Six Stories of Perseverance and Success From 2019 Grads
Cal Poly caps the academic year each June with Commencement and a chance to say goodbye and good luck to thousands of graduates who will soon begin careers or move on to advanced studies.
More than 5,100 graduates are eligible to take part in Commencement on June 15 and 16. They will leave to address the world’s problems with innovation, creativity and confidence earned through their Learn by Doing education.
Each of this year’s graduates has a unique story of success and perseverance, along with thoughts on how their university experience has shaped them as they prepare to make their way in the world.
Meet six outstanding members of the Class of 2019:
College of Liberal Arts
Mia Alexander may be the Class of 2019’s comeback kid. The Cambria native never believed that one day she would be “walking as a Mustang and a graduate of Cal Poly,” nor that a story of lost potential could both turn around and have a happy ending.
“Absolutely not,” she said. “When I think about graduation, I get emotional just because when I began this journey to change my life — and my life is completely changed — I just never would have imagined that.”
There’s an age gap between Alexander, a sociology major (with a concentration in social work and a minor in ethnic studies) and her classmates. Go back to 2002 when she was the age her peers are now. At that time Alexander was serving a four-year prison term in Central California Women’s Facility while working on her own big event: getting her high school equivalency certificate, or GED.
It wasn’t the first time she had spent behind bars — and would not be the last. While attending high school in Cambria in the late 1990s, Alexander began hanging out with what she called the “wrong crowd” and “started dating someone that I shouldn’t have.” Her life began to spiral out of control in the pines of her hometown, the result of questionable friends, impaired judgment and ultimately drug addiction.
After a nearly two decade-long arrest-jail-release-probation cycle, Alexander, 40, wanted something different.
“When I got out I went into sober living and started getting clean,” she said. “I was tired of going in and out of jails and prison. I had a baby girl, and I wanted to do something different for her than I had done in the past. So, in 2014, I started at Cuesta College and just moved forward from there.”
She had help from the criminal justice system and county support services. In addition, she had “an amazing support system” of family and professionals, as well as “an amazing mentor who just supported me through my journey.
“I started being a house manager at the sober living house that I was originally a client with and kept moving forward,” she said.
She received associate degrees from Cuesta in 2017. Because of her young family, Cal Poly was the logical next step of her journey — but it was a big step to get into the university.
“When I found out I was accepted, I cried,” she said. “I am a non-traditional student with a family, and being accepted to Cal Poly has opened doors for me that I never dreamed possible.”
Faculty members in the Social Sciences Department were supportive of her educational quest and “were always willing to help and to support me toward my goal,” she added.
Alexander plans to work as a drug and alcohol counselor before beginning graduate studies. But first a break is in order.
“I’m going with a good friend from Cal Poly to Europe,” she said. “My grandmother, in-laws and my partner all came together to help me take a trip to Europe. It’s the first time I’ve ever had a passport and will be the first time I’ll go out of the country. We’re going to go to Paris, Nice, Rome and Naples. I can’t wait.”
Alexander is happy to hold a light and point the way for other non-traditional students whose educational journeys similarly zig and zag. She remains clear-eyed and focused on a brighter future for her and her family.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” she said. “I’ve had an amazing group of professors who have helped me get through my experience at Cal Poly. I’m really grateful for their help.”
• • •
College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences
James Carlson is about to summit.
The 26-year-old environmental earth science major from Guadalupe (who works part-time at a Santa Maria climbing gym) is looking forward to graduation and some hard-earned time off before beginning work as a full-time geologist.
In July he’ll take his fiancé, Sarah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Piper, to the Eastern Sierra to share his love of the mountains before returning home and “jumping straight back into working as a staff geologist at Cleath-Harris Geologists.” In August, there’s a major milestone: He’s getting married.
Commencement marks the end of a circuitous journey for Carlson, who as a Santa Maria High School senior in 2011 applied to Cal Poly as an economics major but decided to attend Allan Hancock College “to figure out exactly what I was passionate about.” He transferred from Hancock in the fall of 2017.
“Attending Cal Poly completely changed my life,” he said. “Being surrounded by the geology community here really helped me narrow in on what aspect of my field I was really passionate about. The peers and professors I’ve met have become some of my best friends, and I owe so much of my accomplishments to those relationships. Everyone in the Cal Poly community has seemed to honestly care about how I was doing in both academics and life in general.”
