Alumni Professors Back with a Passion
"I walked these halls as an uncertain undergrad," remembers Jack Fong. "I thought I'd be a 9-to-5 worker in the corporate world."
A 1992 communications alumnus, Fong was unsure of his future through most of college. Never did he imagine that he would become a professor at Cal Poly Pomona 15 years later. In the final quarter of his senior year, Fong took an elective urban sociology class around the time of the Los Angeles riots. A week after it ended, sociology Professor Gary Cretser lectured on-site in South Los Angeles.
"He blew my mind," Fong says. "He taught us the ability to read society. We saw the National Guard troops and the burned-down buildings. Within that one field trip, I knew I was destined to go into sociology."
With a newfound sense of purpose, he pursued a doctoral degree in sociology at UC Santa Cruz, taught at Long Beach State and eventually made his way back to Cal Poly Pomona.
Fong is one of about 80 alumni who are faculty members on campus. Although the people and buildings have changed from when they were students, alumni professors pass on memories of their college years and a passion for what they do.
Fong brings a new world view to the Department of Psychology & Sociology, especially with his research into Burma and Thailand. A dedicated scholar, he has written a book about his time in the jungles of Burma spent with anti-government rebels and human rights groups and has published three peer-reviewed articles. As a teacher, Fong understands the students, the campus and the climate. He identifies with those who have yet to find their calling.
"I tell students not to worry about being a late bloomer or about the unknown," he says. "When they find something to become passionately involved with, people will see that passion creates quality work, and they will want to work with you."
"When I came back to Cal Poly Pomona , I was teaching students just like me," says ethnic and women's studies Professor Gilbert Cadena, who returned in 1995.
It was an exciting time -- the student population was growing more diverse, the cultural centers had just been established and he was charged with developing a major in gender, ethnicity and multicultural studies. Like him, many of his students were the first in their families to attend college and wanted to improve the quality of life of their families and communities.
"At Cal Poly Pomona, diversity is our strength. You have to work across borders, learn to work with others, learn from others and engage with others."
When he was an undergraduate, Cadena passionately supported social and cultural causes. Hoping to become a community organizer after college, he participated in student government, helped lead two Latino student groups, organized community outreach services for Pomona youth, promoted affirmative action and supported United Farm Workers campaigns.
After postdoctoral studies at UC Berkeley and Stanford and teaching at Pomona College, Cadena continued his community activism at Cal Poly Pomona and also involved his students. Not only did he help expand the Department of Ethnic & Women's Studies, he started the Dia de Los Muertos celebration on campus, which recently marked its 15th anniversary. In one of his classes, students volunteer at one of 10 sites in Pomona, such as the Boys & Girls Club and American Red Cross.
"I've always been able to link my actions on campus with scholarly activities," Cadena says. "I want to give students the opportunity to learn about the issues that affect Southern California and contribute to the empowerment of our local community."
"The university didn't stay still. So much has improved," says biological sciences Assistant Professor Steve Alas. "In the 11 years after I left, the university evolved in a way you would hope it would."
When he returned in 2005, Alas discovered a transformed landscape in biological sciences -- a greater emphasis on research, the newly constructed biotechnology building, an expanded graduate program and a well-developed biotechnology major. Just as his professors prepared him, Alas was ready to help students succeed in their education and career.
As a faculty advisor for the Science Educational Enhancement Services (SEES) program, he mentors about 40 students a year, helping with curriculum and career planning. The program supports math and science majors with academic advising, tutoring and mentoring. Alas also recruits a few for his cancer and inflammation research teams.
A SEES success story himself, Alas credits the program's then-director, Paul Hiemenz, who has since retired, for his success. Hiemenz helped Alas attain a biomedical research internship at UC Riverside, which was instrumental in his acceptance into UCLA's graduate program in microbiology, immunology and molecular genetics.
"Working at UC Riverside really helped improve my profile and my skills," Alas says. "I look at all my friends and what we did, and I'm not sure we could have achieved all we did without the SEES program. When it came time to apply for graduate school, I remember we got into every program."
"I had a good time here. I really loved the faculty. They knew who you were, they engaged the students, and that's how I found my passion for the industry -- it's because my professors had a passion," says Lesley Butler, a 1990 Collins College alumna.
For the past 17 years, Butler has been teaching and supervising students who run the dinner service at The Restaurant at Kellogg Ranch. Although the venue is different (Collins students worked out of Kellogg West in the late '80s), she understands how to prepare them for success. She draws from her experience in management, opening restaurants and training new managers, to help students understand how theories translate into real-world settings.
Butler teaches by example, which requires her to step back. Instead of lecturing about leadership or assuming the role of restaurant manager, she lets students work out their own issues, mentor each other and learn from the experience.
"I have the challenge of not being the doer of those tasks, not being the leader," she says. "They have to actually manage the restaurant. I have to get them ready and put them into a leadership position to be successful."
What she can show them is her enthusiasm for the restaurant business and the best ways to provide excellent service to guests. That's something she learned as a student from her own professors.
"I can't make students have a passion for serving the public. That comes from within them, and the majority of the students have that people-pleasing mentality," Butler says. "What they can learn from me is how to be successful, how to be a leader in this industry."
"I had no aspirations whatsoever to become a teacher," says architecture Professor Kip Dickson.
Throughout his life, Dickson wanted to become an architect. As an undergraduate, going to Cal Poly Pomona was "like finding home," he says. The professors and coursework challenged him to think deeply about architecture, and he found homework to be a passion instead of a chore. As he developed a strong rapport with his teachers, he knew they valued him and what he had to say.
After graduating in 1983, he continued his studies at Harvard University, becoming the first from Cal Poly Pomona to attend its architecture graduate program. Two years later, Dickson began working at a corporate design firm in Los Angeles. That summer, he was asked to teach a class at Cal Poly Pomona in the fall. Although he was working full time, Dickson didn't hesitate.
"I felt like I had to put something back into the system. I felt fortunate for the opportunities I had been given, and it was worthwhile to attempt to put something back in."
Over the years, his commitment to teaching grew, from one class per quarter to two classes to full time to earning tenure. At one point, he had a full teaching load and worked for two architecture firms, one of which he co-founded.
As professor and coordinator of the graduate architecture program, Dickson is honest, even blunt with students. "I joke with them that we're kind of the Ikea of architecture schools. We're the real thing, but a lot of self-assembly is involved to make this work for the price. We're here to take care of you, but I'm not going to put on any airs."
He's most proud when alumni call to update him on their careers, projects and clients. It reinforces the university's sense of place and purpose.
"The fact that they're doing well makes you satisfied that you're providing something for them. By and large, the faculty don't see this as a job. I think they see it as part of their purpose."