Christina Olivarria (’18, communication), a busy mother of three, has managed to flourish in her career, and she credits her success in no small measure to the strong mentors who coached her along the way.

“My ability to navigate my career so gracefully is thanks to other women who have cheered me on,” says Olivarria, the director of business strategy and communications for a healthcare consulting firm.

Despite her hectic schedule, she didn’t hesitate when the Womxn’s Resource Center at Cal Poly Pomona emailed her in March 2021 about its Pass the Torch mentorship program.

Olivarria readily signed on to advise Ashley Morales Diaz, a senior studying architecture, about internships, scholarships, career paths and life in general. Olivarria and Morales, exemplify the power of having an experienced veteran guide a younger person in need of advice to grow personally and professionally.

At Cal Poly Pomona, such relationships exist in abundance. For half a century, the Cal Poly Pomona Alumni Association has worked to connect alumni willing to share their experience and expertise. The aim is to help students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college, reach for the stars.

Clark Rucker of The Boeing Company talks with students during the College of Engineering mentoring event.

Clark Rucker of The Boeing Company talks with students during the College of Engineering mentoring event.

The association, which has paired hundreds of mentors and mentees, is “deeply committed to educational experiences and supportive services that engage our students, enhance personal well-being and growth, provide career opportunities and foster ethical citizenship,” says Andrea DeCoudres, assistant director of the Office of Alumni and External Relations.

Through its Bronco Mentoring Network and a dedicated online portal, the office enlists alumni volunteers for the Womxn’s Resource Center, academic departments and other entities on campus that seek to promote mentoring.

The benefits clearly move both ways. Mentors derive satisfaction from helping eager protégés. Mentees feel bolstered as they navigate the often-baffling options and obstacles on their path to a career.

Eric Schmidt (’92, aerospace engineering) began his formal connection with Cal Poly Pomona’s mentorship program in 2019 when he joined the Dean’s Leadership Board in the College of Engineering. But Schmidt, president of Exquadrum Inc., an engineering research and development company specializing in rocket technologies in Victorville, says his mentoring work started years earlier — when as a college student he took it upon himself to advise young people in high schools. Since then, he has mentored dozens of students and employees.

Schmidt says many aspiring engineers have posed this question to him: Should I start a master’s program immediately or should I work for a few years first?

His advice: Given the spectrum of career possibilities in engineering, it’s best to work for a while to learn which technical aspect of your career most appeals to you. Then find a master’s program that best fits the chosen “occupational subcategory.”

“Almost without exception,” he says, “the questions and concerns come from younger people whose parents did not go to college or even finish high school.” The parents lack knowledge of college and its opportunities and often do not have the ability to help their children choose a profession or a course of study.

That was the case for Natalie Brizuela-MacLean (’15, business administration), who had to figure things out for herself after growing up in Azusa in an atmosphere of low expectations. After attending community colleges while working full time in the food and beverage industry, she found her groove at Cal Poly Pomona in the field of contract management. She went on to get a master’s degree at George Washington University School of Business and now works for Leach International Corp., based in Buena Park, which makes electrical switches and relays for aerospace and rail companies.

Her aim now that she‘s a mentor, says Brizuela-MacLean, is “to help ‘me,’ the student who was in my position and needed guidance.”

“I want to be the shoulders that they can stand on,” she says of the younger women she has coached.

One fortunate recipient of her guidance has been Minerva Lopez (’21, business administration), who shares her mentor’s love for the field of contract management. Lopez, who was born in Mexico City and grew up in Pomona, struggled financially and socially with her initial college experience at UC Santa Barbara. After several years at community colleges, she landed at Cal Poly Pomona and discovered that she loved her contract management classes.

Brizuela-MacLean, who was a guest speaker in one class, told Lopez about the mentorship program and offered to conduct a mock job interview. They hit it off immediately.

“Natalie worked for NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a number of years, and she gave me a lot of great advice,” Lopez says. Among her tips: Reach out to your network. Tap available resources. Cultivate relationships.

“Natalie is the shining example of someone who can work full-time and still be involved with committees and Cal Poly Pomona mentoring,” Lopez adds. “She started the ball rolling for me.”

Thanks to Brizuela-MacLean and a couple of other mentors, Lopez says, she was able to land a great job within three months of graduation as a senior analyst, contract management, for Acclarent, a medical devices company that is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.

“I’m really thankful for the alumni network at Cal Poly Pomona,” Lopez says. “Without them, it would have been very difficult to navigate my job search. It probably would have taken me longer to find a job.” Olivarria, who works with architects in her job, can barely contain her enthusiasm when she speaks about Morales, her mentee, who works part time at an architecture firm and hopes to attend graduate school in architecture.

“I completely brag about her,” Olivarria says.

“She’s incredibly academically gifted, and she has a podcast called ‘Disrupting Place’ about architectural design and social justice.”

Although most of their mentoring was conducted remotely, the two women met in person twice and have stayed in touch. Morales revels in the benefits.

“Christina has been very supportive of me,” she says. “Just having her on my team has been motivating and reassuring. She goes out and gets what she wants. That’s what I love about her.”

By Martha Groves
Published November 30, 2022