With age came focus for Rudolph Headley-El.
After graduating from Westchester High School in Los Angeles in 1988, Headley-El attended Florida A&M University’s School of Business and Industry on an academic scholarship, poised to make his mark in the world.
While the Brooklyn, New York native had the academic ability to achieve success, poor work habits and a lack of focus resulted in him leaving school after just six semesters. During this time he catered many campus events and worked in restaurants to support himself and would later parlay his food service experience into a career as a baker and caterer when he returned to Los Angeles in 1994.
“This time around, if I have any doubts, I do the exact opposite of whatever the old Rudy would do,” Headley says. “I sit in front of every class, take lots of notes and ask questions. I totally engage my instructors.”
For his laser-like focus, determination and hard work, Headley-El will receive a well-earned reward at commencement on Saturday, June 13 – his bachelor of science degree in geography, with a geographic information systems option.
Headley-El’s plan to get back on track started when enrolled in the aviation maintenance certificate program at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga. He finished on time with good grades and was prepared to start his new career after receiving his Federal Aviation Administration power plant license to work on aircraft when he decided to fulfill the associate’s degree requirements in case it meant a bump in pay once hired.
One of those courses was a geography class where he not only enjoyed the subject, but was fascinated by his teacher’s enthusiasm and style.
“It was like his own show,” Headley-El says. “He was up there doing his thing.”
Although he enjoyed geography, he wasn’t hooked until he reluctantly went on a class field trip to the Owens Valley along the Eastern Sierra Nevada range.
“That’s when I said geography is for me,” he says. “The field trip turned out to be the highlight of the whole Chaffey experience.”
Headley hit his stride. He received several merit-based scholarships and joined the Association of American Geographers before finally being asked to be a tutor by the chair of the geography department.
He earned four associate’s degrees at Chaffey in aviation maintenance-airframe, power plant, geography, and general studies. Headley-El was one class shy of a fifth degree in Spanish.
“I was the comeback kid,” he says. “You’re fighting and you’re trying to come back.”
He transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in the fall of 2013, with the determination to get all he can out of his educational experiences.
Headley-El says he loves that geography is a field with a wide range of career options, but more so, he enjoys the human aspect.
“I like the idea of people and places, and how places connect to culture,” he says. “You can tie geography to everything because everything is somewhere.”
Headley-El aspires to be a teacher and plans to attend graduate school to earn his master’s degree, a career path his geography professors think is an ideal destination for their prized student.
“He’s been exceptional in terms of motivating, mentoring, guiding and organizing his fellow students,” Professor Kristin Conway-Gomez says. “I think he’s going to motivate his students because he’s an enthusiastic learner who effectively conveys his enthusiasm. He encourages and he draws people out. I think he will be an inspiring teacher.”
Professor Lin Wu, geography department chair, also uses the word “inspiring” to describe Headley-El, who received a department scholarship last year.
“He’s been a fantastic student,” she says. “It’s not just about the good grades. He’s always looking for something for learning’s sake. To me, he’s just like a sponge who is trying to absorb everything possible.”
Professor Sara Garver recalled Headley-El serving as her teacher’s assistant during her field course. As a re-entry student with more life experience than the usual student, Headley-El seems to enjoy everything he is learning and doing, she says.
“He’s a leader when it comes to our undergraduates,” Garver says. “He’s mature. He’s outgoing. He’s enthusiastic about what he’s learning. The students really respond to him.”
Headley-El, who taught physical education and remedial math at a small private school before taking classes at Chaffey, says he tries to mentor his fellow students.
“I have been encouraging them not to make the same mistakes I did,” he says. “It’s all about creating options for the future, your outlook and how you apply yourself.”