Once stuck in a steady stream of dead-end, minimum-wage jobs, Janet Leak-Garcia now has a Ph.D., works in the nation’s capital and has contributed to agricultural trade agreements with South Korea. She once organized an international food safety training program in Thailand for a group of Pacific Rim nations. And she is at the forefront of scientific efforts to protect millions of acres under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service.
None of it would have happened without Cuyamaca College.
“Cuyamaca College changed my life,” Leak-Garcia said.
Her life includes a hardscrabble childhood that took her from Idaho to California to Arizona and back to California. Her past includes emancipation at age 16, living in a ramshackle converted garage, and finding herself as a single mother raising a daughter while barely making ends meet. She was, she said, the latest link in a long line of generations failing to overcome the challenges facing them.
“I was supporting myself with no skills,” Leak-Garcia said. “I was just kind of going from job to job. We barely had enough to eat.”
Biology Professor and friend Kathryn Nette said Leak-Garcia’s story serves as an inspiration to countless others.
“We have many students at Cuyamaca who have challenges similar to those that Janet faced that could keep them from achieving their goals,” Nette said. “I often tell Janet's story to students who are feeling like they want to give up, and I have seen many of them develop renewed enthusiasm and faith in their own abilities because they found a way to identify with her. I don't know if she understands how many students we have been able to help because of her success.”
Leak-Garcia’s epiphany came at the age of 33. “I saw myself looking at my daughter when she was asleep one day and I decided I couldn’t keep doing this. I was determined to break the cycle of poverty myself, and not expect for my daughter to do it.”
Leak-Garcia, who was working at a local nursery at the time, enrolled at Cuyamaca College.
“It was a big deal for us,” Leak-Garcia recalled. “Mom was going to college, even though it was community college.”
That was in 1998. She soon learned the instructors and services were as good as she’d find at any university. Her first exposure to the ample opportunities to succeed came when Leak-Garcia learned through extensive testing at Cuyamaca College’s Disabled Student Services that she suffered from a profound visual processing disorder that made filling out standard paperwork akin to solving a Rubik’s cube. She got the support she needed to manage the disability and soon thrived in the ornamental horticulture program, where she was hoping to earn a degree to help her get ahead at her job.
“I was working at a local nursery at the time, so my instructors told me, ‘Janet, you already know all this stuff. Your questions in class are all science-related. You need to be in the science department.”
She quickly switched gears and changed her focus. Nette was one of her first science instructors.
“What impressed me the most about Janet, was despite the many challenges she faced, she always found ways to overcome them through hard work and determination,” Nette said.
Chemistry Professor Laurie LeBlanc felt the same way.
“Janet was just an incredibly intelligent student, the best student I had,” LeBlanc said. “She was never satisfied with just getting information. She always wanted to know the ‘why’ behind the information. She was always asking questions.”
Those questions led to a passion for biology, a 4.0 grade point average and a transfer to San Diego State University, where Leak-Garcia earned a bachelor’s degree in biology with an emphasis in ecology and a minor in mathematics.
Working full time, raising a daughter and living with a disability, Leak-Garcia was 40 years old when she graduated from San Diego State and began her Ph.D. studies at the Genetics, Genomics & Bioinfomatics Program at UC Riverside.
Her postdoctoral program consisted of a prestigious fellowship at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a nonprofit that publishes Science, the premier global science weekly. “I gave away what little furniture I had and flew out to Washington, D.C., with two cats.”
It was during her fellowship in 2010 that Leak-Garcia found herself reading the fine print and preparing position papers for bilateral trade talks with South Korea that resulted in stronger protection for produce grown on organic farms in the United States. She also organized a conference for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, a forum for 21 nations that promotes free trade in the Pacific Rim. Along the way, she has written several research papers and journal articles, ranging from ‘Crops Gone Wild: Evolution of Weeds and Invasives from Domesticated Ancestors’ to ‘Multiple Taxa Contribute to the Genesis of the Invasive California Wild Artichoke Thistle.’
“Janet is a person who is showing what an education can do and how it can transform your life,” LeBlanc said. “She’s just an amazing person with an amazing story.”
Today, she is a policy analyst within the Research and Development arm at the U.S. Forest Service.
“I had a dream that I could have a job that leveraged all of my skills and abilities, and would support me and my daughter while maximizing my ability to be a contributing member of society,” Leak-Garcia said. “That I would be able to break an intergenerational legacy of poverty in my family. I literally wanted to change the story of my future lineage. The much-needed personal support that I received from the faculty and staff at Cuyamaca College was essential in allowing me to do that. I am indeed forever grateful.”