This year, 19 CSU students received the Hearst/CSU Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement and one is a student right here at Cal Poly. Melissa O’Neal, 25, is a graduate student focused on plant protection sciences. The hardships she has gone through in her life earned her this award, which includes a scholarship of $3,000.
“Most of the students that received this award went through certain hardships that add to the stress of getting a degree,” said Paul Browning, Media Relations Specialist for the CSU Chancellor’s office. “Some had loved ones that went through cancer and even HIV.”
O’Neal qualified for several reasons including a car crash, the death of her father and her mother’s contraction of HIV when she was 13 years old.
Her father died when she was three and her mother raised her as a single parent.
“It was a hard time because she was very ill,” O’Neal said. “I learned to watch out for myself.”
When O’Neal was 15, she passed the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE), a GED test for people under 18 to get out of high school. She then attended junior college at the age of 16 at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, California. There she received associates degrees in animal science and liberal arts.
During her education there she got an internship at Lindcove Research and Extension Center. She worked there from 1999 to 2004 and was inspired to change her major to entomology, the study of insects.
“I knew I had found my calling,” O’Neal said.
After she graduated from the College of the Sequoias in 2002, she enrolled in California State University, Fresno with a major in biology.
Unfortunately, on Feb. 5, 2002 she was in a car accident.
“It was due to tule fog, which is a thick, low laying fog that the area is known for,” she said. On her way to school that morning, a diesel truck rear-ended her.
“I was driving my dad’s classic 1964 Chevy pickup,” O’Neal said. “The truck saved my life, but 54 cars piled up after me.”
O’Neal escaped the accident with only scratches, bruises and some lower back injuries so she decided to attend school again a couple days later.
“It was hard because there was a big legal battle going on at the same time due to the injuries and three deaths,” she said. “Plus, all the crying and moaning in the aftermath got to me a lot and really messed with me for a while.”
She fought through it and after physical therapy, counseling and hard work she graduated with a Bachelor of Science. O’Neal then decided to pursue her life long dream of going to Cal Poly and started in winter quarter of 2005.
Recently she has been working with assistant crop science professor David Headrick on the citrus peelminer, which will also be the topic of her thesis. The citrus peelminer is a pest that gets into the cuticle of fruit in its larvae stage and mines underneath.
O’Neal is considering getting her doctorate in entomology at UC Riverside. However, she needs a break first.
“I’m thinking about taking some time off,” O’Neal said. “I would probably stick around until I find a solution to the citrus peelminer problem. I have a problem letting issues go when they are not solved.”
The award has been around since 1984 and was started to honor William Randolph Hearst, Browning said. One scholar usually receives $6,000 while all the others get $3,000.
The applicants must have a minimum 3.0 grade point average, he said. They also need to have a financial need and be currently enrolled as a full time student. The student can come from any field and must remain a student throughout the year, Browning said.
“The financial aid office at each campus picks the most qualified applicant and forwards it to the trustees,” Browning said. This year 19 of the 23 campuses had students that received the award.
Every Thursday O’Neal goes to the San Joaquin Valley to do some research and to visit her mother and grandmother.
“They, of course, come to see me also,” she said. “I’m looking forward to them coming to my graduation at Cal Poly because they couldn’t attend my last graduation. The heat was too much for them to sit in.”
The one thing she has learned from all she has been through is “No matter what life deals you, don’t give up,” she said. “Keep trying, keep goals and strive to make your family happy.”