Northridge education, as graduates who went on to successful careers in art, entertainment and entrepreneurship were honored on April 18 at the Four Seasons in Westlake Village.
Judy Baca ’69, M.A.’80 (Art), Paul Jennings ’85 (Marketing) and Donald Petrie ’76 (Theatre) joined the ranks of more than 50 people who have been recognized as examples of those who have taken the lessons they learned at CSUN and elevated themselves to great heights.
One of those past honorees was the evening’s Master of Ceremonies Bill Griffeth ’80 (Journalism). The CNBC anchor walked onstage to the strains of U2’s “Beautiful Day,” and in his opening remarks he pointed out that the Irish supergroup’s first concert in the United States was at the Reseda Country Club in 1981, a short distance from CSUN.
Griffeth talked about his longstanding association with the university, setting the tone for the evening with brief introductions for each of the honorees. He also paid homage to those who have worked behind the scenes to put on the event and do so much for the university and its students, a contingent of which were in attendance, serving as a reminder of what is most important to CSUN. Griffeth also had a lighter moment, joining the “selfie” craze by taking photos with the audience to post on social media.
CSUN Alumni Association President Francine Oschin ’84 (Journalism), ’85 (Mass Communication) then took the podium to note that the university has produced more than 300,000 alumni since its establishment in 1958. Oschin said that one in 20 San Fernando Valley residents attended CSUN, and that one in 10 employees throughout the state of California are CSUN alumni, showing the breadth of CSUN’s reach. This year, the 23-campus CSU system will honor its Class of 3 Million, which celebrates the combined number of graduates for all the campuses in the system.
Following Oschin to the stage was CSUN President Dianne F. Harrison, who made a comedic jab at Griffeth for taking those selfies with a Blackberry. Harrison then presented a long list of achievements that have taken place at the university during the past year.
“CSUN is the third-largest university in California, graduating 10,000 new alumni every year and adding nearly $1 billion back into the region and economy annually,” Harrison said. “Each year, we do more with less state support. We are among the most efficient universities in the world, but we can’t do this alone. Support from people like you ensures that we can continue providing life-changing opportunities for so many students each year. By giving to CSUN, you’re not only investing in us – you’re investing in yourself, the region, California and the nation, providing a base for everyone to rise.”
Then came time for the three honorees who have risen to prominence in their respective fields.
Baca noted that when she first started at what was then called San Fernando Valley State College in the mid 1960s, there was a “Mason-Dixon Line between Pacoima and Northridge,” and that the campus hardly resembled the diverse student population it is today. Yet Baca pursued her passion for art, and it came through in the world’s largest mural The Great Wall of Los Angeles, which she completed in 1976. She did so by working with at-risk youth, and continues to give back to communities through her art while helping young people find a voice and a purpose in their lives.
“The idea that I would actually become an educated person, that I would become a distinguished professor, that I would, in fact, put this education to use that would bring me back to Pacoima, bring me back to the communities and not separate me from them, it’s been a great journey – a great gift of a life,” Baca said. “And I really owe a lot of it to the fact that CSUN made an education possible for a poor kid who had to work herself through school.”
Jennings overcame a learning disability and eventually began to figure out what career he wanted to pursue while taking courses at College of the Canyons and Los Angeles Valley College before coming to CSUN, which he attended at night while working. He would later become a success in business as a founding partner and chief executive officer of telecommunications leader Public Communications Services, Inc. (PCS), and later form PCS Development, an active real estate developer in Southern California. Jennings has also been active CSUN donor for many years.
“Northridge, to me, represents opportunity and accessibility,” Jennings said. “I was working full time; the reason I was able to get a degree was because they had a night school program that really accommodated people who were working. It just intensifies my deep devotion to this school. The idea of giving back and being involved is everything. Northridge is a school that’s accessible to kids who might otherwise not go to school.”
Petrie, who directed major motion pictures like Miss Congeniality, Mystic Pizza and Grumpy Old Men added a lighter tone to the evening, even pratfalling when he stepped on stage to be honored. But he was plenty serious when he talked about how he took the lessons he learned in the theatre department to move to the director’s chair when all he wanted to do was become an actor. This semester he is working with student filmmakers on their senior projects.
“I get as much out of it as they get out of it,” Petrie said. “Life is constantly changing. It’s not that college ends and we stop learning. I’m learning today, and I’m learning from them. I’m learning about the tastes of my current audience. It’s a two-way street, really.
“The best filmmakers are people who have something to say – those who merely focus on film can only regurgitate other film. They need to get the depth and breadth of the entire universe, which is why I love a college like CSUN. If you’re a film major there, you’re still taking the core classes from all departments and getting those experiences that may not seem like they can help you at the time. But they will, in ways that you can’t imagine.”