One of his biggest challenges was balancing 20-unit quarters, two part-time jobs, a daily commute from Guadalupe, and family life — his daughter was born just months before he became a Cal Poly student.
“The only way I got through it was to keep moving forward,” Carlson said. “I spent 12-plus hours a day on campus, most days, and the commute from Guadalupe added to the time away from home — but I knew I was doing what I had to do get my degree and be able support my family and give my daughter the life she deserves.
“There were plenty of days, even into the last few weeks of college, when I just wanted to give up, but knowing I had a little girl depending on me at home was more than enough motivation to keep on going.”
He takes pride in being a Frost Research Fellow at Cal Poly and collaborating with U.S. Geological Survey officials last summer on a project to conduct geophysical surveys in Los Alamos, California, to aid in the creation of a groundwater flow model there.
“The work ended with the USGS incorporating my geologic model into their own and citing my senior project in their paper on the area,” he said.
He plans on starting graduate school “as soon as I get some experience under my belt and get my family stable.” As he readies to leave Cal Poly, he will remember the overnight trips he and geology classmates took throughout the Golden State and the relationships made with peers and professors.
“I can never put into words how thankful I am for attending Cal Poly,” said Carlson, who hopes to become a geology professor. “I have gained so many valuable experiences during my time here and so many memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life. I am incredibly thankful for the professors and advisers who helped me get through it all and guided me to where I needed to be. I wish I could do it all over again, but it’s time to move on to whatever comes next!”
• • •
College of Science and Mathematics
As a teenager, Aubree Charlesworth couldn’t wait to get out of the classroom; as a future elementary school teacher, she’s eager to get back in.
On June 15, Charlesworth will complete the second of her three-stage goal at Cal Poly: receiving her multiple subject teaching credential. Last year, she earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies (with a child development concentration); in September she’ll begin graduate studies in the Educational Leadership and Administration Program.
“Cal Poly has shaped me into an awesome teacher, and I owe so much of it to my fantastic education and wonderful teachers in the credential program,” the Los Osos resident said.
Because of her own experience in school, becoming a teacher was not the career path she always dreamed of as a kid. Although she grew up “a very happy child who loved school,” that attitude changed during her turbulent middle school years after being bullied by classmates.
“At 14 years old, I wanted to quit school,” she said. “I no longer enjoyed learning and had no desire to be in a classroom with other students.” Ultimately, she “tested out of school” at 16 and half-heartedly began taking classes at nearby Cuesta College.
Her outlook and goals drastically changed when she became a single mother at 19 years old. She came to the realization that “it was up to me to create a better life for myself and my son.”
“Education became an obvious priority. My love for children had always been unmistakable, and my vision of being an amazing, influential teacher became clear,” the 25-year-old said. “Since my transfer to Cal Poly in 2015, I have truly found my passion. I believe I can change the lives of my students. I will be able to connect and inspire them in a unique way.”
Cal Poly scholarships and waitressing 40 hours a week in the summer allowed her to study full-time during the academic year. Her biggest challenge was finding balance: The credential program required lots of time-consuming work; being a mom required even more.
“It was really hard to come home and sit at the computer finishing homework and lesson planning, when all I wanted to do was spend time with my son, Andrew,” she said. “Luckily I had the support of my wonderful parents who were always willing to help. They gave Andrew so much more love and attention than I ever could have by myself.”
While the rigors of the program minimized the time Charlesworth could spend with him in the evenings, she still maintained a close relationship with her 5-year-old. She “made sure to talk to him about his day, read stories with him, and snuggled before putting him to bed every night.”
In addition, she enrolled Andrew in the ASI Children’s Center on campus, which allowed her to visit him during the day.
Charlesworth takes great pride in her success in the classroom. She graduated magna cum laude in 2018, “but I think my biggest accomplishment has been getting through the intensity of the credential program with a GPA of 3.9. I have also learned how to be a great student — and this did not come naturally,” she said.
In the fall, she’ll begin a yearlong master’s program and a job as a graduate research assistant.
