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Alumna, Executive and Philanthropist

Carol Rundback

When Carol Rundback looks at her life, it is through a lens of gratitude for the people she has known and the opportunities she has been given. She wants to help ensure that future generations of young women — she calls them her granddaughters — can chart their own courses, which is why she is providing full, renewable scholarships in science and engineering. She says her estate gift is rooted in her life experience.

The conference room on the fifth floor of the CLA building feels confining when you’re talking to someone with as much joie de vivre as Carol Rundback. She’s just finalized her substantial gift to the university, but that’s not what she wants to talk about, at least not quite yet.

She flips open her cell phone and shares a picture of herself beaming next to the 83-pound halibut she caught last year. “It’s a hoot,” she says of her annual trip to the waters off British Columbia with fellow alumna Emma Hilario-Ballesteros.

“It can be brutally cold and exhausting, and we’re dressed from stem to stern, but we’re having a ball.”

Deep-sea fishing in a small boat might be the last thing Rundback thought she would be doing after a career that spanned three professions and the breadth of the modern women’s movement. Life’s journey can appear random, but the dots connect. A phone call to an old college friend leads to a tour of campus, which morphs into a discussion about other alumni, which ends with an invitation to travel to the Northwest to fish.

Rundback’s decision to support higher education is a story of complementary contradictions: A lovely childhood home and an unadorned classroom. A liberal arts degree and an on-the-job technical education. Glass ceilings and career success.

A redistricting quirk sent 5-year-old Carol Pierce to a school several miles from the one near her Temple City neighborhood and light years from what she expected. Instead of grass and trees, she saw asphalt and chain link fences.

“I went home and told my mother, ‘I can’t do this. We have to move.’ Mom let me know that I need to adapt to different environments.” Later, her father drove her through a hardscrabble neighborhood where some of her classmates lived in homes with dirt floors and no plumbing —“a lesson that we need to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.”

That lesson has stuck with Rundback, and it informs her thinking to this day. She’s moved back to Southern California after years on the East Coast, and she sees firsthand the challenges her neighbors face.

“Rancho Cucamonga is young families, the middle class that’s being eroded. I’ve talked to several who have lost their homes or their jobs. … There’s a whole different world out there that the lucky among us do not experience directly.”

She’s also had the opportunity to contrast her Cal Poly Pomona experience with that of today’s students, many of whom juggle a full-time job and classroom obligations.

“I love the kids I’ve met here, but it’s gotten very hard for many of them. It’s really been an eye-opener, and I think it’s our duty with what we were given to make a difference. This isn’t goofy altruism. We owe it to these kids, and I am fortunate to be able to do something.”

But why women in science and engineering? The answer lies in Rundback’s four years on campus and three-plus decades in the workforce.

When she entered Cal Poly Pomona in the mid-1960s, coeds had started to make their presence felt on campus, but it remained a man’s world.

“We had to wear skirts and hose. Even if you were going to the gym for PE, you wore a skirt and you changed when you got there. There was a curfew as well. I was grounded more than once for bounding up the stairs at Montecito and saying, ‘Please, don’t lock it yet!’”

She came to campus to study marketing but switched to psychology and sociology because she found them more interesting. A young military veteran soon found her interesting.

“One day after class, my good friend Jon Giberson brought this long, lanky guy named Jan Nevin along and said, ‘I’d like you to meet someone.’ I didn’t think much of it. I saw him on occasion over the months, but then some of my girlfriends said, ‘Have you noticed Jan Nevin is circling our tables’ [in the dining hall]. He started sitting with us and asked me out to study for finals, and I said sure and went over to his house — and we studied for finals. Then he brought me home and shook my hand. I was very impressed.”

Rundback and Nevin married shortly after her graduation. He launched his career as an administrator at Cal State Long Beach. Her job included her boss chasing her around the desk.

“I reported the harassment to a vice president and was told, ‘I hate to say this, but in the scheme of things, he’s a lot more valuable to us than you are.’”

It wasn’t the last time she faced a work environment that would make an HR officer’s head spin today. “I don’t see myself as a feminist,” she says. “I just got backed into a corner too often.”

Rundback quit and joined the staff at the Braille Institute in Orange County, where she worked for 10 years as a mobility and orientation instructor for newly blinded adults.

“We had it made in the shade,” Rundback says of her life with Nevin, recalling their careers and financial success. But when he fell ill in his early 30s and went to the doctor, he received a jarring diagnosis: He had a rare condition that caused recurring tumors near his spine. “Battle” is an overused word in conjunction with terminal diseases, but it characterized Nevin’s attitude. He fought until the condition claimed his life at 39.

“He never took a day off. He loved to work. He was driven. He wanted to get his Ph.D.,” Rundback says. “He would have been good.”

Rundback moved to Oregon in 1979 to work in marketing for Pacific Northwest Bell. The unwritten conditions of employment were different for women back then.

“My first manager said, ‘I asked for you because [during the extensive hiring process] they couldn’t make you cry.’ I actually heard that again in the late ’80s from a lawyer who said he had just reduced a manager to tears and he was glad I didn’t cry.”

Her professional toughness, team-building skills and desire to learn the technical side paid off. Within a year she was an account executive, but the career ladder had few rungs for women. She worked for AT&T after the huge corporate breakup in the early 1980s and later transferred to the headquarters in New Jersey. Her duties with the patent licensing group took her frequently to Bell Labs, and the name “Cal Poly Pomona” popped up in a most unexpected way.

“Everybody wanted to know where you were educated, and I said, kind of under my breath, ‘Cal Poly Pomona.’ They said, ‘Wow, what a great school. We actively recruit from there every year. We get the best people out of that engineering school.’ And even though I wasn’t an engineering major, from then on I had cred.”

When she met her second husband, Bob Rundback, the final chapter of her career took her to New York, where she worked in financial services.

“We clicked almost right off the bat and had a wonderful life together.” After his death in 2007, she reached out to her Cal Poly Pomona family. Some have told her she is the quintessential liberal arts major. “They point out that I taught blind adults, I was in marketing, patent licensing, financial services, and I did reasonably well in all of them. … My education prepared me to be flexible.”

Rundback says she wants to help women make major inroads in science and engineering. “I don’t want to take over, but I don’t want to be 5 percent. … If we can be great doctors, lawyers and businesspeople, we can be great scientists and engineers.”

(The Carol Nevin Rundback Women in Science and Engineering Scholarship Endowment is designed to provide full, renewable scholarships for future generations.)

Published on September 11, 2014

Impact Map

Explore Impact Map

The Impact Map shows how Cal Poly Pomona alumni are making a difference in Southern California and around the country. Explore the map or share your own impact.

Explore the map

Submit Your Story