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Standout students: hood recipients 2006

May 30, 2006

One outstanding student from each academic college and from Liberal Studies/Special Majors and Graduate Studies were honored at SF State's 105th Commencement Saturday, May 27. They received the symbolic investiture of the hood on behalf of their fellow students. In addition, Valerie Francisco, hood recipient for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences, was this year's student speaker.

SF State News is pleased to introduce these students to the campus community and friends of SF State during the week before Commencement.

Graduate Studies| Behavioral and Social Sciences | Business | Creative Arts | Education | Ethnic Studies | Health and Human Services| Humanities | Science and Engineering | Liberal Studies/Special Majors.

Graduate Studies: TaiJuana Sylvester
Photo of TaiJuana SylvesterIn her junior year at SF State, just two weeks away from final exams, TaiJuana Sylvester lost her mother. She and her siblings were devastated. Their mother, who fostered infants born with drug and alcohol dependencies and other medical problems, was the center of the family's strength.

"The loss was a turning point for me," Sylvester recalled. "Losing my mother was the roughest thing I'd been through in my life. I could have just taken incompletes and finished the courses another time." However, she discovered in herself the strength and determination she had always admired in her mother, and persevered with her exams. She managed good grades and credits her success to an extensive support system that included her family, her church and the faculty and staff at San Francisco State who supported her education.

Sylvester has had an interest in science since she was a young girl, and a passion to help children since she was old enough to understand the effects of substance abuse and poverty. She plans to be a pediatrician and will attend medical school at either Boston University or Stanford University this fall. But Sylvester, who has cultivated a love of research while at SF State, won't be leaving the lab behind. She plans to complement her pediatric practice with research in infectious diseases.

Sylvester pursued both her bachelor's and master's degrees in biology with scholarship support from programs designed to encourage interest in careers in science among minorities and women, such as the Minority Access to Research Careers program and the Louis Stokes Alliance for Minorities. She is grateful for the help. "I'd encourage anyone who might think that college is out of the question to look for and utilize the resources I have," she said.

Earlier this semester, Sylvester suffered serious injury to her right arm in a car accident. Naturally, it didn't stop her from completing her degree.

"TaiJuana is my teacher, to tell you the truth," said Frank Bayliss, biology professor and Sylvester's adviser. "She has this amazing ability to keep going despite her burdens. She's got great heart and a brilliant future."

-- Denize Springer

Behavioral and Social Sciences: Valerie Francisco
Photo of Valerie FranciscoWhen Valerie Francisco began rapping years ago, she gave herself the stage name Hood Scholar. Now Francisco is the hood recipient for the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and a fledgling scholar in sociology and Asian American studies.

Francisco, a native of Parañaque, Philippines, moved to the United States at age 9. She spent most of her adolescent years in Concord, in the predominantly Latino barrio of Monument. Her life experiences have shaped her academic interests.

"When you're growing up in poverty, not having anything, and everybody around you doesn't have adequate housing, I really saw -- as a sociologist -- the inequalities," said Francisco, who will also be the student speaker at Commencement.

Her community activism began at age 15 when she organized protests against Proposition 21, a California ballot initiative passed to increase punishment for gang-related activities. Francisco is also a founder and the mass campaign officer of babae, a San Francisco nonprofit that addresses the rights and welfare of Filipino women in the United States.

As a scholar, Francisco studies immigrant women's experiences relative to global and local institutions. Francisco has been a participant in Career Opportunities in Research, a federally funded program that helps minority students become competitive applicants to doctoral programs in mental health, providing each of them with a $20,000 scholarship and faculty mentorships. This fall she enters the doctoral program in sociology at City University of New York. She plans to become a university professor and remain active in the Bay Area's Filipino community.

Francisco performs hip-hop music with Rhapsodistas, a collective comprised of four young Filipinas. Now known as Sho Shock, Francisco describes her style as "conscious and progressive but hyphy." Hyphy is a Bay Area-born hip-hop movement that is a combination of "hyper" and "fly."

"My art is a way to talk to people who wouldn't come to see me give a lecture," she said. "My people, my community and my family are most important to me. They are my bedrock."

-- Matt Itelson

Creative Arts: Kristin Farr
Photo of Kristin FarrKristin Farr credits SF State with helping her overcome her intimidation to pursue art professionally.

Farr, a 1996 graduate of Redwood High School in Larkspur, considered majoring in education or theatre arts, but instantly fell in love with the SF State Art Department. Students and faculty allayed her fears.

"My professors encouraged me to be open and take risks in art making and to not be afraid," said Farr, who now lives in Pacifica. "They offered support and shared ideas."

Farr chose a dual emphasis in sculpture and textiles. She has exhibited her work at restaurants and cafes, as well as in a student show that spent one night at the de Young Museum this spring and raised $15,000 for St. Vincent de Paul Society of San Francisco.

Farr is also dedicated to arts education. She teaches art at an after-school program at El Dorado Elementary School in San Francisco's Visitacion Valley. With other students and faculty, she taught art to children in El Salvador during the summer.

