Although Leo Garcia is best known in the tree fruit industry for championing education programs for Hispanic workers, he’s also been dedicated to enhancing agricultural programs overall at Wenatchee Valley College in Washington State.
He has worked hard to revive the college’s tree fruit production program, for which he is the lead faculty. Launched in 1985, the award-winning program began to decline in the late 1990s—a period when the industry was going through economic difficulties and students did not foresee good career opportunities in that sector.
It reached the point where there were only two incoming freshmen one year. “I don’t know why the school didn’t pull the plug,” Garcia said. “It almost died because we didn’t move with the industry.”
Instead of dropping the program, the college refocused its efforts. Garcia recognized the need to reach out to high-school students and convince them that there were viable careers in agriculture in central Washington.
“We knew they were key,” Garcia said. “They were going somewhere else because they thought we only did tree fruit and tree fruit was in decline.”
Garcia realized that the college had to serve the broader agriculture industry. The ag department now offers the following associate-degree programs: horticulture and tree fruit production; sustainable and organic agriculture; general agriculture; and technical science. It also offers a two-year program in sustainable agriculture and resource systems.
The department now has more than 80 students, of whom 63 are majoring in agriculture. There are more than 20 freshmen each year—with at least half in the tree fruit production program—and the numbers are growing.
Garcia estimates that about a third of the incoming agriculture students are Hispanic—often young people who were brought to this country by their parents when they came to do orchard work and who do not have citizenship. He was pleased when the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act was proposed, as it would have granted permanent residency to certain students who went on to higher education.
“It just tears you up to see some bright young person and then all of a sudden, when they get to college, they’re no longer equal,” Garcia said. “They can’t apply for scholarships or anything.
“It didn’t dawn on me until I had this really bright student and I asked him why he had stopped coming to classes,” Garcia explained. “He said, ‘I’m not legal. I was using my cousin’s social security number, and it caught up with me.’”
He had come to this country when he was just a few months old and didn’t even speak Spanish. It’s a situation that Garcia comes across frequently. “Why would you not want to allow your brightest and greatest people the opportunity to be here legally?” he asks.
While working to strengthen the college’s program, Garcia also worked for several years with Washington State University to reach an agreement that would allow students with associate degrees to go on to complete a bachelor’s degree with WSU in four years. The agreement, reached last year, enables a student with a transfer degree in agriculture, horticulture/tree fruit production, or sustainable and organic agriculture, with a C grade or better, to transfer to WSU with junior status.