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3 First-Class Students Make History

Times Staff Writer

The newest university in the Cal State system graduated its first class Friday. All three students.

It was a historic moment for Cal State Channel Islands in Ventura County as Mark Lara, Erich Pearson and Sigifredo Cruz walked up to the tented podium to accept their bachelor’s degrees.

They were joined by Susan Cook of Ventura, who was invited to participate because she is just three units shy of completing her bachelor’s degree in art.

Speakers and students acknowledged that history was being made in the courtyard of the former state mental hospital near Camarillo, now Cal State’s 23rd campus.

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“Let’s give special recognition to the four trailblazers,” said commencement speaker Debra Farar, president of the Cal State University Board of Trustees. “We are all so glad to be part of your hopes and dreams.”

Lara, 30, of Santa Barbara, and Pearson, 23, of Simi Valley, earned degrees in liberal studies, and Cruz, 28, of Oxnard, in mathematics.

“It means everything to me,” Cruz said before he marched to the yard in his black cap and gown. “What can I say? There are no words.”

Because Cal State Northridge has been operating a satellite campus at Channel Islands as the new university got off the ground, about 400 students graduating from the extension program also participated in Friday’s ceremony.

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They were presented with their degrees by Northridge President Jolene Koester, who said the day was bittersweet.

“I feel a touch of nostalgia during this time of joy and a little bit of sadness to know our role in providing higher education for Ventura County is being eclipsed by the new university,” Koester said.

In all, Cal State awarded 53 master’s degrees, 215 teaching credentials and 515 bachelor’s degrees to the Northridge-Channel Islands students.

“You’re all a part of the Cal State University Channel Islands community,” President Richard Rush told the audience of several hundred who attended the inaugural ceremony. “To our first graduating class -- a trickle before the flood that will follow -- and to the Cal State Northridge students -- today is your day.

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“Each of you will always have a special place in this campus’ history,” he said. “You are forever a part of the Cal State Channel Islands family.”

In the audience were 29 fifth-graders from Hathaway Elementary School in Oxnard. They had come to watch their teacher, Julie Sanchez, accept her master’s degree in education from the satellite campus of Cal State Northridge.

They received a round of applause when Rush introduced them.

“There’s 29 future Cal State Channel Islands students,” Rush said.

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Among the current Cal State students was Ashok Assudani, 23, of Oxnard, who earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Northridge at Channel Islands.

“I’ve been waiting for this day a long time,” said Assudani, who said it took him 5 1/2 years to graduate because he worked full time. “I’m very excited and happy.”

“I’m a little panicked right now,” said Crystal Gottschalt, 24, of Moorpark, who lost her tassel before the procession began. But she was proud of what she had accomplished, she said, including commuting to the Northridge and Channel Islands campuses to earn her business degree. “It seems like it’s taken a long time, but I’m finally graduating.”

It took even longer for Cook, 52, a married mother of two adult children. She took classes over the last decade at various colleges, including USC, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Northridge and Ventura College, depending on where she and her family lived at the time.

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“I was working on my degree, but there wasn’t a clear place for me to go,” Cook said. “When they opened up the art department here, I called the next day.... It was a long journey, but it was worth it.”

It was also worth it to Ventura rancher Carolyn Leavens, who worked over the years to make Cal State Channel Islands become a reality, Rush said. She was presented with the annual Robert J. Lagomarsino Award, which recognizes individuals for their positive effect on the university.

Over three decades, Leavens did everything she could to help bring a four-year university to Ventura County, Rush said, including arranging bus trips to trustees’ meetings in Long Beach and lobbying in Sacramento.

“This is all about dreams,” Leavens told the audience after receiving the award. “We had a dream. I feel like I represent so many people who dreamed of this university. And the dream had muscle to it. We muscled our way through a lot. But we had one goal.

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“It was you. You would be the product of our dreams, this first graduating class. You were in our mind’s eye and in our hearts, and you made it. You made our dreams come true, and by making our dreams come true, you made your own dreams come true.”


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