From jail, teen pregnancy and poverty to Cal Poly graduates: How 6 students made it

These six outstanding graduates of Cal Poly SLO 2019 are, from top left to bottom right, Mia Alexander, Antonio Aguilar Gomez, Aubree Charlesworth, James Carlson, Sherry Saroufeem, and Jorge Valdez.
These six outstanding graduates of Cal Poly SLO 2019 are, from top left to bottom right, Mia Alexander, Antonio Aguilar Gomez, Aubree Charlesworth, James Carlson, Sherry Saroufeem, and Jorge Valdez. Courtesy of Cal Poly

Each of the more than 5,100 Cal Poly students to graduate in 2019 overcame person challenges in their educational careers.

The San Luis Obispo university has recognized six graduates as outstanding for both their perseverance through difficult challenges and their unique journeys to success.

Here, they share thoughts on their past, their path and their future.

She overcame drug addition to counsel others

Mia Alexander, College of Liberal Arts


Cal Poly calls her the comeback kid of the Class of 2019.

When Mia Alexander was the age of most of her classmates, she was working toward her GED while serving a four-year term in state prison. Drug addiction had fueled a life that spiraled out of control.

After nearly two decades in and out of jail, she set her sights on something more.

“When I got out I went into sober living and started getting clean,” Alexander 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.”

With the help of county support services, the criminal justice system, her family, mentors and many professors, she received an associate degree in 2017. She is graduating from Cal Poly as a sociology major with a concentration in social work and a minor in ethnic studies.

“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,” Alexander said.

She plans to work as a drug and alcohol counselor before going to graduate school. But first, she will travel internationally for the first time to celebrate her accomplishments toward a brighter future.

Mia Alexander, a former parolee who benefited from Restorative Partners' "re-entry" services, is now graduating with honors from Cal Poly after an early life of finding herself on the wrong side of the law.

Balancing work and family to become a geologist

James Carlson, College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences


After attending Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria, James Carlson balanced 20-unit quarters, two part-time jobs, a daily commute from Guadalupe and a young daughter who was born just months before he enrolled into Cal Poly two years ago.

“There were plenty of days, even into the last few weeks of college, when I just wanted to give up,” Carlson said. “But knowing I had a little girl depending on me at home was more than enough motivation to keep on going.”

He achieved more than a degree.

Carlson was awarded a Frost Research Fellowship and collaborated with U.S. Geological Survey officials on a project to conduct geophysical surveys in Los Alamos to help create a groundwater flow model there. Now, they’re incorporating his model into their own.

In July, Carlson will take his fiancé and their daughter to the high mountains of the Eastern Sierra before he starts work as a staff geologist at Cleath-Harris Geologists. Then, in August, he’s getting married.

Teen mom is on her way to becoming a principal

Aubree Charlesworth, College of Science and Mathematics


At 14 years old, Aubree Charlesworth wanted to quit school.

She no longer enjoyed learning and wanted to get out after being bullied by classmates. She tested out at 16 and starting half-heartedly taking classes at Cuesta College.

Everything changed when Charlesworth became a single mother at 19 and quickly realized “it was up to me to create a better life for myself and my son.”

This year, she completes the second stage of her three-stage goal at Cal Poly: receiving her teaching credential. She earned a bachelor’s degree in 2018, graduating magna cum laude.

In September, she’ll begin graduate studies in Cal Poly’s Educational Leadership and Administration Program with the goal of becoming a principal.

“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,” Charlesworth said. “Luckily, I had the support of my wonderful parents who were always willing to help.”

She was able to enroll her son in the ASI Children’s Center on campus, where she could visit him during the day.

“School can be hard and frustrating,” Charlesworth said. “But the feeling when you’re done will outshine all of those hard moments. If I can do it, anyone can.”

A Dreamer launches into software engineering

Antonio Aguilar Gomez, College of Engineering


Antonio Gomez was given six months to live due to a heart disease when he was born in Tepic in Nayarit, Mexico, to a hard-working family with little formal education.

With the right support and personal perseverance, he’s created a new life for himself and his family.

“I came from a migrant, low-income family where no one in my family’s lineage had ever pursued higher education,” Gomez 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,” he added, “I’ve catapulted not only my life but my family’s tree exponentially forward.”

Gomez would not have been able to attend the university without four years of financial support and resources of Cal Poly Scholars, a program that recruits high-achieving, low-income students from California and works to retain them at Cal Poly.

His achievements were also possible, he said, because of the support offered through the cultural organizations on campus such as Movimiento Estudiantil Xicanx de Aztlán and the Dream Center — a facility that supports the development and success of undocumented students — which he helped create.

“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.”

From Egypt to Californian construction management

Sherry Saroufeem, College of Architecture and Environmental Design


Sherry Saroufeem’s mom calls her “a doer,” which is why the “Learn By Doing” motto of Cal Poly is a perfect fit.

From the moment she stepped onto campus for orientation — half-way around the world from her home in Cairo, Egypt — Saroufeem took on leadership roles.

She’s been a leader for Week of Welcome (WOW), the president of the campus chapter of Associated Students of Construction Management, and a volunteer with a Habitat for Humanity Global Village project, where she helped build houses in India.

“I wanted the capstone of my college educational experience to reflect a hands-on approach,” Saroufeem 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.”

This year, Saroufeem captained a team that won the Associated Schools of Construction regional competition that gave them just one day to estimate project costs, materials needed and a schedule of work necessary to complete a real-world construction project.

All of that helped land her a new job as a field engineer for Sundt Construction Inc., one of the country’s largest general contractors.

First-generation college student lands job at Apple

Jorge Valdez, Orfalea College of Business


Jorge Valdez is the first of his family to attend college, but graduation is nowhere near the end of his aspirational goals. Instead, he plans to retire by the age of 35 and start a nonprofit organization.

“People say life is short, but you can accomplish much in that short life,” Valdez said. “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.”

On campus, Valdez was a peer-assisted learning supporter for the Multicultural Business Program, a WOW leader, and a Cal Poly Athletics event staffer.

His biggest accomplishment, he said, was helping to organize the Leadership Beyond the Resume Conference, which gave participants better leadership skills in diversity and inclusivity.

“There’s no doubt that Cal Poly has been battling this issue,” Valdez said, “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.”

The business administration major will begin his career in September as a finance associate with Apple, Inc.

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Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: