Only two long years ago, Cal Poly Pomona hyped the 2019 commencement as expected: diplomas in hands and happy smiles on faces, mortarboards in the air.
But COVID-19 grinded pomp and circumstance to a halt in 2020. Graduates made their own fanfare — more bubbled and less bubbly, more distant and hardly social.
With that pandemic sendoff, they entered one of the most uncertain job markets in history.
“The Class of 2020 had to figure it out for ourselves in an insane time when our professors were learning how to Zoom along with us,” says Taylor Wood (’20, communication), an account manager for a social media marketing firm in San Diego. “We never got the final goodbye that a lot of students get. We are definitely resourceful and resilient, for sure.”
The following stories tell of five graduates who leveraged experiential learning, discovery and innovation to advance in their careers. They embraced local and global challenges posed by the pandemic and in the process, are transforming lives — including their own.
By His Estimate
Gebre Bruce (’20, construction engineering technology) could not have predicted his path through Cal Poly Pomona into an engineering career. A worldwide pandemic was not even his toughest obstacle to becoming an estimator and field engineer for PCL Construction, one of the nation’s largest general contractors.
Bruce, 26, grew up in Fontana with a deep curiosity, always wondering how buildings stayed up. At Cal Poly Pomona he had to dig deep for eight years to gain the foundation he needed as an engineer.
After retaking several core classes, academic probation and leaving school for financial and personal reasons, Bruce watched as his two closest friends graduated in 2018. He had to finish without their presence, and battled doubt and depression.
“It was a dark time,” Bruce says.
That’s when he discovered his fortitude.
With help from engineering advising coordinator Monica C. Kays, Bruce dropped his civil engineering major and switched to construction engineering technology, which equips him to help build structures as part of the team on the ground; a civil engineer goes through the licensing process and has responsibility for part of the building’s structural integrity. Networking with the National Society of Black Engineers, Bruce secured an internship with PCL and made a positive impression on a big project at LAX. With the pandemic looming his senior year, PCL made him a job offer contingent on graduation.
“I was that much more determined to finish because I knew that was waiting for me. It’s one thing to say you’re going to make it and another to get an engineering job,” he says, thanking his mother and girlfriend for their support as well. “I am counting my blessings.”
Bruce returned to campus for graduation photos in his PCL polo shirt. The joy hid the disappointment. At Cal Poly Pomona and many universities, Black graduates usually gather at a special ceremony that features drums and singing.
“That hurt a lot,” Bruce says.
It’s our people and our culture and our music. I’ve always gone each year, and once you become part of the community, you see that all of the Black graduates are close.
As an estimator, Bruce mostly works an 8-hour shift at a desk. As a field engineer, he could be pulled into a project at any time. Graduating during the pandemic has changed uncertainty into adrenalin for him.
“I am living in the moment, knowing I have got to keep striving,” he says.
“I have plans, and this is what I’ve worked for, and now we are making plans for the future come true. I’m taking it step by step, staying faithful and praying, and seeing things keep working out.”
Just Another Hill
When his Cal Poly Pomona diploma arrived by mail, Zachary Winkle (’20, business administration) called it “a checkpoint on an endless journey.” Too practical for sentimentality, he was also too busy looking for a job in finance.
Well before COVID-19, Winkle was catching up to his peers in finance. As a business administration major, his first focus had been management, until he discovered in his second year that money was a language he loved decoding.
To Winkle, money represents peace of mind and hard work. He worked up to three jobs at one time as an undergraduate. “I say yes and make it work,” he says. When he switched to finance, he put this motto of his to work: “If I want to do it, I find the way.”
Winkle grew up in the Via Verde neighborhood, just over a mountain from Cal Poly Pomona. The distance looks short on a map but is hard to cross, similar to his path in finance.
He attacked the experience gap with the determination of a Los Angeles County bicycle commuter (which he has been for years, pedaling a second-hand bike in 115-degree summer heat). Winkle spent so much time in the Financial Markets Lab that he became friends with the custodial services staff.
