Late-in-life college grad is university’s outstanding STEM graduate
Zsuzsanna Dianovics dropped out of college at 21 to raise kids. Now 49, she’s earned her bachelor’s degree at Cal State San Marcos
Zsuzsanna Dianovics was 7 years old when her family moved to the U.S. from Hungary. From an early age, she remembers her mom insisting that one day Zsuzsanna would make the family proud as a first-generation college student.
But when Dianovics was attending university in Illinois in the mid-’90s, she got pregnant and was forced to drop out of college at age 21. Four years later, she was a single mom with two children and was bartending and waiting tables to support her young family. She never gave up on college, but it became a dream that would have to wait.
This month, the 49-year-old Del Mar resident was honored with the Dean’s Outstanding Graduate Award for the College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (CSTEM) at Cal State San Marcos. In December — more than a quarter-century after her first try at college — she earned her bachelor of science degree in computer science, with an emphasis in cybersecurity.
Dianovics said her long-term goal is to teach computer science at the college level and serve as a mentor, particularly to young women, who are under-represented in the field. She believes it’s important to show girls, beginning at the high school level, that no matter what obstacles may stand in their way, a career in the sciences is possible.
“Girls really need to be encouraged to make them feel like this is something they can do,” she said. “It’s important for them to see other women do that. Opportunities are important, praise is good and so is representation.”
Dianovics was nominated for the Dean’s award by CSTEM Dean Jacqueline Trischman. In her letter to CSUSM President Ellen Neufeldt, Trischman said the word that best describes Dianovics is “diligence.” Not only did Dianovics excel in her studies and maintain a high grade point average, she also developed a student mentoring program, volunteered at girls hackathons and grew the campus cybersecurity club from four students to 30 during her term as president.
“We will be reaping the benefits of Zsuzsanna’s efforts in outreach for years to come,” Trischman wrote.
Dianovics’ long break in her college career happened because she dedicated 20 years to her children’s education. While raising two children in her mid-20s, she met and married David Dever and together they had a third child. Dever’s career as an Internet technology independent contractor would take the family all over the country. To stabilize the children’s lives as they moved from state to state, Dianovics homeschooled all three kids until they started college.
Her hard work paid off. Eldest son Mikel Dever-O’Neil, 26, earned his master’s degree in filmmaking from the University of Southern California in December. Middle child Catriona Hesse, 24, will earn her degree in neurobiology from UC Davis next month. And youngest daughter Katelyn Dever, 21, is in San Francisco taking college classes in photography.
“They all did amazing, but they did it themselves. I just kind of pointed them,” Dianovics said.
To keep herself intellectually stimulated while her kids were growing up, Dianovics’ hobby was vegan cooking. She has published three cookbooks on the subject, and since 2010 has actively maintained a cooking blog, zsusveganpantry.com.
But in the back of her mind, she always wanted to return to college and she was fascinated by the field of computer science, particularly the fast-growing cybersecurity industry. About five years ago, when her daughters started taking college classes at MiraCosta College’s San Elijo campus in Cardiff, they encouraged their mom to enroll with them.
With her daughters, Dianovics enrolled in Algebra 1, followed by Calculus 1. Rather than being embarrassed about having their mother in the same classroom, Catriona and Katelyn leapt at the opportunity to do group projects with her. This gave her the confidence to carry on alone, despite often being the oldest student in the room.
After a few semesters at MiraCosta’s Cardiff campus, she transferred to its Oceanside campus where she started taking computer science classes. There she noticed that more than her age made her unique.
“When I first started at MiraCosta, it kind of stood out there were very few females in the class. There would be just 3 or 4 girls in a class of 30,” she said. “I started learning about imposter syndrome. It starts in high school, where girls feel like they shouldn’t be there. It had been over 20 years since I went to school and I didn’t realize that was a thing anymore, but it still is and that was surprising to me.”
At MiraCosta in Oceanside, Dianovics said she threw herself at every opportunity that came her way, including coding certificate courses, internships, volunteer jobs and mentoring programs with grade-schoolers at a STEM festival and middle-schoolers at a Girls Can Code event. Even though she finished her undergraduate work at MiraCosta in 2019, she’s still involved in mentoring programs there.
“I always had my ear up for opportunities. If there was something, I’d apply for it, even if I didn’t get it. You can’t be rejected if you don’t try,” she said.
Nahid Majd, a computer science professor at CSUSM, also wrote a nominating letter for Dianovics’ award. Majd praised Dianovics for her achievements in a master-level course on cryptography and network security, her success in the 2020 Undergraduate Summer Scholar research program and her club leadership and mentoring efforts — all while juggling school and three internships.
Since graduating, Dianovics has been working part-time as a software engineer, designing mobile apps for Impact Resources Technology in San Diego. She would like to continue her education to earn her Ph.D., but may take a break from her studies to work full-time in the cybersecurity field in order to gain real-world career experience. But this time around, her break from college will be much shorter than before.
“I’ll cherish the years I spent with my kids forever,” she said. “But now I see computer science as my future.”
— Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune
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