Natalie Castillo came to California State University, Northridge in 2018 as a first-generation college student and has since become a role model for young underrepresented students in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). She will be graduating later this month from CSUN with bachelor’s degrees in biology and in Central American studies.
Castillo is one of nearly 3,700 graduates invited to take part in CSUN’s Honors Convocation at 6 p.m. on Saturday, May 13. The ceremony will commemorate six individuals singled out for special recognition as outstanding graduating students.
Among those is Castillo, 22, who has been named this year’s Wolfson Scholar, the top honor 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 to the community through co-curricular and extracurricular activities.
“I thought back to all the struggles I went through in college, all the studying and all the things I had to sacrifice to get here,” Castillo said about when she found out about the honor. “It made me emotional just to reflect about my journey to this point.”
During her time at CSUN, Castillo was heavily involved in research on the invasive Brown Widow spider and presented her research at CSUN and at regional and international conferences. She was awarded the CSUN NSP Presidential Scholarship two years in a row, which supported her research. She spent last summer researching the potential effects of climate change on Andean pollinators in Colombia funded by the National Science Foundation
“My goal is to have a career where I can do research and apply my knowledge to real world problems,” Castillo said. “Right now, I’m really interested in studying vector borne diseases and finding solutions to combat them.”
Castillo also majored in Central American and transborder studies, an aspect of her identity, she said, that is important to her. She became an advocate for the undocumented community as she has witnessed the struggles and trauma that comes with that identity.
With her immigrant parents hailing from El Salvador, she came to understand the trauma her parents faced and became an advocate for the undocumented community.
In 2020, Castillo joined Dreams To Be Heard, an advocacy group on campus that supports the immigrant community and helped fundraise small grants for 21 CSUN students twice during the pandemic. She also has found time to support students seeking citizenship in the San Fernando Valley and become a champion for immigrant rights.
“Growing up and seeing my parents and other people struggle and not have the opportunity to go to school, motivated me to do this,” Castillo said. “Just knowing all this has helped me be more empathetic and understanding.”
Though she was a full-time student, Castillo helped support her family with work as a tutor and as an assisted living coach for adults with intellectual disabilities. Throughout this all, she held a 3.96 GPA in her double major, while also volunteering in the biology department.
“Ms. Castillo is a student leader and a role model for others to follow,” wrote Beatriz Cortez, professor and chair of the Department of Central American and Transborder Studies, supporting Castillo’s nomination as this year’s Wolfson Scholar. “She is a first-generation student who is an active, independent, resourceful learner and who has great regard for the knowledge that her family and her community can give her, even if outside academic circles.”
Castillo is graduating with hopes of entering a Ph.D. program in entomology, where she plans to further explore biological control of pests and vector-borne diseases.
“Hopefully I can do research in Central America and apply everything I’ve learned at CSUN to make a difference in communities where there is great need.” Castillo said.
The other students being recognized at Honors Convocation are:
- Shanelle Wikramanayake, recipient of the 2023 Nathan O. Freedman Memorial Award for Outstanding Graduate Student
Growing up in Sri Lanka, Wikramanayake was exposed to and interacted with unique plants and animals. Set to graduate with a master’s degree in biology, she plans to pursue a career conservation genetics, with an expertise in the South Asian region.
During her time at CSUN, Wikramanayake presented her thesis research at seven symposiums, wrote 10 grants to fund her thesis and eight grants to fund a collaborative research project on the conservation of Sri Lankan butterflies and lizards.
To date, Wikramanayake has co-authored five publications and is expected to publish three additional papers from her research. As an undergraduate at the University of Washington, she also carried out independent research on the conservation genetics of an endemic lizard from her native Sri Lanka.
Wikramanayake has been an active member of the CSUN Women in STEM (WiS) group and Behavior, Ecology, and Evolution Research (BEER) club, later becoming president. She also did weekly STEM outreach to K-12 students and worked at a local public school for one-and-a-half years. For many of these students, she said, it was the first time they had access to STEM enrichment.
