How 2 Cal Poly grads overcame challenges and became trailblazers

Left, Daniel Guthrie dropped out of high school and served in combat missions in Iraq before majoring in kinesiology. Right, Braxton Cullors, an aerospace engineering student, is the only African-American woman in her program. Both Cal Poly students are graduating this weekend.
Left, Daniel Guthrie dropped out of high school and served in combat missions in Iraq before majoring in kinesiology. Right, Braxton Cullors, an aerospace engineering student, is the only African-American woman in her program. Both Cal Poly students are graduating this weekend.

As Cal Poly students get ready to celebrate their graduations Saturday and Sunday, two among them stand out for their commitment to earning a degree while overcoming challenges that many of their fellow students have never experienced.

Daniel Guthrie, 31, a native of Missouri, was a high school dropout who served dangerous combat missions in Iraq, fighting alongside friends who died. He earned a Bronze Star for his role in preventing three insurgents from planting roadside bombs.

After six years of service, including two deployments in Iraq and a three-year private security detail there, Guthrie is receiving his degree in kinesiology at Cal Poly after completing his associate’s degree at a Monterey County community college.

“I hadn’t really been a student since I was a sophomore in high school,” Guthrie said. “But I wanted to broaden my understanding and my perspective. Cal Poly was fun and energetic, and it fosters an environment where you can find your way and find a job.”

Another Cal Poly student who persevered to graduation is Braxton Cullors.

4,200 Number of Cal Poly graduates in 2016

The 22-year-old student from Palmdale is the first in her family to graduate from college, majoring in aerospace engineering.

She said she initially struggled at Cal Poly, feeling “isolated” as the program’s only female African-American student.

“I was a double minority, an African American and a woman,” Cullors said. “For the first few quarters, I felt so alone, and I even struggled academically, which I had never done before.”

Both are among 4,200 students who will celebrate the culmination of their college experiences this week.

Ceremonies will take place Saturday and Sunday on campus. The keynote speakers will be former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and Margaret Fortune, the leader of a network of charter schools in Northern and Southern California helping students from disadvantaged families attend college.

Surviving the war and making a life change

Guthrie acknowledges that he’s lucky to be alive.

Some of his closest friends in the military were killed. Others suffered traumatic brain injuries and severe wounds from shrapnel.

During his 27 months in Iraq in 2004-2005 and then in 2007-2008, bullets went whistling by his head and he vividly recalls the ear-piercing sounds of gunfire and bombs, which has left him with tinnitus, a slight ringing in the ears. Guthrie was a U.S. Army infantryman who rose to the rank of E-5 sergeant.

“War is an emotional marathon,” Guthrie said. “You go through phases of nervousness, huge stress, and to moments where you just don’t care anymore what happens. I was horrifically lucky.”

He served in hot spots such as a Fallujah and Sadr City, operating machine guns and conducting reconnaissance. Guthrie saw vehicles destroyed by improvised explosive devices and the decapitated bodies of suicide bombers, their severed heads still intact.

I can see why some people just give up in school. The main thing is to just keep at it. I’m glad I went the route that I did.

Daniel Guthrie, 2016 Cal Poly kinesiology graduate and Iraq war veteran

Once during a night mission in March 2008 in Sadr City, Guthrie spotted three men giving the appearance of setting up a roadside bomb. One man was standing guard with a machine gun while another cleared dirt. A third held a large object that appeared to be a bomb.

From 894 meters away, Guthrie opened fire, not knowing if he’d hit anyone. Later, he learned he’d successfully targeted all three and indeed thwarted an effort to plant an explosive, earning a Bronze Star with valor.

Guthrie is quick to note that “95 to 99 percent of Iraqis are peaceful people who just want the best for their kids and families.”

He played video games with children, whose homes he and fellow soldiers occupied to monitor intersections or to follow suspected terrorists from afar. Through translators or limited English, they conversed and had mostly pleasant interactions, despite taking over people’s homes.

“Everybody there asked me if I was from Texas,” Guthrie said. “I said ‘no,’ but close — Missouri. They mostly knew of Texas, New York and California. Most people were very cool about us being in their homes.”

He said he wasn’t in the know about the political motivations behind the decisions being made in the war, Guthrie said. He carried out the actions he was told to follow.

