There is perhaps no greater feeling than being in the laboratory, having just made a discovery – but being in the White House and meeting the President of the United States is a really close second. Honestly, I cannot imagine my life leading to either of those experiences without California State Los Angeles.

The path I was on as a child and young adult was difficult. I lost my father to the violence of an unsolved murder. My mother, lovingly, did everything in her power to raise me and my four siblings in a struggling neighborhood. She fought every day to give us a way out. I didn't always make it easy for her and had my challenges in school, both before and after starting college. I was never one for learning abstract concepts. My grades often suffered as a result.

Fortunately, at Cal State LA, I found faculty – particularly Professor Feimeng Zhou – who made the world of organic chemistry real. He taught me how to build molecules one atom at a time. He worked with me to make devices and test functions, while studying chemicals, proteins and diseases. Together, Dr. Zhou and I published 11 academic papers – while I was still an undergraduate.

The first in my family to attend and graduate from college, I am now a researcher and associate professor in the University of Massachusetts Department of Polymer Science and Engineering. And that meeting with President Obama, it was part of a ceremony for recipients of the Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers.

It goes without saying that I would have never had that moment in the White House if not for the tenacious strength of my mother and the patient guidance of Dr. Zhou.

That is my California State University story: faculty mentors who taught and inspired me, colleagues and friends who encouraged me, staff members and administrators who ensured I had the financial resources to stay in school, and family who loved and supported me. You hear the praise at commencement for the community that leads to student success. That community is real. Its presence is felt every day by students. As alumni, we carry it with us.

In the CSU community, faculty engage students – undergraduates and graduates – directly in their research and scholarly activity. You have the opportunity to be in the laboratory, solving main-stream challenges and making real-world discoveries. A CSU student is an active participant rather than a passive observer. Faculty are invested in the success of the students, and students are invested in the success of the work. This shared commitment is what defines a successful community. This is the legacy I plan to continue with the young scientists now under my care.

Thank you, to Dr. Zhou and all his California State University colleagues, for sharing in your successes and empowering the successes of all your students.​