Wendy Palatino has been working toward a more equitable world for the Deaf community since she was a teenager. The 24-year-old California State University, Northridge double major in linguistics and Deaf studies started to learn sign language at 12
so she could communicate with a child she babysat.
That interest grew, and Palatino took a class in American Sign Language, started interpreting at her church and tutoring hearing adults in how to sign.
“I connected with the Deaf community,” Palatino said. “I’ve seen too many travesties in the treatment of those in the Deaf community, and I want to make a difference.”
After earning an associate’s degree in social sciences and foreign languages at American River College in Sacramento, Palatino said she enrolled at CSUN because of the outstanding reputation of the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Deaf Studies, which is one of the oldest and most respected departments in the nation.
“[Deaf studies] is considered a pillar of social justice in the surrounding community,” Palatino said.
Since arriving at CSUN, she has continued to volunteer as an interpreter in the community and to work almost full-time as a teacher assistant at a local elementary school. In 2015, she was accepted as a student-participant to the prestigious Visual Language and Visual Learning Student Network, a research network funded by the National Science Foundation and run by Gallaudet University, the foremost university for Deaf studies in the country.
These are just some of the accomplishments that have earned Palatino the distinction of being this year’s Wolfson Scholar, the top award for a graduating senior. The award is presented each year in memory of CSUN’s first vice president, Leo Wolfson. The Wolfson Award is awarded by the Leo Wolfson Scholarship Endowment through The University Corporation. 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. She has a 3.97 GPA.
Palatino said she plans to pursue a master’s degree in Deaf education at CSUN, and eventually pursue a doctorate at Gallaudet University.
“I am exceedingly grateful to my professors at CSUN for giving me the knowledge and the tools I have needed to come this far,” Palatino said. “Before arriving at CSUN, I was merely interested in the intersection of my two majors, and now I’m thrilled to actively contribute to my field.”
Palatino will be recognized along with several other outstanding graduating seniors during CSUN’s Honors Convocation ceremony at 8 a.m. on Friday, May 20. To hear more of Palatino’s story, watch the video:
Each year, four graduating seniors are presented with the Outstanding Graduating Senior Award in recognition of academic excellence, contributions to campus and community, and exceptional achievements or personal life circumstances they have overcome. These $1,000 awards are funded by the CSUN Foundation and the Karen, Leon and Rita Goldstein-Saulter Memorial Fund.
The other 2016 Outstanding Graduating Senior Award winners are:
Devon Coombs, B.S. in Business Honors, recipient of a CSUN Foundation Award with a 3.77 GPA
Devon Coombs, 27, of Woodland Hills, grew up in poverty. He never knew his father, and his mother died when he was 15. He has been on his own since he was 18.
Coombs started his own recording label, Antipode Records, at age 19, recording music and creating marketing campaigns for local talent. A shifting business market and the oncoming recession hit him hard, forcing him to liquidate his company in 2007. He lived in his car for more than a year to pay off his debts.
Knowing education was the key to success, Coombs took classes at Pierce College and eventually transferred to CSUN.
While at CSUN, Coombs has been active in the Business Honors Association and Leaders in Alliance, a group of student leaders in the David Nazarian College of Business and Economics, as well as serving on a search committee and the business honors advisory committee for the college. He has made more than 100 educational YouTube videos to assist lower-division business students and created a mentoring program between CSUN business honors students and students at Granada Hills Charter High School. He also runs a small-business consulting and tutoring business on the side.
“The only way to overcome obstacles is through people helping you, giving you assistance and mentoring you,” Coombs said. “Giving back is such a huge part of my life. If I can reach out to anyone the way I was reached out to and encouraged, then I am going to do that. It gives me the energy to do what I do.”
Coombs earned multiple scholarships, including the Noski Family Scholarship, a Business Honors Program Scholarship that is funded by the Thomas C. Bloch Fund and the Northridge Scholarship Program’s University Scholarship. He has been hired as an auditor by the international professional services firm Deloitte. He has plans to get married next year. In the meantime, he is spending this summer preparing for the certified public accountant (CPA) exam.
Joshua Khabushani, B.A. in Philosophy, recipient of a CSUN Foundation Award with a 3.8 GPA
CSUN philosophy major Joshua Khabushani, 24, said he believes his success cannot be measured merely in his grade point average, but in his well-rounded education from his involvement in the campus community, study abroad, volunteer work and the relationships he has forged during his time at CSUN.
Growing up in the San Fernando Valley, Khabushani and his mother moved several times, making it difficult to nurture friendships and get involved with service. When he arrived at CSUN and sat through a TAKE performance, a stage performance that includes four skits surrounding issues prevalent to CSUN students, during freshman orientation, Khabushani vowed to give back.
He started by becoming a New Student Orientation leader, and then he became a TAKE cast member, Unified We Serve volunteer, a peer instructor as a supplemental instruction lead for English and a senator with Associated Students.