As head of economic analysis for the Student Managed Investment Fund, he helped manage more than $300,000 in assets. He was a member of Cal Poly Pomona’s first winner of the CFA Society of Orange County competition for student managed investment fund teams.
For his graduation in December 2020, Winkle gave a Zoom speech as the College of Business Administration valedictorian; he was also a McPhee Scholar and 2020 Finance, Real Estate, and Law Department Student of the Year. His technical skills included equity valuation, portfolio management, financial statement analysis, regression analysis and economic forecasting.
But 2020 was one of the toughest job markets for finance, and Winkle received more than 50 rejections. His childhood best friend Alexander Hickle (’21, marketing) delivered support.
“Stopping isn’t going to change a single thing,” Winkle says. “If you stop pedaling, you could be in the middle of a hill, so you might as well continue the journey.”
In late 2020, a faculty advisor connected Winkle to Acuity Advisors, a boutique investment banking firm and financial valuation advisory service in Irvine. Winkle’s first day as a financial analyst, Jan. 6,, was momentous. The work has validated Winkle’s unwavering belief that he belongs.
“In finance, you have to think critically and put numbers into a story that makes sense,” he says. “You have to have that, and incredible passion.”
Time for a Two-Step
Patience. It’s what you need to work with little kids, and Brianna Izabal (’20, early childhood studies) has lots of it.
The first-generation graduate drew upon it to persist for six years to earn her Cal Poly Pomona degree. Today, she still relies on patience as she continues her education to do more targeted work with children.
While student teaching as an undergraduate, Izabal had encountered some students whose life experiences had made learning difficult, and she knew she lacked specialized therapy skills needed to connect with them. The trauma of the pandemic affirmed her desire to reach students as a play-based therapist and resolve problems so they can learn.
“Cal Poly Pomona changed my mindset,” she says. “I was going to be an elementary school teacher, and from the first semester, my professors pushed me. I was awarded Outstanding Future Teacher twice, but when the pandemic hit, I had some doubt. I realized that child psychology would allow me to help children who had gone through so much trauma and overcome issues.”
Izabal lives in Corona, works at a medical staffing company and is pursuing a master’s degree in child psychology at Azusa Pacific University. For now, she literally keeps two feet in early childhood education by teaching dance weekly to preschoolers.
It’s not the scenario she expected when she transferred to Cal Poly Pomona from El Camino College. Neither was her commencement.
As an office assistant for the early childhood studies program, Izabal helped prepare an elaborate farewell for the Class of 2019. COVID-19 canceled that for the Class of 2020. In place of the usual fanfare, Izabal helped create stoles and digital yearbooks distributed at a drive-thru ceremony in the campus parking structure.
“It was a sad time because I didn’t feel like I graduated,” she says. “I felt like it wasn’t over even though it was.”
The bright side? “Even though I didn’t expect the pandemic to last that long, I was able to do other things.”
Her proficiency with Zoom will prove helpful for future therapy work conducted on telehealth platforms. Her work with mentor Assistant Professor Giselle Navarro-Cruz included the development of Cal Poly Pomona Kids Activities and Resources for Educational Support (CPP KARES). The online resource provides Southern California parents/caregivers with at-home educational activities for children up to age 12.
The pandemic shuffle has taught Izabal the importance of working patiently and putting aside her needs to achieve the larger goal of providing young children what is essential.
“Figure out what they need first,” she says. “That goes with being a teacher, a parent and a caregiver. It’s a lovely world to enter. Working with kids is definitely my calling.”
A Sudden Hindsight
Taylor Wood (’20, communication) took a popular event planning class in spring 2020 that unexpectedly taught her resilience.
The class set up a real-time communicators event (COM Day 2020) and made T-shirts with their chosen theme: Hindsight in 2020. As operations chair, Wood booked the venue.
The class posed in their shirts to market the event. That day, they found out COM Day 2020 would have to be staged online.
When the virtual conference was interrupted by uninvited guests, Wood learned a new term: Zoom-bombing.
