Photo: Mark Irby-Gill accepts his Phi Theta Kappa All-Colorado Academic Team award from Colorado Community College System chancellor Joe Garcia and Red Rocks Community College president Michele Haney.
True to his science training, Mark Irby-Gill says he ended up at Red Rocks Community College (RRCC) “a little by chance, and a little by design.”
After a winding journey back to school, the Brooklyn native can finally call himself a college graduate—and an honors one at that. His exceptional academic performance earned him a cumulative 4.0 GPA and the title “Graduate of the Year.”
With commencement just a few days away, Irby-Gill can’t help but feel nostalgic.
“I wish I could stay here for longer,” he said with a grin. “We get such a high level of support and encouragement. I’m trying to soak up as much as I can.”
Irby-Gill is no stranger to higher education. About 15 years ago, he attended William & Mary as a geology major. His studies were going well until his mother neglected to file the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Without scholarships, the bills quickly added up. He was forced stop out.
Without my professors, I would not have made it through or maintained this level of success.
After returning to his home state of New York, Irby-Gill found a position at an infection control company, climbing the ladder as a site manager. The business was growing fast, even landing on INC Magazine’s list of top companies. But the brutal travel schedule burned him out, and Irby-Gill sought out long-term mental health services.
“At that point I had no self-confidence—no faith in myself or anything,” he reflected. “That was the starting point of trying to do things for myself and rearrange my life.”
Determined to find a better work-life balance, Irby-Gill bought a National Parks pass and headed west. In 2017, he settled in Evergreen, Colorado and got a job at a golf course, where he met professionals who worked at oil and gas companies. Although he had a background in geology, he would need a degree if he wanted a career in the industry, they advised him.
So, more than a decade out of school, Irby-Gill decided to enroll in Red Rocks’ geology program with a full course load. He would often hole up in the library from 6 in the morning to 11 at night, befriending the maintenance staff who worked the same schedule.
His efforts paid off: he aced all his first semester classes.
“Being able to come back—and realizing I didn’t fall—helped me take a bigger leap,” he said.
As he dove deeper into his studies, Irby-Gill’s interests expanded beyond geology. He became intrigued by math and data science and took on an internship position with Research Experiences for Community College Students (RECCS) at the University of Colorado Boulder, investigating how streams contributed to the uplift that shaped the high plains.
“We did pebble counts, which is exactly what it sounds like. Every five miles from the headwaters, we would map the different types of rocks and what sizes they were,” he explained. “I got to work with Lon Abbott, who used to be a professor at Red Rocks. It was really interesting, and it gave me my first taste of doing actual research.”
That summer, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association invited Irby-Gill to join its chemical sciences lab through the Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science (SOARS) program. As the only community college researcher in his cohort, he analyzed the ways clouds trap and retain heat—research that could inform future climate solutions—and presented his findings to the American Geophysical Union and the National Association of Black Geoscientists. To his surprise, he earned the top prize from the latter organization.
Irby-Gill is quick to credit these achievements to the support of Red Rocks faculty and staff.
“Without my professors, I would not have made it through or maintained this level of success,” he said. Math professor Johanna Debrecht “was probably the first person who showed that she believed in me. It wasn’t just talk—and that was very encouraging.”
With his impressive resume—and now an associate degree in geology—Irby-Gill is entertaining transfer options from Colorado School of Mines and other engineering schools across the country. He’s also completing a machine learning internship with Columbia University this summer.
Beyond his individual success, Irby-Gill hopes to make an even greater impact diversifying STEM fields. He recently wrapped up a capstone project that helps students of color navigate the college admissions process in partnership with Alameda High School and the Mines Academy High School Innovation Challenge at RRCC.
To young scientists of color—and adult learners who have faced setbacks—Irby-Gill hopes he can be a role model. He says finding a support system, and believing in your potential, is critical to succeeding in college.
“Organize your life around your dreams and watch how quickly those dreams start coming true,” he said.