Each year, Cal Poly bids adieu to thousands of graduates who are ready to tackle the world’s problems with innovation, technical savvy and roll-up-their-sleeves-and-get-to-it moxie.
Each of this year’s roughly 4,200 graduates has a unique story of success and perseverance along with thoughts on how their university experience has shaped them as they ready to make their way in the world — plunging into careers or continuing on with graduate studies.
Here are six members of the Class of 2016 who’ll graduate June 11-12 and take their Learn by Doing education into the world.
(College or Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences)
Borges, 22, a first-generation college student from Visalia, will receive one of 755 degrees to be awarded this year by the College of Agricuture, Food and Environmental Sciences. The agri-business major will start his career by working in sales for SunFed Ranch, a grass-fed beef company in Woodland, Calif.
He chose to attend Cal Poly because he knew “it would challenge me to learn and experience immense personal growth.”
“My biggest accomplishment was being a member of the National Agri-Marketing Association Team,” he said. “My first year, we won the national competition, besting 30 university teams from the U.S. and Canada, and in April we took fourth in the competition. It was one of the most challenging and stressful moments in my life but by far the most rewarding experience I have had at Cal Poly.”
In January, Borges was recognized on the Assembly and Senate floors in Sacramento for helping to bring home the 2015 national title for the NAMA team.
“Choosing Cal Poly has been the best decision I have made thus far in my life,” he said.
(College of Architecture and Environmental Design)
Santana, 32, will receive one of 311 degrees to be issued by the College of Architecture and Environmental Design. The Calexico, Calif., resident’s goal is to obtain an architect’s license and eventually teach at a community college.
Born in Los Angeles and raised in Mexico, Santana transferred to Cal Poly based on the reputation of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design as one of the best schools in the nation.
He was assisted by Cal Poly’s Educational Opportunity Program, which serves students from low-income, first-generation and educationally disadvantaged backgrounds.
He overcame language barriers — Santana mostly spoke Spanish prior to enrolling — and is continuing a life-threatening battle with stage four cancer.
“When I was first told that I had thyroid cancer in December of 2014, I was devastated,” he said. “Dealing with school, my cancer and life has not been an easy thing to do. Cancer is not only a physical condition but also a psychological one.
“I have had three surgeries and two radiation treatments so far. It is just hard not to think about it, but I remain motivated. I continue with my academic endeavors with the same passion and excitement as when I first transferred to Cal Poly.”
Sarah Elizabeth Clark, Santana’s EOP advisor, said he has been an inspiration.
“Despite all of the formidable challenges he has faced, he has not only prevailed but has done exceptionally well in his courses,” she said. “He is an especially gifted student. His GPA as of winter 2016 is 3.267.”
Said Santana: “By working in a fast-paced environment with talented students, I have pushed myself to learn more and do more. I have learned to seek solutions and seek help when I am in the middle of a problem — either with a school project or a not-as-pleasant event in life. As the Cal Poly motto goes, Learn by Doing has stuck with me throughout my education.”
(College of Engineering)
Cullors, of Palmdale, Calif., is a first-generation college student majoring in aerospace engineering. She will receive one of 1,042 issued by the university’s top ranked College of Engineering.
She’s on her way to becoming a flight test engineer and begins work at The Boeing Company in Seattle after graduation.
Cal Poly helped her get there by providing access to career and internship opportunities with Boeing, Lockheed Martin and NASA.
“I knew I wanted to major in aerospace engineering, and I wanted to choose a school that would allow me to obtain my desired career opportunity upon graduation,” she said.
Cullors initially struggled at Cal Poly.
“I was a double minority – an African American and a woman,” the 22-year-old said. “For the first few quarters, I felt so alone, and I even struggled academically, which I had never done before. I reached out to the Multicultural Engineering Program, and I joined NSBE, the National Society of Black Engineers.”
NSBE and the MEP gave Cullors academic help as well as a solid support system. She went on to serve as NSBE president and was elected to the 2015-16 regional board of the national society.
“I never expected to be a leader, but now I’m yearning to give back,” she said. “I’ve called admitted students during Poly Cultural Weekend, and with NSBE, I’ve convinced other students to explore Cal Poly’s strong educational foundation. I believe there’s a place at Cal Poly for everyone.”
(College of Liberal Arts)
Henderson, 55, of Cambria, is among 620 degree recipients from her college.
