James Carlson is about to summit.
The 26-year-old environmental earth science major from Guadalupe, who works part time at a Santa Maria climbing gym, is looking forward to graduating this weekend from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, and some hard-earned time off before beginning work as a full-time geologist.
In July, he’ll take his fiancee, Sarah, and their 2-year-old daughter, Piper, to the Eastern Sierra to share his love of the mountains before returning home and “jumping straight back into working as a staff geologist at Cleath-Harris Geologists.”
In August, there’s a major milestone planned: He’s getting married.
Commencement marks the end of a circuitous journey for Carlson, who as a Santa Maria High School senior in 2011 applied to Cal Poly as an economics major but decided to attend Hancock College “to figure out exactly what I was passionate about.”
He transferred from Hancock in fall 2017.
“Attending Cal Poly completely changed my life,” he said. “Being surrounded by the geology community here really helped me narrow in on what aspect of my field I was really passionate about.
"The peers and professors I’ve met have become some of my best friends, and I owe so much of my accomplishments to those relationships," he said.
"Everyone in the Cal Poly community has seemed to honestly care about how I was doing in both academics and life in general.”
One of his biggest challenges was balancing 20-unit quarters, two part-time jobs, a daily commute from Guadalupe and family life — his daughter was born just months before he became a Cal Poly student.
“The only way I got through it was to keep moving forward,” Carlson said. “I spent 12-plus hours a day on campus, most days, and the commute from Guadalupe added to the time away from home — but I knew I was doing what I had to do get my degree and be able support my family and give my daughter the life she deserves.
“There were plenty of days, even into the last few weeks of college, when I just wanted to give up, but knowing I had a little girl depending on me at home was more than enough motivation to keep on going.”
He takes pride in being a Frost Research Fellow at Cal Poly and collaborating with U.S. Geological Survey officials last summer on a project to conduct geophysical surveys in Los Alamos to aid in the creation of a groundwater flow model there.
“The work ended with the USGS incorporating my geologic model into their own and citing my senior project in their paper on the area,” he said.
He plans to start graduate school “as soon as I get some experience under my belt and get my family stable.”
As he readies to leave Cal Poly, he will remember the overnight trips he and geology classmates took throughout California and the relationships made with peers and professors.
“I can never put into words how thankful I am for attending Cal Poly,” said Carlson, who hopes to become a geology professor. “I have gained so many valuable experiences during my time here and so many memories that I will cherish for the rest of my life.
"I am incredibly thankful for the professors and advisers who helped me get through it all and guided me to where I needed to be," he continued. "I wish I could do it all over again, but it’s time to move on to whatever comes next.”