Carolina Gabaldon conquered it all: abuse, neglect, physical disabilities, depression ... Despite all she’s been through, the Cal State San Bernardino student persevered, and is now in the midst of earning her master’s degree in public health, and is a recipient of the 2017-2018 CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement.

The award is the California State University’s highest recognition of success that is given annually to students who demonstrate superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and financial need. Gabaldon, who resides in Victorville, was awarded a $6,000 scholarship.

Gabaldon describes herself as a “non-traditional student who has faced many challenges.” She grew up in foster care and lost a sibling through the adoption process. By the time she was a teenager, Gabaldon had suffered from physical, emotional and sexual abuse. She ultimately ran away at age 15 and “succumbed to victimization of the streets.”

Her difficult teenage years led to two pregnancies, drug use, domestic violence and housing instability. She eventually lost custody of her children.

“My story is all too common,” Gabaldon said. “For years, I was hurt by others, and when I was not, I would hurt myself physically to show everyone how I felt on the inside, torn and broken with no one who cared or listened. Ultimately, without treatment, I unintentionally hurt the ones I loved most: my own children.”

While she eventually regained custody of her children, Gabaldon used her dark experiences as inspiration to pursue a career in health services. According to Gabaldon, there is a lack of available transitional programs and mental health care for foster children, and without these essential programs, foster children often follow the same path as hers.

“I am tying my public health education and personal experiences together to give back to others who grew up as I did,” said Gabaldon. “I was not alone, it just felt that way. Now, it is time to help others realize that as well with strong, effective changes that secure brighter futures in children’s lives.”

As someone who had to undergo corrective eye surgery as a child, Gabaldon works with Lions Club International, the world’s largest service club, where she volunteers to provide free glasses to those with visual impairments and low incomes. She has also volunteered more than 600 hours for a children’s diabetic camp.

Although she has had a tough journey, Gabaldon acknowledges her own determination for helping her transform her life.

“Some call it stubborn, but I call it determination. I mustered resilience to turn my situation around, but it took a lot of effort and uncomfortable solutions,” said Gabaldon, who has even had to overcome physical disabilities and now wears leg braces daily. “I have evolved from a broke, unloved, unwanted foster child and abuse victim into someone who is strong, capable and worthy of many things in life.”

“It is rare to find someone who is intelligent and hardworking, but still has humility and a view that life should be focused on relationships and improving others’ well-being,” said Monideepa B. Becerra, associate professor in the health science and human ecology department.

Under Becerra’s guidance, Gabaldon conducted her own research to complete a component of a systematic literature review. Gabaldon showed a remarkable tenacity to learn difficult health concepts, which she then applied to serve the community, Becerra said.

“Carolina’s passion for the public health field goes beyond her own personal experience,” said Becerra. “Through both her research and course work, she has exemplified her goal to serve the underserved.”

Gabaldon graduated from Victor Valley College with a 3.84 GPA and graduated magna cum laude from CSUSB in 2016 with a bachelor’s in food sciences and nutrition. She not only graduated with honors, but she also became the first in her family to obtain a college degree. She currently holds a 4.0 GPA in the CSUSB master’s program in public health.

“Ms. Gabaldon has shown extraordinary commitment to her studies, but she is also sensitive to the needs of the community by devoting countless hours to assisting others that are in need,” said CSUSB President Tomás D. Morales. “Her passion and commitment to volunteer services goes not unnoticed and is quite commendable, especially while maintaining a 4.0 GPA.”

According to Ted Coleman, Gabaldon’s former professor in the health science and human ecology department, Gabaldon is an asset to their program and excelled in his classroom. “Her accomplishments, motivation and enthusiasm are indeed admirable, and I firmly believe she deserves support to prepare for her desired profession through the MPH program,” he said.

After Gabaldon graduates with her master’s in public health in 2018, she plans to obtain her doctorate degree for a career in health policy to help improve the opportunities and mental health programs for foster youth like herself.

“I was almost 35 years old before I had the self-esteem and confidence to walk this path. It is a miracle that I have survived to see this day,” said Gabaldon. “Not everyone makes it that far; I am very fortunate.”

CSUSB student Kelsey Goodwin, who also applied for the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement, earned an honorable mention and received a $1,000 scholarship. Goodwin obtained her bachelor’s in social work from CSUSB in June 2017 and will begin her master’s program in the same subject this fall. After she receives her master’s degree, which she is expected complete in spring 2019, Goodwin plans to obtain her doctorate in social work to potentially become a college professor.

The CSU Board of Trustees will host an awards ceremony on Tuesday, Sept. 19, in Long Beach where the Trustees and Chancellor Timothy P. White will congratulate the recipients of the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement. Since the program's creation in 1984, more than 340 CSU students have been honored with this award.

Visit the CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement website for more information on the honor.

California State University, San Bernardino is a preeminent center of intellectual and cultural activity in Inland Southern California. Opened in 1965 and set at the foothills of the beautiful San Bernardino Mountains, the university serves more than 20,000 students each year and graduates about 4,000 students annually. CSUSB reflects the dynamic diversity of the region and has the most diverse student population of any university in the Inland Empire. More than 80 percent of those who graduate are the first in their families to do so.

For more information on Cal State San Bernardino, contact the university’s Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007 and visit