After finishing his service and working for three years with a private security firm, escorting high-level politicians and prominent members of the media, including broadcast journalist Ted Koppel, Guthrie decided it was time for a change.

“I thought I might do this kind of work for the rest of my life, but I missed things back home — the barbecues, the get-togethers, watching sports with friends,” Guthrie said.

War is an emotional marathon ... I was horrifically lucky.

Daniel Guthrie, 2016 Cal Poly kinesiology graduate and Iraq war veteran

At Cal Poly, Guthrie said he was the older student in classes. He threw himself into learning about exercise, nutrition, physiology and anatomy.

“Not more than a few people I ever knew had bachelor’s degrees let alone master’s degrees in the military,” Guthrie said. “And here a Ph.D. is no big deal. I’m so impressed with the teachers and how they’re able to make a subject like neuroscience interesting.”

Guthrie will move on to a highly regarded physical therapy program at Washington University in St. Louis, driving half the distance of the country with his girlfriend to settle into an apartment in the city about 20 miles from his hometown. He’s interested in using technology, including apps, to improve people’s motion and posture through physical therapy.

He said an important hurdle, however, with going back to school was “just sticking with it.”

“I can see why some people just give up in school,” Guthrie said. “The main thing is to just keep at it. I’m glad I went the route that I did.”

A Cal Poly trailblazer

Cullors said her first few quarters at Cal Poly were challenging.

She had long been interested in aerospace engineering, having won a bottle rocket contest hosted by Lockheed Martin while in Girl Scouts. A few years later, she attended a robotics workshop at NASA and then the Space Academy going into ninth grade.

But Cal Poly was a new world for her, especially in her major, which is mostly made up of white males on a campus that’s predominantly white. Cal Poly’s campus is made up of about 53 percent men, about 57 percent of whom are white, according to the fall 2015 campus Fact Book.

In the College of Engineering, less than 1 percent of the college’s 5,692 students are black; that’s just 42 students. The aerospace engineering department enrolled 460 students.

“There was a lot of misunderstanding,” Cullors said. “Some assumed I was on a sports team on a scholarship. I heard about seven times when I told people that I was an aerospace engineering major the surprised response of ‘no, you can’t be an aerospace engineer.’ Why can’t I?”

She said some of her classmates had experienced limited interaction with black people in their lives and didn’t quite know how to act around her.

“I was almost like an alien at times,” Cullors said. “I just want to be treated like everyone else. I’m not any different than anybody else.”

Cullors had a 4.3 GPA in high school but didn’t have some of the educational foundation others had, such as some Advanced Placement classes.

“My school didn’t offer AP physics and so I took regular physics, but I wasn’t as prepared as other students in my program,” she said.

It wasn’t until Cullors connected with Cal Poly’s Multicultural Engineering Program and the National Society of Black Engineers on campus that she started to feel the support and gain the comfort level that helped her through her education at Cal Poly.

I chose Cal Poly because of its space program. Unless aerospace was leaving, I wasn’t leaving.

Braxton Cullors, 2016 Cal Poly aerospace engineering graduate

She was offered a tutor in physics and attended a conference in Pittsburgh with the National Society of Black Engineers where she met other minority students with the same goals she had to work in an engineering field with a prominent company or organization.

“I had a lot of professional support,” Cullors said. “Even the little things like how to dress and how to give elevator pitches while trying to get a job, or get an internship. I wasn’t used to seeing a lot of minorities at Cal Poly or women of color.”

Her experiences in the clubs at Cal Poly, which offered her national conference experiences, helped me “culturally, emotionally and professionally and academically.”

She interned at NASA the summer after her freshman year and enjoyed the experience.

She’s moving on to a job as a flight test engineer at Boeing in Seattle after graduation, where she has also interned. She acknowledges that Cal Poly can be difficult for a minority student, particularly someone who’s relatively shy.

“I chose Cal Poly because of its space program,” Cullors said. “Unless aerospace was leaving, I wasn’t leaving.”

If you go: Graduations at Cal Poly

The Cal Poly graduation for the Colleges of Engineering and Architecture and Environmental Design will be at 9 a.m. Saturday.

The ceremony for the Colleges of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences and Science and Mathematics will be at 4 p.m. Sunday.

The College of Liberal Arts and the Orfalea College of Business will hold graduations at 9 a.m. Sunday. Each of the ceremonies takes place in Alex G. Spanos Stadium on campus.