The College of Education is honoring two of its students, Sussan Ortega and Sandra Pearson, as its Outstanding Graduate Students.

Both students will receive their degrees at the college’s virtual commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 22, as face-to-face ceremonies have been postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ortega, who lives in Riverside, will be graduating with a doctorate in educational leadership and Pearson, who lives in Yucaipa, will be graduating with an education specialist degree in school psychology.

Ortega, who plans to seek an administrative credential and then look into publishing, said she chose educational leadership as a major because she was inspired by teachers who were making a difference in her community.

But her biggest inspiration is her family. She said her two children, Olin and Luna, “gave me strength when I thought I had nothing else to offer. My husband, Anthony Guaracha, inspired me to believe in myself. My parents, Maria and Jose Ortega, because of their sacrifices, reminded me daily how privileged I am to be where I am today.”

She said her greatest challenge was finding balance between working, parenting and being a student, especially during the pandemic.

“Defining time to dedicate to all three roles is tremendously tricky. Adding a pandemic in 2020 on top of that was the hardest to navigate. Being quarantined didn’t allow you to define your parameters between your positions of working, parenting, and being a scholar,” Ortega said. “I was emotionally, mentally, and physically drained. As a result, you have late nights, early mornings, and lack sleep. My hardship proved to me how important it is to practice daily affirmations and stay connected with your mentors to persevere.”

She credits six instructors, including CSUSB faculty members Enrique Murillo Jr., Edna Martinez and Jaqueline Romano, who became her mentors, and coming to CSUSB in helping her prepare for her future.

“I walked into CSUSB learning and navigating academia and walked out as a scholar contributing to research,” Ortega said. “It has forever defined my future by equipping me with the tools to activate educational leadership in education and in my community.” 

Pearson said when she chose to go into the field of education, she wanted to be a problem solver to help kids, and the field of school psychology was a perfect fit for her.

She worked with Roderick O’Handley, an assistant professor in Special Education Rehabilitation and Counseling, as a research assistant and worked on research projects that included training school psychologists and working on social skills for children with autism. She worked with O’Handley on a recently published paper “Training Preservice School Psychologists to Conduct a Stimulus Preference Assessment” printed in “Behavior Analysis in Practice.”

She credits her mother, Lorrie Havens ’91 as her biggest inspiration. Havens, a CSUSB alumna, is also a College of Education graduate. After 30 years as a teacher and school counselor, Havens is retiring this year.

She went back to college when I was a kid, and I watched her work hard to obtain her goals of becoming a teacher. When considering going back to school, I had the confidence that I could be successful and meet my goals because I had watched her do it years beforehand,” Pearson said. “She worked hard to meet the needs of all of her students. Her passion to help them succeed rubbed off on me – she loved to work with the challenging kids – and worked very hard to support them and help them become successful. I carry that same can do attitude, and can’t wait to help the students I work with find success.”

But she said going back to college as a parent was hard.

“There are many games/races you miss, events you can’t attend, and experiences you miss out on. My husband was there to support me and remind me of my goals. A supportive team of friends also helped keep me filled in on school events,” Pearson said. “Even my kids’ teachers and school were supportive of my endeavors.”

She credits CSUSB for helping her as a student.

“I have always felt supported, be it at the Writing Center as an undergrad student helping to perfect my papers and application for grad school, to professors being available during office hours to review questions or support before an exam, even to the dean of students listening to their students’ needs and concerns,” Pearson said. “CSUSB has supports set up to help all students succeed and define their future.”