Army veteran. Reformed ex-con. Non-traditional student. Food service technical specialist. Husband. Father.
Andrew Gibson is all these things. And on Saturday, June 13, he will add another title: Cal Poly Pomona graduate.
Gibson, 31, is graduating from the College of Agriculture with a bachelor’s degree in foods and nutrition with a focus on dietetics. But the road to his graduation was a long, winding journey filled with obstacles and making the most of second chances.
Gibson was born in Pomona. After his parents divorced, he moved to Rancho Cucamonga, where he went to high school. Although the cities aren’t far apart, it was a big adjustment for Gibson.
“I kind of became more free-spirited. I started skateboarding and didn’t really pay attention to my grades,” he recalls.
Gibson also was putting more time into sports than studies, and wound up getting into trouble for shoplifting and truancy.
Like many teens, Gibson was uncertain about what he wanted to do in life. So, he enlisted in the Army a week after graduating from high school in June 2001. He was still in basic training when 9/11 occurred, and his vocation took on new urgency, meaning and purpose.
“As soon as 9/11 occurred, the type of training we endured was different. The atmosphere was different, the way the drill instructors treated us was different,” Gibson says.
He was several weeks away from deploying to Afghanistan in 2003 when a training accident at Fort Drum, New York, forced Gibson to take a medical discharge. Gibson experienced a severe reaction to a new tear gas that left him hospitalized for two weeks. He continued to receive treatment for five years after he was discharged until he had surgery to correct some of his health problems.
Returning home, Gibson delivered newspapers, served as a security guard, and sold custom barbecues before finding work at a Dave & Buster’s restaurant.
“It took me a while to find myself. It was hard to acclimate after being in the military,” he recalls. “People were so into their own things that it was really kind of hard to relate and socialize with people my age.”
He studied and excelled in English at Chaffey College, winning a scholarship to UCLA through an essay contest. But he could not transfer because his grades in other classes weren’t good enough.
“I was being picky about what I took seriously in school,” Gibson recalls. “I also was totally into playing football and working out and hanging out with my friends.”
It was during that period that he encountered his greatest challenge. While out one evening with some friends and co-workers in Fullerton, Gibson intervened in a disturbance involving one of his friends.
But police wound up arresting Gibson, who was charged with assault.
At the time, there were few who could help Gibson: he didn’t have much contact with his family, and his friends – many of whom also were former military – were also were just discovering their way in life like him.
“I didn’t really have any support in dealing with my case and working through the court system,” Gibson says. “I didn’t know how the system worked. I just ended up doing whatever my public defender told me to do.”
He wound up serving two years in the California Institution for Men in Chino. Although at the time he felt being charged wasn’t fair, Gibson now looks back at the experience philosophically.
“Laws are laws. They are put there so we’re not like some of the countries we’re going into and invading. I was trained in the military to protect the rest of the world and protect citizens from lawless people,” he says. “So even though I might not feel what those three men did was morally right, it was not my duty to take the law into my own hands.”
After his release in January 2007, Gibson knew he had to rebuild his life. He mended relationships with family members and friends. He was accepted back at his old job by his sympathetic former employers. He also took a job with a plumbers’ union for a year to supplement his income.
Gibson returned to Chaffey, but this time he knew he wanted to study something related to physical training, food or nutrition because of his military and athletic background.
He spent three years at Chaffey before he was able to transfer to Cal Poly Pomona in the winter quarter in 2014.
In the meantime, Gibson also became more grounded in his personal life. He returned to his religious roots as a Jehovah’s Witness and became connected with a supportive community. He also got married and had two children.
At Cal Poly Pomona
Gibson arrived at the university older and more experienced in life than many of his peers. The biggest adjustment he faced was scheduling.
“Chaffey’s on the semester system, like most of the schools in California,” he says. “Going to a quarter-system school, I wasn’t used to the speed of the courses.”
The more difficult challenge was getting internships or jobs because of his conviction. Gibson did not try and hide his past: He was upfront about it when interviewing for internships and talking with faculty and advisors.
Bonny Burns-Whitmore, a human nutrition and food science professor who taught and advised Gibson, says Gibson worked hard to beat the odds and his past.
“To support a family, get a degree in a very challenging major, and overcome his past – I admire him,” Burns-Whitmore says. “I believe he is an excellent role model for students that have been going through adversity and succeeded.”
Interim Associate Dean Lisa Kessler got to know Gibson when he asked her about dietetic internships and becoming a registered dietitian. She encouraged him to get into research projects that would add to his skills and experience.
“I believe Andrew will go far. He’s a true leader,” Kessler says. “He cares about others and doing good more than he cares about himself.”
Eventually, Gibson was able to get his conviction legally expunged. Nevertheless, he was turned down for some internships.
A Job and Future Plans
One business that offered an internship was Southern California Gas Company in January 2014. He did so well that they offered him a full-time job less than three weeks into the internship.
At the Gas Company, Gibson works as a food service technical specialist, helping customers that provide food services – including restaurants, hospitals and school districts – find the most energy-efficient cooking systems for their kitchens.
Gibson hopes eventually to work in food services for a large school district and help positively influence schoolchildren. He also dreams of opening an upscale barbecue restaurant.
“I want to add new flavors and new experiences for people, but I also want to keep a lot of the traditional aspects of barbecue,” he says.
Restaurateur could be another title that Gibson adds.