Before Shelby Guillen could advocate for more transparent food labels, for state funding for Cal Poly Pomona, and for her fellow students to do their best academic work, she had to advocate for herself.
When she finished high school in 2009 during the Great Recession, she did not have the money to pay for her college education. A dozen years later, Guillen will graduate on May 20 with a degree in food science and technology because she never gave up on her dream of getting her degree.
She remembers telling herself:
This is what I want, and the world is telling me I can’t have it. I’m not going to listen. I’m going to get it anyway, no matter what happens.
While persistence describes every student in the Class of 2021, especially given the pandemic, Guillen will receive her diploma after more than a decade of working, saving and believing as a first-generation student.
More important, the obstacles she overcame and her Cal Poly Pomona degree in food science and technology earned her a year-long fellowship with the CSU’s Agricultural Research Institute, including 10 weeks with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). (The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has a cooperative agreement with the Don B. Huntley College of Agriculture.) Guillen’s maturity, heart and analytical skills qualified her for a rare, influential role for a college student: policymaking.
“Shelby can take this complicated government speak and government language and distill it to nuggets of easily understood useful information, and communicate across, up and down the chain,” said senior analyst Torey Powell, her supervisor at the USDA AMS Office of the Administrator. “The point of the fellowship is to develop students through real world experience, and Shelby had a lot of that coming in.”
The youngest of three children, Guillen began adulting in her hometown of Fontana in 2009. Community college was not an immediate option for her because so many people had returned to college during the recession, making it difficult to get classes.
“Trade school was not my first choice, but after a lot of reflecting, I saw that it would let me get a decent job and maybe help me pay for college,” she said.
She became a certified medical assistant and worked in clinics over the next seven years — first pain management, then urgent care and finally family medicine. In 2011 she started taking night classes in community college.
In 2016, she had saved enough money to quit her job and focus on her education. She moved back in with her parents, Arthur and Annamae Guillen, and devoted herself full-time to her associate of science degree in multidisciplinary sciences at Crafton Hills College. She finished in 2018 and transferred to Cal Poly Pomona in the fall.
“Sometimes you have to suck it up and look at your end goals,” she said. “I couldn’t have done it without my parents. They could not afford the high cost of college for me, but they housed and fed me and helped me out even to this day. My dad was here three times last week bringing me lunch during my 50-hour work week.”
For Guillen, food is the fundamental connection from family to food science and her future.
Her paternal grandmother, Epimenia Guillen, raised nine children who then raised her 19 grandchildren.
“All of us love to cook,” Guillen said. “Food is a huge part of my family and culture.”
For the past 70 Christmas Eves, the family has gathered for their Tamale Day. Everyone has a part in the feast, and no one eats until the family circles, says grace and acknowledges the work of crafting 200 tamales.
Tamale Day gave Guillen a familiarity with delegating a massive enterprise into safe, efficient tasks. As a certified medical assistant, she learned to digest large amounts of complex information to help patients get what they need from the healthcare system. Her decade of work and family experiences allowed her to see that she could affect the most people through improving the food system and its policies.
“My passion for service connects to food,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to be hungry. I think I can be of service getting food to be more accessible to people who are hungry.”
Tamale Day also piqued her interested in the farm-to-table journey, as she considered every ingredient’s safe path from harvest to her family’s first bites. Cal Poly Pomona is the only four-year public university in Southern California that offers the food science major from an agricultural perspective.
Food science and technology students often go into systemic work that helps predict and prevent chronic disease, said Associate Professor of Food Engineering Professor Y. Olive Li, who is Guillen’s advisor. But success requires specific ingredients.
“They need a little bit of everything: biology, chemistry, math and physics,” she said. “You also need good language skills and to be able to see global problems and solve them by tackling the details. I really thank Shelby for her maturity and professionalism. She knows how to incorporate other people’s opinions, allow them to express frustration and to mediate and keep a transparent environment. She comes up with some positive way and motivate all other members to stay together.”
For the People
Once she arrived at Cal Poly Pomona in 2018, Guillen interviewed for a student assistant position in the Office of Government and External Affairs. Her work in the health care industry taught her that advocacy is being a storyteller who knows what has happened so far, what is the best way forward, and how to make a clear ask of the powers that be. Even though she knew nothing about legislative work, she was confident: “I know how to fight for the right of an individual.”
For 2.5 years, she’s advocated for more and better support for the university. For instance, she helped plan the lieutenant governor’s tour of campus in 2019 and drove ahead of the entourage to make sure every stop was prepared. She supported the COVID-19 Safer Return Task Force by helping monitor more than 300 related public health meetings.
“Shelby’s own lived experience has deeply contributed to her success,” said Assistant Vice President Frances Teves. “She really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to grow and network, and that’s what we hope to give students and leaders who work with us. We want students not to just touch projects and initiatives, but to own something. At the end of the day, she speaks to the type of student that Cal Poly Pomona produces. No one tells our story better than our students.”
Everyone interviewed for this profile mentioned Guillen’s trademark green salsa, which she makes in big batches, preserves and gives away. The salsa symbolizes her journey too.
“She makes it with tomatillos, and it’s great,” said classmate Emmanuel Obando, a former professional chef. “That’s what great Mexican food is. It’s simple.” Guillen helped him persevere through their hardest classes by simplifying their tasks.
The recipe, like her success, originates with family. Her grandmother made it, but for years now Guillen has tweaked it, with her father’s help.
“He helps me clean and chop all the fresh ingredients. He’s always the taste tester and gives final approval,” she said.
Her main takeaway from Cal Poly Pomona is simple: Her potential is limitless. Perseverance has given her more than she needs. Now she has opportunities to give back.
And the takeaway from salsa and life also is simple: “The key,” she said, “has been process and partnership.”