Of the approximately 2,500 graduates invited to take part in California State University, Northridge’s Honors Convocation on Saturday, May 11, six individuals will be singled out for special recognition as outstanding graduating students.
Among those being recognized will be Alexandria Nicole Smolen, this year’s Wolfson Scholar, the top award 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 the community through co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
“When I received the news that I was the Wolfson Scholar, it was the most unreal feeling,” said Smolen, who earned her bachelor’s degree in cinema and television arts, with an emphasis in film, in December. “I worked a long time to get to this point, to get my degree. I put in a lot of care and passion into what I was doing. This honor says it was worth it.”
The 22-year-old Santa Clarita resident’s path to CSUN started in Atlanta, Georgia. As a young girl, she was passionate about the arts, in particular acting. Her parents flew out with her to Los Angeles for auditions a few times before deciding to make the leap and permanently move the entire family to Southern California when she was eight years old.
The transition hasn’t always been easy. Her father, who defected from the Czech Republic in the mid 1980s, was in a severe car accident a few years ago and the family has struggled financially.
In 2014, Smolen was cast in a lead role in the film “8 Days,” which was inspired by the true story of a teenaged girl forced into the world of sex trafficking.
The film changed Smolen’s life. She became an ardent advocate for victims of human trafficking, She traveled across America, speaking about the topic. Smolen and other volunteers were invited to South Africa by its government to raise awareness about modern-day slavery. She continues her advocacy against human trafficking and the exploitation of women, volunteering with the nonprofits Equality Now and Refuge for Women SoCal.
Her work as an actress reminded Smolen about the power film has to tell stories. She applied to CSUN in 2015 at the urging of her talent manager, an alumnus.
“I researched the film program, and I knew this is where I wanted to go,” she said. “CSUN is known as the people’s university. I knew I would find a community and connections if I came here.”
Smolen, who had earned enough advanced placement credits in high school to start CSUN as a sophomore, threw herself into her studies. She took as many classes as possible within her major, where she was emphasizing cinematography, as well as out. She is a graduate of the General Education Honors Program, received numerous scholarships and is a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars.
She spent the past year serving as producer of one of only five student-made films selected to be screened at CSUN’s 2019 Senior Film Showcase. Her film, “Torn,” is the story of woman who is sexually assaulted the night of her sister’s engagement party.
Smolen said she didn’t intend to become a producer, but friends and faculty from the film department convinced her she had what it took. She and classmate Lara Aslanian, the director of
“Torn,” have formed their own production company and are already working on projects.
“I feel producers are the glue that hold the team together,” she said. “They put the team together, they get the financing and give the film legs. When everyone feels like everything is falling apart, you have to be that leader that keeps things together.
“As a producer, I definitely want to shine the light on women and diverse cinematographers and directors,” Smolen said. “I want to build a team that works well together. Some of the most successful artists out there build their teams from the ground up. I think I’ve found some of my people at CSUN.”
Other students getting special recognition at Honors Convocation include:
Fred Fregoso, 2019 Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student
Fred Fregoso, 26, the son of Mexican immigrants, said his goal growing up was to graduate high school and get a job to help his family. He knew high school couldn’t be the final stop in his education.
“I put my education as a priority because I knew, to escape the vicious cycle of poverty my family has experienced for years, I would have to excel in academia,” Fregoso said.
No one in his family had ventured past a high school diploma, but he blazed a trail in the sciences, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in biochemistry at CSUN. The Bell Gardens resident said he always felt his educational opportunities were limited by the socioeconomics of his school and community, where less than 5 percent of people age 25 or older have bachelor’s degrees, according to U.S. Census data.
“I had applied to many colleges,” Fregoso said, “but my high school GPA couldn’t reflect the student I knew I truly was.”
CSUN was the only school to accept him.
As a first-generation college student, Fregoso felt the immense pressure of an unfamiliar environment. But with the help of his academic advisers and mentors, he “discovered the world of academic research, pertaining to the field of DNA repair and recombination, and gained the confidence to call myself a scientific researcher,” Fregoso said.
“He lacked confidence and found the transition to college life difficult, which resulted in a low academic performance. He earned a D in my Science 100 class,” said biochemistry professor Paula Fischhaber. “Two years later, he approached me about joining my laboratory. I was initially reluctant, but he told me he was a changed person. I have since come to know a bright, kind, talented and collaborative, hardworking individual who scarcely resembles the freshman I knew from Science 100.”