“School can be hard and frustrating,” said the Central Coast native, who ultimately plans to become a principal, “but the feeling when you’re done will outshine all of those hard moments. If I can do it, anyone can.”
• • •
Antonio Aguilar Gomez
College of Engineering
Antonio Aguilar Gomez’s trajectory is now clear. After graduation, the computer science major and first-generation college student from Los Angeles will begin his career as a software engineer working for Microsoft Azure — Microsoft Corp.’s growing cloud computing service, in Redmond, Washington.
“I came from a migrant, low-income family where no one in my family’s lineage had ever pursued higher education,” he said. “To come out with a Cal Poly computer science degree and a job at Microsoft means the absolute world to me. In just four years here, I've catapulted not only my life but my family’s tree exponentially forward.”
Despite a lot of hard work and bumpy freshman and sophomore years, he overcame his hardships and succeeded. He said other factors (and organizations) helped him on his journey.
“Cal Poly’s cultural organizations such as MEXA (Movimiento Estudiantil Xicanx de Aztlán) along with the Dream Center/Cross Cultural Centers/EOP gave me the love and support I needed to achieve all I have here,” he said.
Gomez was born in Tepic, Nayarit Mexico, to a hard-working family and raised in Los Angeles. At birth, he was given six months to live due to a heart disease. In Mexico, his mother had dropped out of school in the fourth grade to provide for her siblings, and his dad worked 12 hours a day, sometimes seven days a week.
Being part of the Cal Poly Scholars program for four years made a huge difference for him. The program recruits high-achieving, low-income high school students from California and works to retain them at Cal Poly through financial, academic and community resources.
“Simply put, I wouldn’t and couldn’t have attended without the financial support and resources of Cal Poly Scholars,” he said.
Gomez said that receiving a Microsoft internship in 2017 was the highlight of his life. He spent months preparing for technical interviews — something with which he had never had any experience. He persevered and passed a grueling set of interviews to achieve his first internship with Microsoft. Gomez’s internships spanned about 16 months and helped him land his dream job at the multinational technology company.
“Cal Poly was able to provide me with a top-notch computer science education,” he said. “The rigor, expertise and breadth of knowledge I received have been instrumental to my success. It was always a pleasure when I interned at companies and they noted the high quality of Cal Poly engineers.”
While the university left its mark on him, Gomez takes pride in leaving his mark on Cal Poly. One of his biggest accomplishments was helping create the campus Dream Center, a facility that supports, empowers and advocates for the academic, professional and personal development and success of undocumented students at Cal Poly.
“The accolades, scholarships, and job titles mean the world to me, but the biggest accomplishment I'll leave at Cal Poly will be this center,” Gomez said. “I know I won’t be the only Dreamer out of Cal Poly to do what I have.”
• • •
College of Architecture and Environmental Design
As a high school student in Cairo, Egypt, Sherry Saroufeem knew she wanted to study construction management. She just didn’t know where — certainly that it would be halfway across the world at a school known for Learn by Doing.
“I was very intrigued by ‘Learn by Doing,’ said the 22-year-old, who chose Cal Poly based on its reputation as “one of the top schools — if not the best school — for her major. ‘I’m a doer’ is what my Mom always says about me. I just like to do things instead of talking about it.”
Saroufeem, who was born in Iowa but raised in Egypt, plunged into campus life from orientation, from taking part in Week of Welcome in her first year to returning as a WOW leader. She also was eager to work with the campus chapter of Associated Students of Construction Management, which serves as the umbrella organization hosting activities and events for 10 campus chapters and clubs.
“My freshman year I hopped on the board,” she said. “I didn’t really have a position — I just helped out with all their events. Then, starting second year, I got a position and moved up to different positions and ultimately to president this year.”
She developed an interest in construction from her mother, an Egyptian physician who began flipping houses.
Last December, Saroufeem was part of a Habitat for Humanity Global Village team project to build three small houses in a village near Bangalore, India. Her team dug and poured foundations (by hand) for the homes.
“I wanted the capstone of my college educational experience to reflect a hands-on approach,” she said. “The project left a huge impact on my personal life and has propelled me with a greater passion for starting my career in the construction industry. I believe it is important for everyone to use their talents and education, applying it to a place where construction education is lacking and resources are minimal.”
