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Career Paths Set

Top Scholars, Who Are Community Leaders, Are Honored

May 11, 2010

By Pamela McLaren
Updated June 8, 2010

For two Cal State Fullerton graduates, a single college course set them on their future career paths. During their journey, they have focused their passion, their skills and their empathy to helping others.

For that dedication to scholastic achievement and service to community, Paul Saiedi of Anaheim Hills and Rebecca Cunningham of Mission Viejo are among the top honorees at Cal State Fullerton’s commencement celebration.

Saiedi is the Class of 2010 recipient of the CSUF Alumni Association Outstanding Graduate Student Award and Cunningham, the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Senior Award.

Paul Saiedi

Paul Saiedi

Saiedi was working toward his undergraduate degree in communications-news at Cal State Fullerton when he took an American studies class and “was hooked.

“The proximity between cultures is getting smaller and we as a society need to understand the differences and similarities cultures bring to our lives,” he explained.

While his undergraduate degree provided him with the skills to interview and to write, a master’s degree in American studies could answer the why behind social, gender and cultural issues. And the why, he realized, was what he wanted to learn and share with others.

In the classroom, Saiedi has become known as a serious accomplished student. He has presented papers at Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and the California American Studies Association conferences, was named a student representative on the American Studies Association’s national board and served as editorial assistant for American Quarterly.

Paul Saiedi delivered a commencement address. Photo by Karen Tapia

“He has been a fine ambassador for our program,” said John Ibson, professor of American studies. “He is one of the most intelligent, energetic, compassionate and dedicated students I have known in my own 38-year career at Cal State Fullerton. He is no less than a campus treasure.”

In addition to his studies, Saiedi has worked at Children’s Hospital of Orange County and as an assistant coordinator at the university’s Volunteer and Service Center. “I was lucky to have been steered to the Volunteer Center,” he said. “It’s my home on campus.”

“Paul is the single most extraordinary student I have ever had the privilege to encounter,” noted Amy Mattern, coordinator of the Volunteer and Service Center. “For nearly four years, Paul has been an integral member of the center where he has developed his leadership, teaching, mentoring and coordination skills and worked to involve others in our efforts to create lasting social change.”

Mattern made Saiedi a project director for the group Students ACT, leading the organization’s efforts on Hunger & Homelessness Awareness Week, a weeklong series of activities that included a food and monetary donation drive and a college day experience for 30 homeless children. He also created a living exhibit — featuring fellow students representing the homeless — to increase awareness of the issue.

Saiedi also helped Students ACT plan and implement the annual Social Justice Summit on campus. The summit was “a huge learning experience for me,” he said. “I discovered that my kind of activism is organization and through my work, I found my voice, my passion about these kinds of issues.”

Saiedi’s passion was reflected in the work that he did as a teaching assistant under Leila Zenderland, professor of American studies. “First and foremost, he was very intellectually engaged,” she noted. “He frequently asked me if he could contribute materials to class discussions and his suggestions were always relevant, creative and extremely helpful.”

During that course, Saiedi presented two lectures on aspects of what Zenderland was teaching. The students, she said, were fascinated by his analyses and she made his contributions part of the course.

Zenderland also noted the bond Saiedi was able to develop with students during his lectures — something she attributed to a summer course he gave to underprivileged youth at the California Museum of Photography in Riverside. In the process of developing and teaching that course, “he had figured out his own methods for drawing out students that are often hard to reach — techniques that I found impressive. My students particularly loved Paul’s humor, his warmth and his ability to connect abstract concepts with events in their daily lives.”

Those experiences, he stressed, “helped cement my focus on teaching about social and cultural issues.

“I’ve really had a great educational experience at Cal State Fullerton,” said Saiedi. “All the faculty have been totally supportive and the opportunity to serve in the Volunteer and Service Center has been an honor. Truly, if I could get my Ph.D. here, I would have.”

This fall, he will begin a doctorate program at the University of Maryland. His ultimate goal is to become a university professor sharing his passion with students.

Rebecca Cunningham

Rebecca Cunningham

For Rebecca Cunningham, a human services course encouraged her to believe in herself and her abilities, to complete a college degree and this fall, begin master’s studies in social work at the University of Michigan.

Cunningham began her college experience without much motivation or passion for studies, but once she attended a supposed “easy” human services course, “I fell in love.” A second course convinced her to switch majors and earn a certificate in alcohol and drug studies.

When she completed her studies at Saddleback College, not only was she doing well in her studies but Cunningham received most inspiring student leader and most outstanding student honors.

“I had a professor named Rich Goodman at Saddleback College who taught me how to be a student. He said that I was worth getting good grades and that I was capable of success as long as I did the required work,” said Cunningham. “He played important role in my graduation from there and he motivated me to continue my education at CSUF.”

As a Cal State Fullerton student, she has shown total dedication to her studies and to helping others.

Rebecca Cunningham. Photo by Peggy O'Donnell

“I am in awe of her ability to balance her endeavors,” said lecturer Lori Phelps, who nominated Cunningham for the Alumni Association’s Outstanding Senior Award. “Rebecca works 32 hours a week in a local drug and alcohol rehabilitation center that services women who are victims of severe trauma. She is enrolled in 16 units and is currently a teaching assistant, group facilitator and crisis intervention coach.”

Cunningham also volunteers 40 hours a month providing trauma intervention in the local community, has served as a student intern and volunteer at VITAS Innovative Hospice where she created the “Storykeepers” project to record patients’ audio history, and has participated in the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center’s Alive and Running Event and the City of Mission Viejo’s Red Ribbon Week Walk Against Drugs.

But it was getting involved that helped her feel a part of the campus.

She has been a member of the Human Services Student Association and Kappa Omicron Nu Honor Society, as well as a member of the CSUF Human Services Community College and Community Advisory Committee. She serves on the university’s Alcohol and Other Drug Advisory Committee, the College of Health and Human Development Inter-Club Council and is a character and conflict group leader facilitating weekly group discussions exploring topics related to family, sexuality, love, loneliness, death and values. It was an experience that was “really important and life-changing for me,” Cunningham said.

Last fall, Cunningham co-founded Substance Abuse Awareness and Prevention Student Association and oversaw the organizations efforts to raise awareness and educate others about substance abuse. She also has been a presenter at two California Association of Alcohol and Drug Educators Conferences.

All while maintaining a grade point average of 3.82 at Cal State Fullerton. If she has any free time at all, Cunningham trains for marathons.

Both Phelps and Goodwin “believed in me and inspired me when I didn't think I was capable/worthy of anything great,” said Cunningham. “My respect and admiration in them is great and the personal development I've achieved as a result of knowing them and being their student has been incredible.

“I took a course with Dr. Gerald Corey relating to the theories and techniques of group counseling and through that experience I have become a more capable and competent professional — and person — and has prepared me well for the academic rigors of graduate study,” said Cunningham.

“I think of Rebecca as the eye of a storm,” said Phelps. “One of her greatest abilities is to stay calm and keep a level head in the midst of chaos. Her motivation and drive are truly inspiring and her passion for serving others is unmatched by her peers. Rebecca has tremendous integrity, a design to grow as a person and to contribute something of value to the world.”

“I came into my own and realized that my perception of myself had changed,” said Cunningham, who was awarded this year’s Human Services Outstanding Senior Award. “It’s hard to believe that now I’m going to graduate and go on to graduate school. If I can do it, I truly believe anyone can.”

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