Farr works full time as outreach coordinator for "SPARK," a program on KQED-Channel 9. There, she brings artists featured on the program to speak at Bay Area high schools and colleges.

"It's really inspiring to see what kinds of challenges (children) deal with and still learn to express themselves," Farr said.

Farr plans to attend graduate school, continue to make and exhibit art, and eventually become an art professor.

-- Matt Itelson

Business: Kelli Nakamura
Photo of Kelli NakamuraKelli Nakamura, hood recipient for the College of Business, said that she chose to major in decisions sciences "almost on a whim."

After graduating as co-valedictorian of her high school in 1997, Nakamura entered University of California, San Diego as a National Merit Scholar. She planned to major in bioengineering; however, life interrupted her plans, and she left her studies to focus on work and family.

In 2003, Nakamura, a single mother, decided that she wanted to finish her degree and be able to offer more to her two children. She enrolled at SF State and signed up for Decision Sciences 412, Operations Management because the course description looked interesting.

It turned out to be more than interesting: "It was one of the most fun classes I had taken up to that point," she said.

"Within my department I have never had a bad professor," Nakamura said. "I think the professors in the Decision Sciences Department are just incredible."

She enjoys the work and using her facility for analyzing data and using it to spot trends and make forecasts, or as she puts it: "taking a bunch of kind of random data that may not look like anything when you first look at it and turning it into something that is actually useful."

Nakamura was equally successful in balancing her family obligations with her schooling. She took care of her children during the day and scheduled classes and most homework at night. "I live two lives," she said.

After graduation, Nakamura plans to find a position as an operations analyst, preferably one near her Vallejo home so she can continue to balance work and family.

-- William Morris

Education: Marie Dorcas Brown
Photo of Marie Dorcas Brown
Marie Dorcas Brown shares the same first and last name with her mother -- and the same professional field and alma mater. Brown is graduating with an undergraduate degree in communicative disorders; her mother earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in orientation and mobility in SF State's Special Education Department.

A Vacaville native, Brown took a special education course at Solano Community College while still in high school. She discovered that she had a facility for American Sign Language.

"It was eye-opening for me because I was able to get right into it," Brown said.

Six years later, she is now bilingual, has tutored other ASL learners, and is well on her way to a career working with those who have communicative disorders.

Along the way, Brown has been quite busy. She works as a speech therapy aide in the Child Development Center at California Pacific Medical Center, where she supervises children who use computers to improve their auditory processing skills.

She is also a teacher's aide in the South San Francisco Unified School District, working one-on-one with children who have learning disabilities. And, she volunteers her time one day a week in the special education classroom at Francis Scott Key Elementary School, helping students with language, reading and social skills.

Brown will begin graduate studies this fall in speech-language pathology in the College of Education. She hopes to find work with a school district when she finishes the program and eventually open her own speech pathology practice.

"Everybody wants to communicate, whether it's through sign language or through regular communication," Brown said.

-- William Morris

Ethnic Studies: Sonia Elena Mays
Photo of Sonia Elena MaysCollege of Ethnic Studies hood recipient Sonia Elena Mays, came to SF State expecting to major in psychology and pursue a career in teaching. But by her second semester the San Francisco native with Bolivian, European and Native American roots had changed her major to Raza studies and added American Indian studies as a minor.

"I took ethnic studies courses in my first semester and it struck me that I could apply what I had already been exposed to at home, from the experiences of my family, to an academic setting that critically analyzes 'history,'" she said. The Presidential Scholar who will graduate with a bachelor's degree in Raza studies plans to become an activist for community-based social justice and policy issues.

Mays wrote for and served on the editorial board of Coyolxauhqui Remembered, the journal of Latina student voices produced by Raza Studies. She also performs Bolivian folk dance, as a member of Renancer Folklorico Bolivia. In 2004, she participated in a Southern California workshop cosponsored by American Indian Studies on the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

Mays plans to continue an internship with the International Indian Treaty Council throughout the summer followed by a yearlong internship with the California Executive Fellowship Program. Sponsored by Sacramento State University's Center for California Studies and the Office of the Governor, Mays will learn about and work on public policy issues in California. She hopes to attend graduate school to study public policy with an emphasis in education or continue in ethnic studies.

Mays said she will forever be thankful for the SF State ethnic studies classes and the professors who encouraged and helped her to develop the levels of awareness and analytical skills that are necessary to incite change. "I can apply what I've learned to challenge immigration policies, advocate for equitable education, help the uninsured get health care," she said. "The list goes on and on."

-- Denize Springer

Health and Human Services: Marilyn Barnes
Photo of Marilyn BarnesThe last thing Marilyn Barnes wants is to be labeled in stereotypical or statistical terms. The 2006 College of Health and Human Services hood recipient is a single working mother of five children who resides in public housing. But Barnes discovered that even in the classroom people like herself tend to be regarded solely in such terms as "the underprivileged."

