Nineteen Cal Poly Students to be Honored by Lawmakers at State Capitol on Feb. 12

SAN LUIS OBISPO — Nineteen Cal Poly students will be recognized for their awards and other accomplishments by state lawmakers on the floors of the state Assembly and Senate in Sacramento on Monday, Feb. 12.

“I’m proud to accompany these fine young men and women, a group that includes some of our best and brightest students,” said university President Jeffrey D. Armstrong. “These campus leaders in their respective colleges will share with state representatives the value of the Learn by Doing education. In just a matter of months, several will make the transition from campus to careers, where the skills they developed as students will make them future industry leaders.”

The group will be introduced to the Senate by Majority Leader Bill Monning, D-Carmel, and to the Assembly by Assemblyman Jordan Cunningham, R-San Luis Obispo. Both men represent San Luis Obispo County.

Ceremonies will be held in each chamber Monday afternoon.

The majority of the students call California home — from Chico to San Diego — including Jeremiah Hernandez from the Central Coast. Two others are from outside the Golden State — Colorado and Ohio.

Each has distinguished him- or herself as an individual or on a team that has received a national industry award or in other high-profile events, including the Tournament of Roses Parade, with its worldwide TV audience of 100 million, and the concrete canoe team that won the national championship.

The group also will greet family, friends and alumni at a reception in San Jose on Sunday.

Participating Cal Poly students:

Cara Benson
Folsom, California
Cara Benson is the managing editor of social media for Mustang Media Group’s Mustang News. Last March, the student news organization earned 22 awards — including Best Use of Social Media and eight other first-place awards — from the Associated Collegiate Press and the California College Media Association at the Midwinter National College Media Convention. She also was the runner-up for Best News Video. At the 2017 College Media Business and Advertising Managers conference held later in Texas, she was runner-up for two awards: Best Social Media Strategy and Best Audience Engagement Strategy. The 21-year-old journalism major, who will graduate in June, is seeking a career as a digital marketing strategist in the music industry. She held two prestigious internships last year: At Pop Media Group and Warner Bros. (record label) she created digital content (that reached more than 350,000 followers), brainstormed promotional content and produced digital designs for over a dozen recording artists. She credits her university education. “I knew that Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing mindset would help propel me in journalism with all of the hands-on opportunities.” She is proud to represent Cal Poly to lawmakers and alumni groups. “Growing up in the suburbs of Sacramento, the Capitol was something I visited often,” she said. “Being able to go back to my hometown to represent my school is both humbling and exciting.”

Ian Buchanan
San Diego (Carmel Valley)
Ian Buchanan led Cal Poly’s concrete canoe team to a win at the “America’s Cup of Civil Engineering” — the American Society of Civil Engineers’ 30th annual National Concrete Canoe Competition held last June in Golden, Colo. Seeing his team’s entry “Meraki” — Greek for pouring one’s heart and soul into a project “translated into a major win  was especially uplifting,” said the 23-year-old civil engineering student from San Diego, who will receive his master’s degree in June. It’s tricky business crafting a canoe from scratch, its hull thickness smaller than the width of a dime, and a sleek design that can both float and quickly slice through water, but the team has a legacy. The 2017 competition was the team’s fourth national title since Cal Poly first advanced to the finals in 1998. As project manager, Buchanan oversaw the team’s fundraising, finances, scheduling and material procurement for the yearlong project. He also made oral presentations to judges at the regional qualifier and national competition. He ultimately hopes to become a principal partner in a structural engineering firm. Buchanan said it is an honor to represent Cal Poly and the “team that was able to win our competition” to state lawmakers.

Kristen Cotter
Palos Verdes Estates, California
Kristen Cotter is an award-winning floral designer and a member of Cal Poly’s Floral Design Team that took second in the American Institute of Floral Designer’s 2017 nationwide Student Floral Design Competition held last July in Seattle. The competition among student AIFD chapters at colleges and universities throughout the U.S. and Canada encourages creativity, resourcefulness and focus while giving students real-life experience in a high-pressure situation. Cotter, an agricultural and environmental plant sciences major who will graduated in June, placed sixth in the wedding bouquet category. She was inspired to attend Cal Pol, in part because her mother attended, reasoning it “was the best fit for me” because of the emphasis on Learn by Doing educational experience. “I wanted a job right out of college, and I knew that Cal Poly was the school that would make that happen for me,” said the 23-year-old. Representing the university to state elected representatives “is something I would have never dreamed of,” she added. “I am beyond excited and honored to be selected. This is such a special experience and something I will never forget.”

