Building Community

Alumni Find Opportunities to Connect and Support One Another During COVID-19
by Esther Chou Tanaka

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly spent 340 consecutive days in relative isolation on the International Space Station. That’s countless meals with no witty banter across the table and sleeping just steps, as opposed to miles, away from where he worked.

How did he adjust to that much time in his own company?

Kelly shared a few tips from his experience to help us comply with the shelter-in-place orders: follow a schedule, go outside, find a hobby, take time to connect with others. Essentially, keep doing the activities you would normally do — with some adjustments.

“The spread of the coronavirus is showing us that what we share is much more powerful than what keeps us apart, for better or for worse. All people are inescapably interconnected, and the more we can come together to solve our problems, the better off we will all be,” he writes in an op-ed for the New York Times.

While sheltering at home is far different from living in isolation in space, Cal Poly Pomona Broncos are also finding creative ways to connect and support one another.

Likewise, many alumni activities have found new venues online. Bronco alumni are networking in the evenings, supporting students who are launching their careers, and volunteering their time to help in their college. Here are a few examples of alumni engagement during the pandemic.

Professor for a Day Goes Virtual

Professor Margie Jones was one of Megan Markham’s favorite faculty members when she was a hospitality student. It didn’t take much for Markham to agree to be a guest lecturer in one of Jones’ classes.

Megan Markham“Margie’s awesome and I would do anything for her,” says Markham (’16, hospitality management), an account manager at Southern Glazer’s Wine & Spirits. “I’ve continued a relationship with her too because she’s in the wine world.”

Traditionally in Professor for a Day, alumni come to campus and give presentations on their career path. After the stay-at-home orders were issued, Markham was the first alumna to participate in the virtual program.

Speaking to about 20 students over Zoom in April, she talked about her role in ensuring that Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits products are in Albertsons, Vons and Pavilions. One student even followed up with her over email, which Markham happily responded to.

“When I was a student, I enjoyed having our guest speakers. You can learn everything all day in a book. But to have somebody share their experience and have them talk to you about what they’ve gone through in real life was really something I took when I was at Cal Poly Pomona,” she says.

The virtual experience felt a little different at first, but it was enjoyable, Markham says. In her industry, where personal connections are so meaningful, she recommends making time for formal and informal interactions, even if they occur over a computer screen.

You don’t have to connect in person. You can connect on LinkedIn. But still, make sure you’re putting yourself out there and getting that experience.

The Human Connection


DJ NormanDJ Norman, president of the College of Business Administration chapter of the Cal Poly Pomona Alumni Association, has long been an advocate for mentoring and recently helped re-launch the Bronco Mentoring Program to connect CPP mentors and mentees. It’s an opportunity for students and new grads to find someone more experienced to talk through big decisions, solve complex problems and grow their network.

Norman (’93, management and human resources) likes to tell this one story from when he was a new regional recruitment manager at Home Depot in the early 2000s. He was tasked with announcing a new process to store leaders. Keen on making a good impression, Norman wrote a polished first draft that demonstrated his education and experience as a business consultant.

“He kind of sat back and laughed,” Norman recalls when he shared the draft with his supervisor and mentor. “He asked me, ‘Who are you writing this for? Do you know who the leaders in the stores are?’”

Together, they looked into the profiles of the store leaders, and Norman quickly realized that using business consultant lingo wouldn’t reach his audience, who have firsthand sales experience but probably not an MBA. His mentor also encouraged him to go out to the stores and meet the managers before starting the second draft.

“That was a very worthwhile experience, very humbling experience. Sometimes you have to tone it down and change directions,” says Norman, who still keeps in touch with his mentor. Norman is currently the director of professional recruitment, parks & resorts for the Walt Disney Company.

Mentors can provide perspective, open doors to new opportunities, and share models of how to approach and solve complex problems. They can also find great personal fulfillment in helping another person move forward in their life.

“When you can help someone feel at ease about the decisions they’re making – big decisions that can last a lifetime – and they trust you. There’s this bond of trust that’s created, and you can’t take it for granted because it doesn’t always happen. It’s an opportunity.”

Summer Workshops

Where Credit Is Due

Each spring, the College of Business Administration hosts CBARN (CBA Recognition Night) to recognize student, faculty and club achievements. Since the celebration couldn’t take place in the Bronco Student Center, the college moved the party to Zoom. As in years past, business alumni continued to support the event and serve as guest judges of the student club presentations.

Natalie Brizuela-MacLeanAlthough the event changed venues, Natalie Brizuela-MacLean, current vice president of the CBA alumni chapter, never even considered not attending.

“These clubs worked hard throughout the year. CBARN is there to recognize the hard work they do. It was important that we continue that. These students should be rewarded for their efforts,” says Brizuela-MacLean (’15, finance, real estate and law), a contracts manager at The Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Students quickly shifted gears and recorded their presentations in advance and submitted them to the alumni judges. While Brizuela-MacLean missed having the chance to interact with students in person, she gives them kudos for changing their presentations on very short notice.

“They did an outstanding job, and it was all very professional,” she says.

Another reason for attending these virtual events is to continue showing students that alumni are here for them and want to help.

“I’m a first-generation college student and navigating college was not easy. My parents knew you should do college but they didn’t know how to guide me through that process. I had to connect with different mentors to get through,” she says. “Finally, I graduate, I finish, I navigate the system. I can give you that experience of what to expect right out of college, how to get through college. You can learn from the mistakes that I made, and you’ll be further along.”

Highlight What You’re Capable Of

Anastasia Zamora-OrtizWhen California issued shelter-in-place orders, Anastasia Zamora-Ortiz suddenly found herself with a bit more free time. As an educational consultant training people in new technologies, her role was deemed non-essential and she had to suspend all her classes and in-person sessions.

However, this isn’t unfamiliar territory. Zamora-Ortiz (’17, science, technology and society) knows how to use her skillset to find other job opportunities, but she also knows that she’s not alone. Millions of Americans have been laid off, furloughed or dealt with reduced hours as a result of the pandemic.

Now, she’s volunteering her time and using her expertise to help others position themselves to enter or re-enter the workforce. Working with the Latino Professional Alumni Chapter, of which she is a board member, Zamora-Ortiz recently led a webinar on using LinkedIn for launching a career and making connections.

Being a professional Latina, it’s important to me that we connect our students with professional opportunities across the board. That first step is always the hardest, and I know it was the hardest for me,” Anastasia Zamora-Ortiz says. “All of my opportunities came from word of mouth. That’s where your network comes in. I was able to connect with others.

While unemployment news around the country is stark, Zamora-Ortiz and her fellow alumni look for the silver linings. Cal Poly Pomona students and alumni can use this time to update their online profiles and portfolios, highlight what they’re capable of and show that they are open to different opportunities.

She and other LPAC board members hope to offer more webinars to assist Broncos who are entering the workforce for the first time or who may be in career limbo.

“When it comes to the digital world, you still want to be able to put your best foot forward,” she says. “This is a unique situation for everyone, so it’s important to be able to adapt.”