The sociology major, with a biology concentration, plans to return to Cal Poly to conduct a study on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, which develops in some people who have seen or lived through shocking, scary, stressful, abusive or dangerous events. Henderson suffers from PTSD as well as Traumatic Brain Injury, or TBI.
“At the end of the study, we will develop an intervention initiative to help identify the warning signs, and create stress-relief programs and training to bring light to this illness and to make sure that it does not progress to years of needless suffering,” she said.
The London native, who didn’t finish high school, hopes to own and operate a business in San Luis Obispo County as well as perform charitable work for the community. She transferred to Cal Poly from Cuesta College.
“I was determined to get into Cal Poly,” she said. “I also was not happy being told by people that I could not get into a university because some may have thought I was too old. I was thrilled when I was accepted.”
She overcame many obstacles in pursuing her dream of completing her degree.
“I was terrified but determined to get through this,” Henderson said. “I loved being with many younger students who have taught me what they are going through. I found the work very challenging especially the standard of academic writing. I had to hire a tutor. So whatever obstacles I was faced with, I just kept jumping over them.”
That’s especially true of her PTSD, she said, and the accompanying stress, crying and “moments of sheer hell,” tempered by the “the laughing, the relief and the moments of sheer heaven.”
“I gained confidence and a good feeling of self-worth, and I overcame many fears at Cal Poly,” she said. “Being around many people helped me build back my self-esteem, which led to me taking back my dignity and being able to be proud of myself again.
“I hope I can inspire older woman or any gender, any race or ethnicity, or people with disabilities to not give up in anything they do. Hold on and believe in yourself and love yourself, as there is help at Cal Poly.”
(College of Science and Mathematics)
Guthrie, 31, majored in kinesiology with a concentration in exercise science, in hopes of landing a career as a physical therapist. He is among 620 degree recipients in his college.
He plans to return to his native Missouri to enter a three-year doctorate of physical therapy program at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s come a long way since dropping out of high school as a sophomore in Missouri. At age 18, in 2003, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and served six years, included two deployments in Iraq.
“I’ve seen the good, the bad, the ugly, the bravery, the camaraderie, the loss of life, the tragedy — everything in between,” he said. “I’ve seen the whole spectrum of war and combat.
“I was awarded the Bronze Star of valor for things I did in Sadr City, which is an area inside of Baghdad. I was in the infantry. I carried so many different weapons, did so many patrols, hiked so many hills, slept on the side of so many mountains, met so many different families from Iraq, it shaped my life — absolutely.”
Kris Jankovitz, one of his kinesiology professors, called Guthrie a hero for his 27 months served in Iraq, as well as time spent protecting embassies after he mustered out of the service.
“With everything he has seen, the friends he lost during the war, and those he has lost to suicide from PTSD, he is amazingly optimistic,” Jankovitz said.
Guthrie was attracted to the kinesiology program because of the faculty, and he changed his original plan to attend Fresno State after attending a Cal Poly orientation.
“The professors got me excited,” he said. “I like challenges. I know I’m not the best in my subjects and classes, but I sure as heck loved to be pushed academically. Cal Poly faculty presented themselves very well. I had to go here.”
(Orfalea College of Business)
Aragon, 25, of Carlsbad, Calif., majored in business administration, with a concentration in entrepreneurship. She is one of 590 degree recipients from her college.
A first-generation student and single mom of a son who turns 7 this year, Aragon is passionate about giving voice to underrepresented groups on campus, her church, and volunteering for causes she believes in.
Last year, she established the Parent Student Alliance, which helps underrepresented students with children find the resources needed to succeed at Cal Poly. That organization is related to a larger concept Aragon is hoping to pursue after graduation.
“I came with a vision of pursuing higher education in entrepreneurship, because I am very interested in starting a nationwide nonprofit for young parents such as myself,” she said. “It will be a resource hub where young families and parents can go find support in whatever lifelong decisions they have, such as starting a new family, higher education or career opportunities.”
Aragon, who transferred to Cal Poly from MiraCosta College, said she was attracted to Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy as well as its reputation as an emerging business school.
“Attending Cal Poly was a dream,” she said. “As a graduate, I plan to strive forward with the knowledge that I’ve gained here,” Aragon said.
“My character was shaped by my unique circumstances. I now have the opportunity to shape my family’s future for the best. It’s time to dream even bigger.”
—Profiles and photos by Jay Thompson