Sally Casanova Scholars exemplify The Beach’s ‘best and brightest’

Published August 31, 2020

When Kayla Landers was a freshman chemistry student, she would walk into classrooms and sometimes be the only Black student, one of the few women and one of the few minorities in the room. The voice in her head  would ask, “Is the reason why there aren’t more people like me here because I don’t belong?” 

Over time, thanks to personal growth and mentorship from professors at Cal State Long Beach, her outlook on being “the only” changed. 

“In the beginning, it was intimidating being a Black woman in science, but now I feel like it gives me confidence. I walk different into spaces,” said Landers, who’s entering her fourth year. “Even though I know I’m ‘the only,’ I know I bring something different to the table that’s unique to my voice. I feel like I have a different outlook on science and my contributions to the scientific community.” 

Landers, who also teaches a supplemental instruction course for a challenging general chemistry class, said she noticed many of her students come to her class already looking defeated. 

“While I love teaching the chemistry part, a lot of what I do in the classroom is instilling self-confidence and self-worth into my students,” she said. “I’m really passionate about being able to instill that in students because it frees us to reach our full potential when we have the ability to start seeing that potential ourselves.” 

Her aspirations of getting her Ph.D. and becoming a college professor, coupled with her drive to diversify higher education, made her a perfect fit for the Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Program, which is designed to increase diversity within the pool of university faculty by supporting doctoral aspirations of students in the CSU system. 

Landers is among 12 Cal State Long Beach students who recently were recognized for their academic excellence while experiencing economic or educational disadvantage and are committed to a career in teaching and research at the college or university level. Each year, about 75 juniors, seniors and graduate students in the CSU are awarded $3,000 each to explore and prepare for doctoral programs in their respective fields. 

The Sally Casanova scholars exemplify our best and brightest students who want to continue their educational pursuits,” said Jody Cormack, vice provost for Academic Programs and dean of Graduate Studies. “Believing that access to education is the key to a brighter future, this program is dedicated to changing the world, one student at a time. 

Students can use their funds for academic and professional conferences (now virtual because of COVID-19), as well as student memberships in professional organizations, subscriptions to academic journals, graduate school applications and test fees, GRE preparation, and the cost of research materials. 

They also choose a faculty member to serve as a mentor and work closely with them to prepare for their doctoral studies. As advisers, the mentors help their students find information about academic careers, appropriate journal subscriptions, learning experiences and more. 

“To become the best, you must learn from the best. The CSUs are home to faculty who are well-rounded, passionate, caring, and willing to mentor students,” Cormack said. “This unique program has thrived as a direct result of faculty coming alongside students, and the support they provide students during their educational journey.” 

The program was launched in 1989 by Sally Casanova, who was a member of the CSU Office of the Chancellor staff in the 1960s and also served as associate vice president for academic affairs and dean of graduate studies at CSU Dominguez Hills from 1991 until her death in 1994.

Since the program’s inception, there have been 2,180 Sally Casanova scholars, 147 from The Beach. About 40 percent of scholars each year end up in fully funded Ph.D. programs nationwide. 

Since the 2013-2014 academic year, 90 percent of the scholars have been first generation, 82 percent have been students of color and 65 percent have been female. It is funded by the California Lottery Fund. 

For more information on the Sally Casanova Pre-Doctoral Program, visit the CSU website.