Saroufeem also made a difference during this year’s Associated Schools of Construction regional competition, featuring a dozen categories, in Reno, Nevada. As captain, she knew that her Mixed-Use team was an underdog.
“The last time we had placed — either first, second or third — was the year before I came to Cal Poly,” she said.
The competition is based on a real-world construction project that includes “all the plans, specifications and everything,” she added, “and a binder full of problems.” Teams have just a day to estimate the project costs, all materials needed and schedule all tasks necessary from start of construction to finish.
Her team worked through the night and the next morning made its presentation to a panel of industry professionals. The result? “We won,” she said.
The skills Saroufeem honed at that competition will be put to use at her new job as a field engineer for Sundt Construction Inc. — one of the country’s largest and most respected general contractors. She begins her career in San Diego in August.
Among the takeaways she’ll bring to the job are the leadership skills she developed at Cal Poly and the professional contacts she made.
“We had companies come in every single day of the week — presenting about their companies, basically telling us, ‘Hey, do you want to work for us?’ she said. “You’re pretty much guaranteed to get a job at this point — the industry is booming. But having that opportunity to network with others and know everyone in the industry, honestly, I think it’s the best thing.”
Leaving Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo is bittersweet, however, because of “the friendships and the communities that I’ve built,” Saroufeem said.
“I moved here when I was 18,” she said. “I have a lot of family in California, but coming to San Luis Obispo I knew absolutely no one. I can say confidently that I’m leaving this place knowing that I’ve made the closest group of friends that I think is just as close-knit as my family is.”
• • •
Orfalea College of Business
Jorge Valdez already has post-retirement plans: Launching a nonprofit organization “to help as many people from different areas possible” and “maybe one day start a financial planning and wealth management firm that tailors to low-income communities.”
The 22-year-old business administration major, who in September will begin his career at Apple Inc. as a finance associate, may have to hurry; he hopes to retire by age 35.
Valdez of Perris, California, chose Cal Poly sight unseen over UCLA’s business economics program because of “the diversity that the business curriculum offered.” It didn’t hurt that the university is in such a picturesque area. The “cherry on top” was the local athletics rivalry with Santa Barbara and “watching videos of Cal Poly beating UCSB in soccer and students rushing the field. Being a big soccer fan, that was an experience I wanted to take part in one day.”
The first-generation college student plunged into local events and activities and served in a variety of leadership positions including: peer assisted learning supporter for the Multicultural Business Program, WOW leader, Cal Poly Athletics event staffer, and as a peer advisor helping classmates improve their academic experience and graduate in four years.
Valdez said Cal Poly gave him opportunities to have accomplishments. His biggest was helping to organize the Leadership Beyond the Résumé Conference that gave participants better leadership skills in diversity and inclusivity.
“There’s no doubt that Cal Poly has been battling this issue, and when I helped organize this conference and saw it happen, I felt that I was doing my part towards making Cal Poly a more diverse and inclusive place,” he said. “Organizing this made me channel the Learn by Doing philosophy that was engraved in my head since the first day I stepped on campus.”
The university fundamentally changed him educationally, professionally and personally.
“I am proud of who I am today,” Valdez said. “Different experiences at Cal Poly allowed me to look at myself from a different perspective and make the changes that I needed to become a better person. I’m not done growing, but I do know what direction I need to grow thanks to Cal Poly.”
He will remember the many people — friends, colleagues, co-workers and faculty members — who made a difference. Those individuals showed him “what it means to be a good person and how to model that day-in and day-out.
“The thought of starting a nonprofit came to me because of the people that I met at Cal Poly. I am who I am today because of the guidance that my friends and colleagues have provided over these past four years. They’ve been there to tell me what I am doing right, and they have also been there to tell them what I am doing wrong.”
So, he leaves the university hopeful about the future and of being an agent for positive change. Will working at Apple “make the world better than what it was yesterday”?
“This may just be the first step of many,” he said. “I am a huge believer that everything happens for a reason. So being at Apple might lead me to meet someone that will open the next door that will take me a step closer to accomplishing these other goals.
“People say life is short, but you can accomplish much in that short life. Cal Poly taught me not to worry too much about the future and to trust that every decision I make from here on out will be the best decision to make me reach my goals.”