In a span of three years, Fregoso has racked up eight professional presentations at national and regional symposiums and conferences. He has conducted his own research on DNA repair and recombination since 2015.
This fall, Fregoso will begin a doctoral program in Biochemistry and Molecular Biophysics at the University of Pennsylvania, with the hopes of becoming a doctor and tackling the world’s most dangerous diseases.
Alexis Aleman, Outstanding Graduating Senior
The day Alexis Aleman learned he was accepted to CSUN was a happy day — but also a challenging one. “I met with my [high school] counselor, and I still remember being told that I had ‘barely gotten accepted,’” he said.
“I wasn’t the best student in high school, and my circumstances weren’t ideal, being a first-generation college student from a low-income home in South Central L.A.,” Aleman said. “But I told myself that would change in college, and I would give it my all. My first semester at CSUN, I received a 4.0 GPA — it was a turning point for me mentally because I knew that, with commitment, it was possible for me to earn good grades.”
Aleman kept his grades up and will graduate with a B.A. in biology, and a host of extracurricular activities on his resume. In 2017, he represented CSUN at the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities conference. That summer, he took part in UCLA PREP, a competitive program offered by UCLA Medical School for pre-medical students from all over the country.
Working while at CSUN was “inevitable,” Aleman said, as his parents were not in a position to
help him financially. Receiving a Jose Luis Vargas Scholarship Award helped him bridge the gap. He also tutored other students in the College of Science and Mathematics’ Student Service Center/EOP office and served as a peer tutor for the college’s AIMS2 program, designed to improve the academic achievement of
Hispanic and low-income students in engineering and computer science fields.
It was also at CSUN that he found his true passion: research. He started assisting biochemistry
professor Thomas Minehan in his organic chemistry laboratory as a research assistant, synthesizing natural compounds aimed to serve as therapeutic agents by binding to DNA.
Aleman also works off campus as a research assistant for emergency medicine doctors at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar. His projects focus on bringing awareness to how Spanish-speaking patients navigate the center’s emergency department. His lab work helped Aleman decide what he wanted to do professionally.
“I want to be a doctor,” he said. “I can see myself specializing in emergency medicine. I like the atmosphere. I’ve gotten to know some really good people at Olive View and I love interacting with patients.”
Aleman plans to take the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) and apply to medical schools for fall 2020 admission. He won’t entirely leave CSUN, however.
“I’m finishing a research project, so I’ll still be around the campus,” he said. “Besides, I told myself that after finals, I was going to lay down in the grass near the Oviatt, watch the palm trees sway in the wind and relax. It’s been a long road, but it’s been worth it — CSUN really has shown me the path to my future.”
Khari Campbell-Wright, Outstanding Graduating Senior
Khari Campbell-Wright, 22, reflected on his upcoming graduation and decided that, despite tragedy in his family’s past, his future is open-ended and optimistic. He’s expected to attend graduate school for sports management. He’s planning to travel to Thailand, and maybe Colombia, with his aunt and uncle. He would like to use his kinesiology degree to inspire healthy lifestyles in youths.
He’ll also try to close the most trying chapter of his life. He plans to attend the trial of the person charged with killing his mother, stepmother and little brother and setting their Oakland home on fire in 2016. He hopes to find answers to lingering questions about that night.
Despite encouragement to take time off from school following the murders, Campbell-Wright chose to stick with his studies, in part because he imagined what his mother, who was a Berkeley-area educator, would want him to do.
“I know the conversation I was going to have with my mom if I told her I wasn’t going to school,” he said. “It wasn’t going to end well for me.”
When he learned of the crime, Campbell-Wright was studying at Mississippi State University as part of CSUN’s National Student Exchange program. He returned to CSUN, still reeling, to learn he was 12 units behind schedule, making it nearly impossible to finish in four years.
Growing up, he said, he often was told about the things he, as an African-American male, couldn’t do. But he saw that nearly every adult in his family had an advanced degree. Calling something impossible just made him want it more.
He buried himself in school work. He took as many as 22 units a semester, and winter-term classes. He also got more involved on campus. He worked as a tutor in the Department of Africana Studies’ writing lab and was the Associated Students senator for the College of Health and Human Development.
