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Happy Endings and New Beginnings

Rites: A woman who started her life over is among graduates picking up degrees from CSUN at Channel Islands. 'I wouldn't let anything get in my way,' she says.


CAMARILLO — Bob Zomalt wore the smile of a proud parent Friday as his older sister, Vernice, waited to take the last steps of her endeavor to don a noble, black robe.

He grinned with pride as he talked of his 52-year-old sibling's two toughest journeys: one from domestic violence to independence, the other from reentry classes to graduation Friday with a bachelor's degree in sociology from Cal State University Northridge at Channel Islands.

"I'm tearful about it, because it's a dream come true," he said. "It is a testament to dedication, hard work and perseverance."

The first CSUN graduating class to actually attend classes at the future home of Cal State Channel Islands celebrated its commencement on Friday; Vernice Zomalt was among the more than 400 students participating.

For her, the journey to higher education has been long. As she worked through physical therapy to regain her ability to walk, she said, her brothers, Bob and Ernest, persuaded her to set goals for her life. Eventually, she decided to earn a college degree.

Bob Zomalt and other family members drew up a contract that specified her goals and committed their financial and emotional support if Vernice agreed to help herself. She started reentry classes at Oxnard College in 1997, transferred to CSUN and never stopped fighting.

"I have been constantly going," she said. "I wouldn't let anything get in my way."

Vernice, who served stateside in the Army during the Vietnam War, sighed to fight tears as she discussed how her family aided her. From helping her secure an Oxnard apartment to assisting in the purchase of a truck, she said, they were always giving.

Such support was so important to her recovery that Zomalt said she decided to counsel battered women as a career. She will start graduate school at the Fielding Institute in Santa Barbara in the fall, and wants to pursue master's and doctorate degrees.

After waiting almost two hours to be recognized, the plight of those with last names beginning with "'Z," Vernice clasped her certificate and let loose a small, celebratory yelp.

She spoke of the experience as she walked to where her family sat. "It was amazing, and that's all I can say," she said. "I still can't believe I actually did it, but I did!"

Although Stephen Lefevre, CSUN extension director, said the first degrees from Cal State Channel Islands as an independent university will not be awarded until at least 2004, the ceremonies Friday had a feeling of belonging. Families enjoyed the cloudless 72-degree weather and the accomplishments of friends and loved ones.

Dominick Ballesteros of Oxnard attended the graduation of his 28-year-old sister, Verna, who earned her bachelor's degree in finance. His sister worked her way through school while working at Costco and said she never knew a life of so little sleep.

In her final semester, she worked her regular job, maintained a heavy class load and squeezed in an internship at PaineWebber. Her face showed relief once she walked the stage.

"I can't think right now," she said, sobbing. "It was just shocking."

Hernan Martinez, 25, also paid his way through school at CSUN, earning a bachelor's degree in liberal studies. He said he hopes to enter a graduate program for teacher certification, because he wants to teach elementary school.

Martinez said he found a love of teaching children while working at the Boys & Girls Club of Oxnard.

For more than six years, he said, he struggled to pay for school, attend and succeed. On Friday, the culmination of his work had not set in.

"After you graduate high school, the time just flies by," he said. "I enjoyed every minute of it, but I'm glad to have it done."

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