Perseverance, Passion and Purpose: A Recipe for Success

Growing up on the beautiful coast of Santa Cruz, Aaron McKinnon was more interested in being outside and making videos at the skate park than sitting at a desk in school. Open to all possibilities, McKinnon dreamed of becoming anything from archaeologist to National Geographic show host. His love for adventure combined with the diagnosis of a learning disability, made the possibility of a college degree seem distant at best. However, the world had a different plan, and in 2013, he graduated from Cal Poly with a communication studies degree.

Alumni Aaron McKinnon

His degree and his high regard for Cal Poly’s small class sizes and Learn by Doing experiences, led McKinnon to his current position in Cal Poly’s Office of Admissions, where he is able to combine his love of adventure with his undergraduate degree and videography skills.

Alumni Aaron McKinnon with team membersHis path toward a college degree began when he decided to join the high school swim team. At the time, McKinnon had no idea how diving into the school pool would change the course of his life forever. His natural talent for swimming was recognized by many, and college recruiters soon began asking McKinnon about his future goals. For the first time, he realized that a college degree was an option for him, adventurous spirit and all.

McKinnon was awarded an athletic scholarship to Cal Poly, and in 2008, was enrolled as a communication studies student. For him, choosing a major was simple. “I talked to my neighbor who had graduated with a degree in communication studies, and it sounded cool, so I thought, ‘I can do that.’”

As life pointed him in new directions, McKinnon saw his scholarship to Cal Poly as a privilege that he would not take for granted. “I felt like I owed something to the university. I took college very seriously — I pretty much just swam and did homework.” For the first time, he started enjoying class and truly recognized the importance of his education.

As team captain, McKinnon had a full schedule, but he didn’t let that stop him from succeeding at all aspects of his college career. “Swimming taught me the importance of time management and motivation.”

While juggling school and athletics is a challenging feat, he recognized that Cal Poly’s breadth of teaching styles and incorporation of Learn by Doing actually made the process of learning easier. The learning difficulties he faced in his younger years seemed to fade, even with the addition of a highly competitive swimming career.

Upper division classes taught McKinnon the “importance of engaging in human relations and the fundamentals of human interactions.” Thanks to small class sizes and the extremely dedicated and student-focused faculty, he was finally able to discover the point where his love for adventure and the communication studies curriculum would collide.

During a trip to Professor Bernard Duffy’s office hours, McKinnon divulged his interest in creating videos. From that conversation, he was connected with Al Nunez, the director of media communications in the Cal Poly Office of Admissions, who gave him the resources to write, host and produce a six-episode series of informational videos. Shortly after, thousands of students were welcomed to Cal Poly by McKinnon in “The P.”

As if balancing academics and athletics wasn’t impressive enough, life gave McKinnon another challenge. During his senior year, he was diagnosed with a heart arrhythmia that required surgery, forcing him to put swimming on hold. With every reason to give up, McKinnon never saw quitting as an option. After surgery and physical therapy, he maintained his unbelievably positive attitude and was back in the pool training for the conference competition.

A few months later — with countless swimming awards, an above average GPA, and a substantial network of faculty, staff and student supporters — McKinnon earned his communication studies degree.

The world of endless opportunities welcomed McKinnon and all of his accomplishments. Heading back to his beautiful hometown, he discovered how applicable communication studies was for numerous professional positions. He gained experience conducting marketing research, training junior lifeguards, modeling, acting, and working as a receptionist.

As the possibilities grew, McKinnonn felt the need to find a position that would eventually lead him to his dream career in media communication. In summer 2014, he was faced with a big decision: move to San Francisco where media-related career opportunities seemed as boundless as the bay itself, or move back to San Luis Obispo to pursue a position where he could practice and enhance his skills in the office where it all began.

With a few years of experience under his belt, McKinnon opted to return to Cal Poly and was offered the position of media production specialist, the role of his supervisor when he first started working in the Office of Admissions. 

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