The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences’ two top graduating students in its Class of 2024 are first-generation college students from the Department of Psychology: Negin Ghaffari is the Outstanding Graduate Student, and Natalya Marsh is the Outstanding Undergraduate Student. They were recognized at the college’s Commencement exercises at 1:30 p.m. on May 17.

Ghaffari was one of seven recipients of the California State University’s Sally Cassanova Pre-Doctoral Scholarships for the 2023-24 academic year. Working with her faculty mentor Christina Hassija, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and a professor of psychology, Ghaffari focused on different projects related to trauma and resiliency.

That opened another research door. “I was accepted at Yale University and will spend two months working at the PRIME lab associated with their psychiatry program,” Ghaffari said. “In August, I will start my Ph.D. program in clinical psychology at the University of Mississippi.”

Ghaffari chose psychology because she wanted “to understand individuals’ behaviors and the ‘why’ of their decisions. Once I entered the research field, my questions and curiosity grew even more. Now, I am interested to know how mental and physical health is connected to early life stressors and health-related behaviors. In particular, I want to explore resilience factors among individuals who have experienced early life stressors and how that may have impacted their mental and physical health outcomes.”

As she progressed in her academic career, she became a research assistant at Cal State Northridge, where she implemented interventions for potential problem behaviors. Moving on to a post-baccalaureate program at the University of California, Irvine, Ghaffari explored different resilience factors associated with childhood experiences.

After completing her doctorate degree, she said she plans on continuing her academic career as a professor, while also aspiring to establish a non-profit mental health community clinic, where her research would be of service to the community.

Ghaffari, who was born in Tehran, Iran, and came to the U.S. as a young child, says she was inspired by a handful of people over the years, including her third-grade teacher, who “went above and beyond to create a comforting environment for me to grow. He gave me the confidence to believe in myself and grow in school.”

Her mother is a source of inspiration because of her decision to bring her family to the U.S. “despite all the challenges and hurdles of immigrating,” Ghaffari said. “She gave me the strength and resilience to push forward despite the challenge.”

And she credited Hassija, who she said has always been available to guide her and challenge her. “Also, she does it all,” Ghaffari said. “She is a superwoman in my eyes.”

As for her soon-to-be-alma mater, she said, it became a place where she built a community. “Here at CSUSB, I have built such a close group of friendships, that I feel are everlasting,” Ghaffari said. “During my time here at OSR (the Office of Student Research) and SBS (Social and Behavior Sciences) writing lab, I have made many close friendships worth even more than any academic accomplishments. This is because, at the end of the day, it's your community that made you who you are.”

Marsh, the Outstanding Undergraduate Student, was interested in psychology and biology while in high school and thought she would double major in both at CSUSB – then discovered that biological psychology covered both her interests.

“I read about the program description on the CSUSB website, and I knew that this was exactly what I was interested in and wanted to study,” she said. “I have always been fascinated by the brain as well as the biological processes behind cognition and behavior, so I knew that this degree would be perfect for me. It was the perfect combination of what I loved most: psychology and biology.”

Like many CSUSB students, Marsh took full advantage of research opportunities at the university. Working with her faculty mentor, Nicolas Brunet, associate professor of psychology, she participated in research that examined how people interpret facial expressions, the findings of which were published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology in November 2023. As the academic year drew to a close, she continued to work with Brunet on a project that looked to diagnose concussions through oculomotor tracking, the movement of the eyes and their control by the brain. Because she will be a graduate student in psychology at CSUSB in fall 2024, it is work she will continue in the master’s program with a concentration in behavioral and cognitive neuroscience.

Once she completes her master’s degree, Marsh plans to pursue a Ph.D. in neuropsychology, and then complete a post-doctoral program in the field at a rehabilitation facility or another university.

Eventually, she would like to open a private practice. She said, “At the end of the day, my goal is to help individuals in any way, shape, or form.”

Marsh also said her mother was a big inspiration to her. “Coming from a first-generation background, my mom has always emphasized how important it is to get an education and what a privilege it is to be able to get one, as well,” she said. “Coming from Mexico to the United States at only 17 years old, I have seen my mom face many adversities and challenges, however, she has always risen to the top. She inspires me like no other, and she has always supported me in my academic endeavors. She is there to listen, whether it’s when I explain something fascinating that I learned in one of my psychology courses or when I am having a complete mental breakdown about school or research being difficult. She has supported me throughout my entire life, and she has been my biggest cheerleader in college.

“I dedicate my degree to her, as I would be nothing without her, and for that, I am extremely grateful,” Marsh said.

She said Brunet’s mentorship gave her multiple research experiences, including presenting at conferences, as well as challenging her to go beyond her comfort zone. Marsh also thanked Caroline Vickers, the interim administrator in charge of the Graduate Studies Program, who served as a resource when she had questions about programs, financial aid or research opportunities.

As a Presidential Academic Excellence Scholar when she came to CSUSB, she said the university “has given me the platform to conduct research with a faculty mentor, to be able to travel to places to present that said research, as well as being able to become a published author while still in my undergrad.... CSUSB finally has allowed me to become the best version of myself, celebrating all of my successes, and I am so proud to be a Yotie! I plan on making CSUSB proud with whatever crosses my path in the future.”