Wikramanayake will start a Ph.D. program at Colorado State University, Fort Collins in fall 2023.
“I hope by sharing my story I can increase belongingness in herpetology, ecology, and field studies, and inspire other students from diverse backgrounds to pursue these fields,” she said.
- Tania Parker, Outstanding Graduating Senior
After overcoming many obstacles as a youth, including entering the foster care system, Parker is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in childhood and adolescent development.
During her tenure at CSUN, she was part of the Educational Opportunities Program (EOP); the EOP Resilient Scholars Program, which is for current/former foster youth; Project Rebound, for formerly incarcerated people, and the Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES) program.
Parker, who has a son, began her education at Moorpark Community College before transferring to CSUN in the fall of 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parker said she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in social work and become an advocate for those in the foster care system.
- Vianney Quiroga Paez, Outstanding Graduating Senior
A first-generation college student, Paez is graduating with a bachelor’s degree in deaf studies. At CSUN, Paez was heavily involved with M.E.C.H.A., the Deaf Studies Association and the Deaf CSUNians, a club for Deaf CSUN students.
While not deaf, Paez has become a leader in advocating for Deaf students and providing translation services throughout campus. During her time at CSUN, Paez was a common presence at events and fundraisers to offer support for Deaf students.
During her senior year, Paez interned at the California School for the Deaf in Fremont. This allowed her to provide interpreting services among deaf educators, families and students.
Paez’s goal is to become a trilingual interpreter for those in the ASL community.
“I’ll soon start a career doing what makes me the happiest: interpreting and serving the community,” Paez said. “I am grateful that my journey led me to this point, because I am able to heal by giving back to the communities I cherish greatly.”
- Eden Shashoua, Outstanding Graduating Senior
Shashoua is graduating with bachelor’s degrees in business law and business honors. During her tenure at CSUN, Shashoua served as the Associated Students (AS) Vice President and worked with the Student Senate and the university’s higher administration to advocate on the behalf of students.
She also collaborated with AS Sustainability to create a sustainable fashion series to educate students about the fashion industry’s environmental impact.
Her works goes beyond just academics. Shashoua was involved in Jewish and cultural organizations, including Chabad of CSUN, Hillel 818, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon Pi.
Through the Business Honors Program, Shashoua volunteered two hours a week to peer tutoring for a variety of subjects such as business law, marketing, and in the Business Gateway lab. She also served as the tutor for the business law department, dedicating an additional four hours a week to tutor students in various introductory business law courses.
Last summer, Shashoua interned at the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office, where she was assigned to the asset forfeiture division and worked under a deputy district attorney. Her career goal is to be a prosecutor for the LA District Attorney’s Office.
- Nidah Mohammed, Outstanding Graduating Senior
Mohammed came to CSUN with aspirations of a career in medicine. But, after getting involved on campus, she transitioned her focus to cognitive psychology and media use. She will be graduating with a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a minor in literature.
Mohammed is the chair for public affairs and marketing for the Phi Delta Epsilon International Medical Fraternity, a shadower for the Clinical Access Shadowing Experience (C.A.S.E.) at the Klotz Health Center and co-founded the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA) on campus.
She spent her final semester as a senior fellow in the Center for Achievement in Psychological Sciences (CAPS) program. Mohammed was selected from a pool of more than 1,500 applications for the prestigious Presidential Scholarship — not once, but twice — to support her research endeavors. She was also awarded the General Education Honors Research Fellowship.
From 2016 to 2021, Mohammed volunteered at West Hills Hospital. In 2020, she helped administer COVID-19 tests and vaccinations in low-income areas throughout Los Angeles.
Mohammed has received offers from five universities with numerous fellowships. She is leaning toward an offer from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania to study media use and neuroimaging.
“As a child of immigrants and a woman of color in academia, the idea of completing my doctoral training amongst the top communication scholars in the country excites me every day,” she said. “However, I would not be where I am today if it weren’t for the endless support and opportunities provided by CSUN.”