Alexandra Gambonini
Petaluma, California
Alexandra Gambonini was part of the Cal Poly Dairy Judging Team that took first in oral reasons and fourth overall in the All-American Dairy Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Fourteen teams representing the top dairy and animal science college programs throughout the nation participated in the September competition. She also participated at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, where she showed her Holstein named Keenan and received the intermediate champion title at the International Junior Holstein Show. “Cal Poly is one of the top dairy colleges in the U.S.,” the 20-year-old said. “The Learn by Doing philosophy constantly pushes me to try my best and strive for success. I am very thankful to have chosen Cal Poly by following in my father’s and sister’s footsteps.” Gambonini, a junior majoring in dairy science and agricultural business, plans to graduate in June 2019. She knows her path will take her somewhere in the dairy industry. She comes from a long line of dairy farmers; the now fifth-generation dairy family has been milking cows in Sonoma County since 1913. She is honored to represent the university and the College of Agriculture, Food, and Environmental Sciences in Sacramento. “Cal Poly has been my home for the last two and a half years, and I am excited to represent this great university to others,” Gambonini said.

Ali Harake
Moreno Valley, California
Ali Harake’s handiwork over the past four years has been seen in person by more than a million people — and, by some estimates, hundreds of millions of people throughout the world (on TV). The mechanical engineering major who graduates and starts a full-time job in June was president of the 2017-18 Cal Poly Rose Float team, who work with counterparts at Pomona’s California State Polytechnic University every year to produce a succession of innovative, stunningly beautiful floral creations that drive down Colorado Boulevard each New Year’s Day during the classic Pasadena parade. Cal Poly universities’ milestone 70th float, “Dreams Take Flight,” received the Past Presidents Trophy for the most outstanding innovation in the use of floral and non-floral materials, an added bonus for Harake who celebrated his 23rd birthday with another Rose Parade award. The scale and scope of the entries has burnished both universities’ reputations for creativity and ingenuity among professional float builders. Harake is looking forward to meeting lawmakers. “It means a great deal to me to have the honor to represent my college as well as my team for our great achievements,” he said. “Our hard work and dedication has definitely paid off, and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to attend such an amazing university that allows us these kinds of opportunities.”

Jeremiah Hernandez
Santa Maria
Jeremiah Hernandez, an ethnic studies student received the prestigious California State University Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement at the start of the 2017-18 school year. The achievement awards are presented annually to one student from each of the CSU system’s 23 campuses. Hernandez, 30, was selected for superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service and financial need. He also received a $6,000 scholarship as the state’s Michael A. and Debe Lucki Scholar. Hernandez understands that attending college is an important goal. However, life’s realities — earning a living, getting married and divorced, overcoming health challenges and being a single father kept him from reaching that goal for many years. He persevered and will graduate in June. He will pursue a career in education. “I’m grateful for the continued support of my partner, Deanna, my family and friends, and all of the mentors I’ve had over the years,” he said. He is proud to represent the university at the state Capitol. “I’m fortunate to look back and see how much I’ve grown not only in my academic work, but in my life overall as well,” said Hernandez, who transferred from Allan Hancock College. “It’s without question that Cal Poly has been a catalyst for this growth, and I’m humbled to have this opportunity because of it. “I’m honored to be able to represent the department of ethnic studies, College of Liberal Arts, Cal Poly and my community of Santa Maria.”

Tony Lopes
Gustine, California
Dairy science senior Tony Lopes was named the first runner-up at the Young Farmers and Ranchers State Collegiate Discussion Meet held last February in Modesto. The California Farm Bureau Federation of Young Farmers and Ranchers is a program for agriculturists 18 to 35 years old who are actively involved in production and affiliated professions. “My biggest takeaway was the value of cooperation in agriculture and how that will help shape our industry’s future,” said Lopes, who is a member of a fourth-generation dairy farming family. “The contest was a discussion, not a debate, so approaching agriculture issues and solutions in a constructive manner was really exciting and productive. I really appreciated the dialogue and the chance to interact with the other contestants from across the state.” Also in 2017, Lopes received the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences’ Louis and Stella Soares Award, which is given to the junior who demonstrates leadership potential through involvement in extracurricular activities; Lopes served on the ASI Board of Directors, where he received the Champion Award for Excellence, and as president in 2016-17 of the Los Lecheros Dairy Club, a campus organization that dates back to 1932. “I am incredibly honored to be able to represent the Dairy Science Program and dairy industry,” he said. ‘I look forward to sharing my experiences and the impact of my Learn by Doing education.” Lopes will graduate in June.

