Ian Ocampo decided to leave UC Santa Barbara in 2009 after his freshman year of studying physics, to pursue a music career in L.A. as a bassist. About a decade after leaving that initial college experience, 27-year-old Ocampo is back on track — and will be graduating from Sonoma State this weekend with a B.S. in geology. From here, the first-generation student is headed to Princeton in the fall to pursue his Ph.D.
“I think if I had gone anywhere else, I wouldn't be where I am today,” he said. “I don't think I'd be even going to one of the best graduate schools in the country. All of my growth from then to now was from Sonoma State.”
After five years of living out his dream and making a living working with different bands on a temporary basis, it was during a musical tour of the Western United States that Ocampo decided to resume his college education. However, unlike his first go-around, he said, his second college experience would involve him pursuing a degree he was actually passionate about — geology.
“A big portion of the Western U.S. is just all these beautiful geologic structures,” he said. “I think those structures, were this tangible thing.
It's something that I could put my hands on that I found really beautiful and really interesting. In that moment, I decided I wanted to go back to school.”
In 2016, Ocampo said he decided to attend Sonoma State because of the beauty of campus, the renown Geology Department and its proximity to his family who live in Marin County. However, as a child of immigrants from Columbia, he doesn’t have a life-long home to come back to. Ocampo said he moved across the United States based on his parent’s work, going to three elementary schools, three middle schools and four high schools — all in different states. Ocampo said his parents were relieved to see him decide to go back to school.
“My parents weren’t supportive at all when I said I wanted to become a musician,” he said. “While they eventually came around to the idea, they were incredibly proud when I decided to come back to school and that I would be studying something I was passionate about.”
Ocampo said Sonoma State’s Geology Department was everything he hoped for and more. He was even the president of the Geology Club on campus. The department helped him find his specific area of interest, petrology and planetary formation, but he said it was one professor in particular whose passion for geology really rubbed off on him.
“The Geology Department exceeded my expectations by a million,” he said. “Dr. Laura Waters specifically, I fell in love with her passion for the subject and her clear passion for her students. She took an interest in me, and I saw a level of knowledge that I wanted to attain.”
Waters taught Ocampo in Ian’s first year at Sonoma State. According to Waters, Ocampo was well ahead of his fellow classmates in understanding the material. She was able to get Ocampo to apply for the National Museum of Natural History Research Experience for Undergraduates, for which he was accepted. The experience was a three-month long research intensive scenario at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and for which Ocampo got to work with the “giants of the field,” he said.
“I do fundamentally believe that Ian has the potential to change our discipline,” said Waters. “I genuinely admire him because his path was so unconventional.”
Ocampo will be attending Princeton after graduation to begin his work towards a joint Ph.D. in mineral physics and material science. Ocampo is one of the 27 prestigious McNair Scholars at Sonoma State, and one of only 14 who were accepted into graduate programs. He will receive full tuition to attend.
After his time at Princeton, Ocampo said he sees himself becoming a professor in the future, hoping to have the same impact professors at Sonoma State had on him. As far as his path to where he is now, he said he wouldn't have changed a thing.
“I think having the opportunities to travel, having the opportunity to interact with all these different people and pursue a passion led me to grow a lot as a person,” he said. “I am just so grateful more than anything. I think if I had gone anywhere else that I wouldn't be where I'm at right now.”