"The focus in class is on disparities, but that is only half the picture," said Barnes who has lived in San Francisco's Western Addition for 21 years. "We are a strong group of people with many talents and abilities. Real social justice is wanting for your client what you want for yourself."

"Marilyn openly challenged what she heard in class," said Lisa Moore, associate professor of health education. "Her perspective was a gift to her classmates."

Six years ago, Barnes decided to take the good things about her community and put them to work on what needed improvement. She founded the nonprofit organization Because Black is Still Beautiful. The organization's first project was to curb the spread of HIV infection in the Western Addition community. Barnes and another volunteer arranged for a free condom supply from the San Francisco Department of Public Health. Five barber and beauty shops and a restaurant in the Western Addition have made these available to their customers.

After graduating with a bachelor's of science in health education, Barnes will devote all of her time to her community and tackling even larger issues like reducing the rate of incarceration of African Americans in San Francisco.

"I am very grateful for the support that faculty have given me and for what I have learned," Barnes said. "Sometimes I think that the answer to the social problems that we all want to solve is to get the people we want to help into the college classroom."

-- Denize Springer

Humanities: Anna Abeyta
Photo of Anna AbeytaMoving to San Francisco from Oklahoma has opened Anna Abeyta to the religions of the world. The graduate in philosophy has become fascinated by religion and wants to continue learning about religions for the rest of her life.

"I am drawn to the universality of religion as a human experience, the need to ask why and seek a purpose," said Abeyta, a 1999 graduate of Mustang, Okla., High School.

Abeyta has found her purpose. She plans to learn Japanese, pursue a doctorate in religious studies and eventually become a professor in the subject, preferably at a public university like SF State.

"She embodies everything that a young seeker of truth should be," philosophy Professor Jacob Needleman said."(She possesses an) excellent academic mind combined with a deep, serious, heartfelt interest in wisdom and truth."

Several faculty members, including Needleman and humanities Professor Sandra Luft, have inspired Abeyta's future goals. She described her professors as generous, organized and incredibly knowledgeable.

"Always being in a college environment is appealing to me," Abeyta said. "I love to learn and encourage others to learn. The professors have changed my life."

Abeyta, a resident of the TenderNob neighborhood in San Francisco, is of Irish and Native American (Cherokee) descent. She is also interested in studying Native American religions and the Cherokee language.

-- Matt Itelson

Science and Engineering: Marlisa Pillsbury
Photo of Marlisa PillsburyCollege of Science and Engineering Hood recipient Marlisa Pillsbury has loved science since she was about 5 years old. While other children watched the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" on television, she preferred "Bill Nye the Science Guy."

Born in San Jose and raised in Sacramento and Southern California, Pillsbury is the first person in her immediate family to graduate from high school. The biochemistry major is no stranger to the honors podium, having delivered the valedictions in middle school as well as high school.

"I always liked school," said Pillsbury, who will graduate with a bachelor of science in biochemistry. Cell metabolism was her favorite area of study at SF State. Next fall she will enter the prestigious Ph.D. program in chemical biology at University of California, San Francisco. Once she receives her doctorate, Pillsbury intends to continue research while teaching at the college level and encouraging more minorities and women to enter the field.

"Marlisa is perhaps the best undergraduate research student I have ever worked with at State," said Ray Esquerra, assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry. He said Pillsbury is well-respected by her peers and is always happy to help them with their studies. "On some days more students will come to the lab looking for Marlisa than come to me during my office hours," Esquerra said.

Pillsbury is convinced that the secret to success is to refuse to be intimidated. "If you keep your head down and really concentrate on what you're doing, you just won’t have the time to be intimidated."

Still, Pillsbury admits to one weakness -- quality dark chocolate. Not altogether distracted however, she knows the precise chemical makeup of her favorite Swiss brand.

-- Denize Springer

Liberal Studies/Special Majors: Michelle Reardon
Photo of Michelle ReardonMichigan native Michelle Reardon left college after one semester to pursue a modeling career in New York City. She experienced some success; her life progressed; and then, after a few twists and turns she found herself a single mother living in San Francisco.

To make ends meet she entered the corporate world and eventually became an executive administrative assistant. At one point, when her daughter was young, she was even working two jobs. Five years ago she overcame some hesitance and went back to school, enrolling first at City College and then transferring to SF State.

This week, Reardon graduates at age 51 with an undergraduate degree in Liberal Studies and as the hood recipient for Liberal Studies and Special Majors. It turned out that academic life suited her better than she thought it would.

She thought writing essays would be one of the biggest challenges to face, and was pleased to discover writing was one of her strengths -- so much so that her degree emphasis is language, literature and communication. Indeed, her instructors have said her papers "are thoughtful and show how well she can integrate theoretical information into real life."

Reardon plans to continue her education, earning a teaching credential in elementary education at State. She hopes to teach second grade in San Francisco, perhaps even at Claire Lilienthal, the school her daughter attended.

"Second grade seems like when you can do a lot of molding for later years," she said. "It's a pivotal time."

-- William Morris


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Last modified May 30, 2006 by University Communications