He is graduating cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology and a minor Africana studies minor.
“I’m in a great place now,” Campbell-Wright said. “I’m saddened that my mother isn’t going to see me graduate college, and that my little brother didn’t get to see his 20th birthday. It hurts. But everybody else around me showed me love and respect, and I didn’t give up. We don’t go through all these circumstances without the help of others.”
Beverly Ntagu, Outstanding Graduating Senior
For many seniors, graduating from CSUN marks the start of their journey toward making lasting changes in society. But Beverly Ntagu already began creating an impact while an undergraduate student; graduation is just the next step in continuing her work.
Ntagu is the only daughter among three children of parents who immigrated from Nigeria to America to pursue professional success, not only for themselves, but for the family that they were going to create. Ntagu’s parents hold two bachelor’s degrees and four Master’s degrees between them — “I have a legacy to uphold,” Ntagu said. Completing a bachelor’s degree in psychology, with a minor in child and adolescent development and a concentration in medicine, she is hot on her parents’ heels.
Ntagu views her academic achievement primarily as a means to serve others. She aspires to have a “transformational” career in the field of healthcare, where she hopes to become a leader and advocate for health-related resources for underrepresented and marginalized communities. She also dreams of making a positive impact in Nigeria by building a facility to provide healthcare to those who do not have access to it.
“Coming to CSUN wasn’t initially my plan, but when I got here, I promised myself that I would make my mark on campus and make a name for myself,” Ntagu said.
As the 2018-19 Associated Students (AS) president, Ntagu worked to amplify the voices of CSUN students. She brought back the AS “Red Couch Tour” in February after a nine-year hiatus. The program provides an open forum for students to ask direct questions of student government leaders about a variety of topics. As the president of the Tau Zeta Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., Ntagu facilitated programs aimed at helping and connecting with underrepresented communities, with a primary emphasis on the Black community.
The relationships she’s forged at CSUN have been a source of comfort for Ntagu. In 2015, when her father passed away, she said the connections she’s made helped her overcome those dark times.
She had the opportunity to share this story at the 2018 Association of College Unions International Annual Conference in Anaheim. Ntagu’s first job on campus was as a building manager for the University Student Union.
Her mentor Debra Hammond, executive director of the University Student Union, regularly reminded Ntagu that everything she has done during her time at CSUN has been to give back to the community, and not for personal gain.
“No one forced me to do any of this, rather I knew that what I was doing would have a lasting impact on those after me,” Ntagu said. “Debra would always remind me that in all that I do, it is not about me.”
Bhernard Tila, Outstanding Graduating Senior
Bhernard Tila is no stranger to sacrifices and embracing challenges. But in the face of uncertainty, he said, he strives to give back, empower and advocate for others.
“I was not supposed to go to college,” said Tila, who immigrated from the Philippines with his family. He was active in Reseda High School’s NJROTC program and planned to enlist in the military after high school. When he was unable to meet a requirement, that dream to serve his country evaporated.
Instead, he decided to explore an option he had never considered — a college degree. Tila enrolled at CSUN in fall 2014 as a computer science major before changing course to pursue a double major in public health and Asian American studies. He immersed himself in campus leadership opportunities, which expanded his support system and kept him focused on academics.
While at CSUN, he has served as an active member of Dreams to be Heard, a support group for undocumented students and allies, and was a student staff member of the Educational Opportunity
Program (EOP) DREAM Center. Through these positions, Tila developed programs and services that provide resources and mentoring for undocumented students, on and off campus.
Tila served as an Associated Students senator for the College of Humanities, on the College of Humanities Dean’s Student Council, as chair of University Student Union (USU) facilities and commercial services, and is currently completing his term as chair of the USU board of directors.
Navigating CSUN as a student, Tila said, has taught him how to think critically about the systemic
barriers that impact students and block access to campus services. He said he has learned the value of service to others and seeing beyond the needs of individuals.
Tila said he is grateful for his many CSUN mentors, including Tracy Lachica Buenavista, Debra Hammond, Dario Fernandez, Blanca Villagomez and his partner, Rajini Jasmine Babasanta.
Tila said the Outstanding Graduating Senior Award did not just honor him.
“This award is for my family, and for all the students I’ve worked with and that contributed to my time here,” he said. “I’ve achieved my goal, to give back what I have received.”