Colton Marino
Lincoln, California
Political science senior Colton Marino is president of the Cal Poly Interfraternity Council that earned the “Best in the West” Jellison Award from the Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values, a Colorado-based organization that promotes leadership, educational and values-based experiences and resources for student leaders, their advisors and the larger fraternal market. The award recognizes outstanding performance in council management, philanthropy and community service, public relations, risk reduction and management, self-governance and judicial affairs in its division. Marino, whose family has long ties to Cal Poly, plans to attend law school after graduation in June. He hopes to become a lawyer and potentially run for political office in the future. He’s had a taste of the latter as a senior intern working for Assemblyman Kevin Kiley, R-Rocklin, who represents Marino’s hometown of Lincoln, Calif., near Sacramento. The 21-year-old is excited about representing Cal Poly at the state level. “I see advocating for the Interfraternity Council as a great privilege and honor,” he said. “Given my career goals and interests, representing my university to state lawmakers is a great opportunity.”

Mayra Mejía
Lodi, California
Mayra Mejía led a team of graphic communication students who won the prestigious 2017 grand prize at the Technical Association of Graphic Arts annual Technical Conference last March in Houston. It was the first time in a decade that Cal Poly students have brought home the Helmut Kipphan Cup, a traveling trophy presented to the school that has produced a student publication that excels in technical content, print quality and design. TAGA is the only global professional technical association for the graphic arts industries. While some competitors outsourced part of the work, Mejía and her teammates completed all of their journals in-house. “Our team burst into tears of joy when our names were called,” she said. “We could not help but think back to all the late nights, hard work and pure dedication it took to complete 300 journals. The process was stressful, but there was no way we were going to let broken machines and jammed presses get in our way.” While print design is her passion, Mejía, who turns 23 on Feb. 12, also has a concentration in web and digital media design. She plans to pursue a master’s degree in business administration at Cal Poly. It’s a “huge honor” to represent the university, she said. “My academic and personal experiences at Cal Poly have molded me into the person I am today, and I am grateful for the opportunities I received.” Mejía plans to tell state officials about Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing ethos as well as “its abundant resources and professors/advisors who make themselves available to mentor us.”

Heather Neldner
Torrance, California
Heather Neldner was awarded a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to study the physiology of the Northern Pacific rattlesnake — one of the most common and accessible reptiles on the Central Coast. As an undergraduate at Cal Poly she studied the behavioral ecology of freshwater fish. “My master’s work will focus on the stress ecology of Southern and Northern Pacific rattlesnakes using exogenous corticosterone manipulation,” said the 23-year-old, who plans to pursue a doctorate in biology. “Quantifying the effects of energetic hormones like corticosterone will help us understand how changes — like environmental stressors — affect animals’ physiology, behavior and more.” She said the Learn by Doing model and the College of Science and Mathematics’ hands-on learning opportunities played a pivotal role in being selected for the NSF fellowship. “I’m grateful for the support and guidance I have received from my peers and mentors at Cal Poly,” Neldner said. “Without them, and Cal Poly's emphasis on practical experience for undergraduates, none of this would be possible.” She is looking forward to representing her peers in Sacramento. “Starting my freshman year, I never could have imagined being chosen to represent my university at all, let alone be recognized for my merit as a scientist,” she said. “I hope I can stress the importance of supporting academic research and continued investment in education.”

Laney Nelson
Chico, California
Civil engineering major Laney Nelson, president of Cal Poly Rainworks, won the WSP/Parsons Brinckerhoff Student Design Competition. This was a key student event during the annual World Environmental and Water Resources Congress held last May by the Environmental and Water Resources Institute, a technical institute of the American Society of Civil Engineers. The competition challenges undergraduate students to solve real-life infrastructure problems with “practical yet innovative” solutions. Nelson, who is also pursuing her master’s degree in a blended undergraduate-graduate degree program, was one of the leaders of the site design team for the club’s Creekside Revival project — a stormwater management plan that uses green infrastructure and Low Impact Development (LID) techniques to manage and treat stormwater from an on-campus site. LID design uses or mimics natural processes “that result in the infiltration, evapotranspiration or use of stormwater” to protect water quality and aquatic habitat, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The competition was a step along the pathway to her dream job as a water resources engineer. “I would like to work on the most important water projects in the state to help secure a sustainable water supply for all Californians,” said the 22-year-old who will graduate in June. She said it is an honor to represent Cal Poly to legislators. “I have the utmost respect for both the university and the state lawmakers of California, and I am humbled to be able to stand among them on this tour,” she said.