“That was a rude awakening,” Wood says. “Our intention was to present what the field of communication looked like 50 years ago when our department was created, how it looks now and what it will look like 50 years from now.”
Looking back, this first-generation graduate can see how the pandemic whiplash demanded resilience, which she needed for subsequent job hunting. Particularly crushing were four interviews for an internship that she didn’t get.
“It was a difficult May to July 2020,” she says. “My headspace was very negative and I was thinking about applying for unemployment.”
One of her final projects in college was to design a social media campaign for a local business. She also had enjoyed working as a student assistant in 2018 in the Office of Admission and Enrollment Planning, where she had helped the Cal Poly Pomona social media team. Her experiences finally caught the eye of a business that needed her help.
Social Supply, a marketing company in her hometown of San Diego, called. It needed a communication engagement associate to help with social media for cool clients like Igloo, Guayaki Yerba Mate and restaurant chains.
Social Supply helps brands bounce back from the pandemic (and even bankruptcy), and values Wood’s fresh insights and experience. Wood had served as president of the Public Relations Student Society of America at Cal Poly Pomona and as a social media intern for a local restaurant supply company near campus.
“A brand needs to be transparent,” Wood says of what she’s learned. “You have to have a great feed and great content to interact with people. Being human and connecting with them deeper than an ad is something that we are continuing trying to learn ourselves. The surface-level social media post is boring at this point; you have to make something memorable that people care about.”
Speaking of memorable, the communication department staff and faculty, including event planning instructor Jennifer Mahlke, put on a meaningful virtual graduation celebration “that gave us a little bit of closure,” Wood says.
“After such an abrupt closure to the semester, just having the sense of togetherness was important before going out into the great unknown.”
A Whole New World
Justin Fong (’19, visual communication design) was trying to make real progress working in the imaginary landscape of Disney when the pandemic made his quest even more surreal.
He was barely into a year-long internship at Disney, a high-pressure chance to prove himself worthy of a full-time job at “the world’s premier entertainment company.” He had listened to the valuable advice of Cal Poly Pomona alumni at Disney: “It’s important for your passions and goals to shine through your work. Your resume and portfolio should immediately convey what you love to do and who you are as a person.”
“I’ve always been such a Disney fan,” says Fong who has had an annual park pass his entire life. “I’ve always wanted to create that long-lasting experience for people by joining the team of magic makers. A couple of family members worked at Disneyland, and I wanted a story of my own.”
His Disney opportunity dimmed when the pandemic closed the global theme parks and theaters. He suddenly abandoned his commute to Glendale and desk display of popcorn buckets collected from Disney parks around the world. Hi ho, off to work at home he’d go. No whistling though; his family of four all worked quietly under the same roof.
The mission for his Disney team, and for Fong as an intern, remained: to entertain, inform and inspire people through the power of unparalleled storytelling, reflecting the iconic brands, creative minds and innovative technologies that make Disney Disney.
“It was challenging during COVID to keep brand engagement up,” Fong says. “It was now more important than ever to help bridge the gap for all of our wonderful Disney fans around the world. It was our job to help get them excited about upcoming Disney+ releases, park updates and our amazing characters.”
Marketing content is created well in advance of a premiere, so Fong’s team prepared social posts noting that unmasked stars were interviewed prior to COVID-19.
Fong’s creative team sometimes had to let it go. They could not film Disney actors in person, so they switched to virtual interviews.
“We capitalized as best we could and I’m proud of our work,” he says. “It was a lot easier getting stars on Zoom than the red carpet.”
In early 2021, that work was rewarded when Fong secured a full-time position on the content marketing team under the Disney Media and Entertainment Distribution segment of the company. To get his Disney internship, he had faced four rounds of interviews and gone the distance. To get his full-time Disney employment during a pandemic, he dug a little deeper.
Fong relates to the main character Tiana in Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog.”
“Her hard work and dedication to open her restaurant was truly inspirational,” Fong says. “My story and experiences at Disney were definitely similar to her narrative throughout the film.”