Road to success goes through Cal Poly as more than 4,200 students graduate

Nava Haghighi came to the United States from Iran in 2009 so that she could get a college education.
Nava Haghighi came to the United States from Iran in 2009 so that she could get a college education.

Nava Haghighi left her parents, friends and culture behind in her native Iran in 2009 to pursue a college education, gravitating to architecture.

Jeff Silva became the first in his family to attend a four-year college when he left his hometown of La Habra in Orange County in 2010, ultimately studying industrial engineering.

Both students are among the more than 4,200 Cal Poly students eligible to graduate this weekend. 

“I will really miss the people I’ve met here and worked very closely together with — students and faculty,” Haghighi said. “I’ve made the most amazing friends.”

Two ceremonies were held Saturday, and a third is scheduled for 9 a.m. Sunday, marking the university’s 74th annual commencement ceremonies.

Quest for opportunity

Haghighi, now 24, left Iran when she was 17 to pursue a college education in the United States. As a member of a religious minority in Iran, a standard college education wasn’t available to her because of governmental restrictions.

She immigrated to the Los Angeles area with her grandmother and her sister, who is two years older, and embarked on a path that led her to Cal Poly, where she combined her passion for math and the arts by pursuing an architecture degree — an intensive program that often involves late nights in the studio working on projects.

“It has been extremely hard to leave my country,” Haghighi said. “I’m really, really close to my mom. … But I like the opportunity that you have in the U.S. to get to where you want to go if you work hard. That’s what I enjoy most here.”

Haghighi said she has a strong supporter in her grandmother, who has helped her to stay emotionally resilient while adjusting to a new country. She recently passed her test to become a U.S. citizen.

Her plan after graduation is to backpack though several countries in Southeast Asia, as well as Australia, and then work as an architect in San Francisco or New York before attending graduate school.

While at Cal Poly, Haghighi studied abroad in Switzerland with a class of architecture students and at a firm in Los Angeles before finishing her studies in San Luis Obispo.

“What I’ve liked about Cal Poly is that you get a full understanding of the various aspects of architecture,” Haghighi said. “But nobody’s trying to dictate what you’re supposed to do. I’ve had a very diverse range of projects that have allowed me the chance to explore my ideas.”

Overcoming adversity

For Silva, navigating his way through college came with its bumps as a first-generation college student.

Silva, 23, knew he wanted to try something new. Away from his home environment, he liked the idea of more trees and natural surroundings at Cal Poly.

Though hills exist in his hometown of La Habra, his Orange County community is far more built out with miles of homes and shopping hubs.

Silva liked math and science, and gravitated to aerospace engineering as a major because, “I hate to say it, but it sounded cool.”

But he struggled from the get-go, finding himself on academic probation twice within his first couple of years at Cal Poly.

Silva said he took several advanced placement classes in high school, and school came easy to him then, but all of a sudden, that changed.

“I was thinking of leaving Cal Poly altogether,” Silva said. “An academic counselor, Jackie Duerr, really helped me to work through things, and she was a big reason why I considered staying.”

After discussing his interests and whether another engineering specialization might be a better fit, Silva settled on industrial engineering.

He also found a home with the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, which provided a social and academic support system. Silva became president this year. He has also served as an ambassador for underrepresented students considering Cal Poly.

“I sit with the prospective high school students and answer all their questions,” Silva said. “My goal is to be as honest about what’s it like here as I can.”

Silva said that some students might feel uncomfortable at Cal Poly if they come from a more diverse background, but he chose the university based on its academic offerings and opportunity for his career.

“I can say that finding the club really helped me to find Hispanic students who were driven to better themselves,” Silva said. “They helped plug me into who I’ve become now.”

Within a year and a half, he improved his grade-point average from 2.4 to 2.9.

As he righted his ship academically, Silva participated in community service, an important part of his life even before coming to Cal Poly.

He went to New Orleans multiple times through the Alternative Breaks program, where he participated in neighborhood rebuilding projects and grew fond of the culture and people.

Silva also visited Chicago to conduct volunteer work in low-income communities.

His next step is a new job in Indiana with Schneider Electric, a global company that specializes in electricity distribution and equipment.

“I’ll miss the free time I’ve had in school to dedicate to programs and to be able to work with a variety of organizations here at Cal Poly,” Silva said. “But I look forward to having a little spending money when I start working and to not be so broke.”

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