Melinda Ong
El Dorado Hills, California
Electrical engineering senior Melinda Ong is a member of the Cal Poly collegiate section of the Society of Women Engineers that received the Mission Gold Award — the highest possible collegiate recognition — at the national organization’s annual convention, held last October in Austin, Texas. The award recognizes student chapters that best embody the organization’s core values and demonstrate improvement and growth as they work to further SWE’s goals. Ong, who is serving as the group’s president, plans to graduate in June, with a goal of becoming a program director and technical expert in electronic systems. The group also received the Boeing Multicultural Award for “best multicultural program to increase and maintain a diverse membership” and picked up two Best Practices awards for leadership development and public policy. In addition, it placed second and third, respectively, in the technical poster and Team Tech competitions. “Cal Poly Engineering and Cal Poly SWE provide a thriving environment for preparing women to be all they can be in their present and future lives and endeavors,” she said. Ong said representing her peers state lawmakers in Sacramento “is an incredible honor” and looked forward to offering them her insights. “The state and federal lawmakers set and assign significant standards to many aspects of the technology field for sustainability, safety and quality, she said. “I am very interested in learning how the importance of our national security is affecting the advancements in technology.”

Bianka Pantoja
Arvin, California
Bianka Pantoja is an advertising consultant for Mustang Media Group. A team of journalism and public relations students from the student-run media outlet earned five first-place awards and was named College Media Design Program of the Year at the College Media Business and Advertising Managers annual awards banquet held last April in Fort Worth, Texas. Pantoja, 20, said the team competed against more than 100 schools in the contest. Cal Poly was second overall in the sales and public relations/marketing categories. In addition, Mustang Media Group took home eight second-place awards, two third-place honors and four fourth-place awards. In the Media Company of the Year competition, Cal Poly finished second behind Central Michigan University. Pantoja, a first-generation college student, was one of only four students to receive a fellowship to attend this year’s conference to be held next month in Kansas City, Missouri. In December, she was awarded a $2,500 grant from the California Press Foundation for an advertising and marketing internship — the first Cal Poly student to receive this grant. Pantoja expects to graduate in spring of 2019.

Colleen Richards
Centennial, Colorado
Colleen Richards is the president of Cal Poly’s Panhellenic Executive Board of Directors. The campus Panhellenic Association, which oversees the 11 campus chapters and their approximately 2,500 sorority members, received the “Best in the West” Sutherland Award from the Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values, an organization that provides experiences that challenge and encourage fraternity/sorority members to live ethical values and implement best practices. The award recognized the organization for academic achievement, council management, leadership and educational development, membership recruitment, public relations, risk reduction management, self-governance and judicial affairs in its division. “This recognition validates the efforts of Cal Poly’s Greek organizations,” said Keith Humphrey, vice president for Student Affairs. “Their leadership has positively impacted both our campus and the San Luis Obispo community.” Richards, a biomedical engineering junior who is seeking a career in research and development, served as Alpha Phi’s vice president of programming and education on the sorority’s executive board. She feels honored to be selected to represent her peers at the California statehouse. “I’m looking forward to meeting everyone on the tour and representing Panhellenic and Cal Poly,” said the 21-year-old, who expects to graduate in June of 2019. “I’ve always felt so much support from Cal Poly, Panhellenic, the engineering department, and all of the students and staff I’ve interacted with here. I’m excited to give back to my university.”

Yessenia Sanchez
Hollister, California
Yessenia Sanchez, a senior studying business administration, was a member of Cal Poly’s inaugural Spanish-language debate team that finished as finalists at the Campeonato Mundial Universitario de Debate en Español — the largest international Spanish-language university debate competition held last July at the University of Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City. Sanchez and her teammate, Megan Boyd, competed with about 300 other participants from around the world during the 10-day event. Their “groundbreaking success … represents the expansion of the Cal Poly debate team into the Spanish language world of debate,” said Marion Hart, Cal Poly Spanish-language team coach and a professor in the world languages and cultures department. Sanchez, who will complete her final quarter at Cal Poly in March, aspires to study law. She is looking forward to meeting with state legislators. “It is a great honor to be selected as a representative of the university,” said the 22-year-old. “Being a first-generation college student, it almost seems unreal to be chosen for such a great opportunity. It means I’ll be able to showcase the education that I have received at this institution.”