Off campus, at age 20, Khabushani raised money and traveled to Nepal to volunteer at an orphanage. Donations provided mosquito nets, sheets and private-education tuition to the children. Khabushani said he thought he was going to “save the world,” but he soon realized the money meant far less than the time he spent with the kids in Nepal.
Through all this activity at CSUN and abroad, Khabushani battled depression and an eating disorder, which resulted in hospital stays and a missed semester.
“I’ve had a lot of opportunities to not come back, to say, ‘This is too much’ and drop out of CSUN,” Khabushani said. Instead, he found his passion in philosophy and dove deep into the campus community that he credits as the reason for his success.
He received an Associate Students Scholarship during his time at CSUN. After graduation, Khabushani plans to take time away from academics to explore another passion: coffee roasting. He plans to explore the possibility of one day opening a coffee shop near CSUN — the place that has given him so much.
Stephanie Martinez, B.A. in Political Science and Chicana/o Studies, recipient of the Karen, Leon and Rita Goldstein-Saulter Memorial Award with a 3.59 GPA
Stephanie Martinez describes herself as a “Chicana, an activist, a student and a fighter.” One of those distinctions she soon will lose: “Student” will be replaced on her personal ledger by “college graduate.”
Growing up in Huntington Park, Stephanie recalled how the predominantly Latino community enveloped her and gave her many warm and happy memories as a child. Looking around at the largely immigrant community, she found her calling.
The only child of Guadalupe and Fernando Martinez — who emigrated from Mexico themselves — Martinez saw that if she really wanted to make a difference in her home community and others like it, she would have to get an education. She learned about the Department of Chicana/o Studies at CSUN and read books by department co-founder Rudy Acuña, which inspired her to attend the university.
While working on her double major, Martinez also did volunteer work. Through M.E.Ch.A. (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicana/o de Aztlan), she attended the Raza Youth Conference, helping promote higher education to students of color from underserved communities. She was an academic mentor during CSUN’s Educational Opportunity Programs (EOP) Summer Transitional Programs. Martinez also helped lead caravans to Tijuana to help people who were recently deported.
“Those types of trips open up your eyes to see how privileged one really is. [I thought], ‘Wow, I really do have it all,’” Martinez said. “What am I going to do with everything I have? How is it that I’m going to turn that into resources for others?”
Martinez, 22, earned the Associated Students Dr. Karin Duran Memorial Scholarship during her undergraduate years. After graduation, Martinez plans to take a year to work for Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA), a nonprofit organization that caters to the undocumented community in Los Angeles. She also intends to intern at a law firm before beginning law school in fall 2017. But first, she plans to participate in three commencement ceremonies at CSUN, finding at each event her inspiration to graduate from college: her parents.
“As I reminisce back on the five years I’ve been here, I think of all the effort and motivation that my parents have invested in my college career at CSUN,” Martinez said. “Their English is limited, but their love isn’t. They have love to give to everyone, even my friends. It was that love that propelled me to keep going.”
Laura Saldarriaga, B.S., Manufacturing Systems Engineering, recipient of the Karen, Leon and Rita Goldstein-Saulter Memorial Award with a 3.61 GPA
On June 21, 2005, Laura Saldarriaga’s life changed forever. Traveling in her cousin’s car to pick up Saldarriaga’s little sister, she was riding in a seat with a faulty seatbelt buckle. As they pulled back into their neighborhood, another car slammed into them and Saldarriaga was ejected through the windshield. She was rushed to the hospital, where doctors performed a number of tests before taking her into surgery. That day, they discovered tumors around Saldarriaga’s lungs, heart and in her neck. Saldarriaga had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
Just 21 years old, Saldarriaga recently had emigrated from her native Colombia to Orlando, Fla., with her family. The move had interrupted her college engineering studies, and Saldarriaga was scheduled to start classes at Valencia College in Orlando. Recovering from her injuries and thrown into cancer treatment, Saldarriaga had to put her engineering dreams on hold once again.
Later, in remission, after struggling to balance full-time work with getting the engineering classes she needed at night at the community college, Saldarriaga decided to move to Los Angeles on her own to pursue better college opportunities. Living in the San Fernando Valley and working for Bank of America during the day, Saldarriaga chose CSUN for its convenience and wide array of engineering courses offered at night. She enrolled in 2012, determined to finish her degree.
Her senior year featured one of the highlights of her CSUN career, Saldarriaga said: working on a senior design project. Her team of engineering classmates created a home healthcare system to help families with medical needs such as checking temperature, oxygen and glucose levels. NASA also selected Saldarriaga, based on her qualifications and strong GPA, to work in its Academic Part-Time employee program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). After graduation, her JPL supervisors plan to keep her on as a cleanroom compliance engineer, she said.
Throughout her journey, the 32-year-old Saldarriaga has remained incredibly positive.
“If I have an opportunity to share my story with someone, I will, because you never know who will hear it and need [the encouragement],” she said. “Cancer is not the end of your life!”
Contributing to this article: Carmen Ramos Chandler, Olivia Herstein, Jorge Martin and Emily Olson.