Vanessa See
San Francisco
Civil engineering major Vanessa See was a member of Cal Poly’s Institute of Transportation Engineers club that for the third time in four years was ITE’s International Chapter of the Year among more than 140 student chapters. The group was honored for the outstanding activities and achievements reflected in its annual report at the organization’s annual conference, held last summer in Toronto. The club also won the ITE Collegiate Traffic Bowl Grand Championship, a Jeopardy!-style competition and became the only student chapter to win the grand championship twice. See, who is this year’s chapter president, plans a career as a transportation engineer after graduating in June 2019. “Transportation is experienced by everyone,” the 20-year old said, “whether it’s noticing a new signal timing feature that makes crossing the street safer, complaining about a late bus or train, or advocating for safer ways to bike, walk or take transit. To me, it's all about the direct impact on the people that makes learning about and working in transportation so rewarding.” She is looking forward to representing classmates in Sacramento. “It is a privilege to represent the College of Engineering and Cal Poly,” See said. “Transportation is as much engineering as it is politics. Meeting state lawmakers will give me better insight into the decision-making process behind transportation issues.”

Emma Weitzner
Emma Weitzner was part of a team of Cal Poly students and professors who spent 10 weeks in Antarctica last fall researching Weddell seal pups as part of a National Science Foundation grant. They lived at the icy bottom of the globe to investigate seal pups physiology. The aim is to learn more about the development of the young seals ability to maintain a steady body temperature while also learning how to dive in the frigid Antarctic. The pups have only weeks to develop the capabilities to survive both on top of the sea ice and within the 28-degree seawater where they forage for food. The researchers worked to solve the mystery of how the pups maintain their internal temperature in this extreme environment. While there, she and the team shared their discoveries and experiences with Central Coast K-12 students via a series of Skype video conferences from McMurdo Station, located 850 miles from the South Pole. Weitzner, 25, is seeking a career as a biologist after obtaining her master’s degree in 2019. She chose to attend Cal Poly because of the opportunity to study Antarctic seals. In addition, her passion for marine biology led her to study endangered monk seals in Hawaii, sea turtles in Puerto Rico and bottlenose dolphins in Wales. She said she is “incredibly honored” to represent Cal Poly and the College of Science and Mathematics in Sacramento. “As a graduate student who has only been at Cal Poly for a year, I am very excited to be a representative,” she said.

Reese Woodard
Davis, California
Reese Woodard was among a team of a Cal Poly students who competed at the 39th annual American Marketing Association International Collegiate Conference in New Orleans. The business administration senior (with a concentration in information systems) and three teammates took second in the SABRE business stimulation competition out of a field of 30 marketing chapters from across the nation. Cal Poly AMA’s chapter was recognized for its outstanding performance in all six functional categories including, chapter planning, professional development, membership, communications, fundraising, and social impact and community service. In addition, because of the dedication of its members and university’s Learn by Doing education, Cal Poly AMA was ranked by the parent organization as the 12th best collegiate chapter out of 400 clubs. Woodard, 22, will start working as a business technology analyst at Deloitte Consulting after graduating in June. He said he is honored to represent the university to lawmakers at the Sacramento statehouse. “I’ve learned and grown tremendously at Cal Poly with hands-on project experience that’s directly relevant to my career,” he said. “I’m excited to have the opportunity to share my experience with alumni and state lawmakers.”

Blair Brookes
Kelseyville, California
Blair Brookes was part of Cal Poly’s National Agri-Marketing Association Team that won the association’s student marketing competition last April. The contest challenges students from 40 universities to develop marketing plans for brand-new products. Brookes estimates she and her teammates spent 5,000 hours over six months developing and honing the winning proposal. The agribusiness senior, who will complete her studies in March and begin work at Dow AgroSciences, had a busy 2017. In addition to numerous student competitions and receiving an American FFA Degree in October, she oversaw last year’s Ag Showcase, a career fair for the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences. The Agribusiness Management/National Agricultural Marketing Association Club expanded the job fair to two days to accommodate a record 100 companies. The club was able to award $20,000 in scholarships from company sponsorships. As this year’s club president, she co-directed the January event and expects the club will have “at least $30,000” in scholarship funds available. The 21-year-old is proud to represent Cal Poly in Sacramento because of its Learn by Doing philosophy. “As a student studying agriculture, it is crucial to get hands on experience that you can later apply to your career in industry,” she said. “I am so glad I chose to attend Cal Poly and for all of the experiences I have had. Being selected to represent all of these hard working, talented people is incredibly humbling.”

Contact: Jay Thompson

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