U.S. Peace Corps
Santa Ana College, California
By Evelyn Kent
In third grade Gaddi Vasquez volunteered for his first civic task and started down the road that would lead him to the front office of the Peace Corps.
Along that path Vasquez would earn an associate degree from Santa Ana College, become a police officer, serve on boards of local, state and federal civic and social service organizations, and become an executive for a major California power utility.
That first task was offering to oversee a school fundraising project, but the drive to succeed began even earlier. He credits his parents, migrant farm workers, with instilling in him an inescapable work ethic. “It is an abiding principal that is the key to success,” Vasquez said.
For Vasquez, working hard meant getting a shoeshine job at a corporation at the age of 11 and doing well in school. When he graduated from high school he had scholarship opportunities to four-year universities but opted for Santa Ana College instead because he wanted to stay in the community and because he felt the community college would help him navigate the unfamiliar waters of higher education.
He was right. “Santa Ana was a landmark moment for me because it was a starting point for me to advance my education beyond high school. The quality of education was outstanding. I had great professors.”
After leaving Santa Ana College, Vasquez attended the Los Angeles Police Academy and graduated valedictorian of his class. Eventually he returned to college, earned a bachelor’s degree, was elected Orange County Supervisor, and served two of his state’s governors and President George Bush in appointed positions.
Vasquez took the reigns of the Peace Corps in February 2002. In his office he has a picture of himself and his father standing in front of a trailer. That home had no floor and was without running water and electricity. Next to it is a photo of Vasquez in the Oval Office, shaking President George W. Bush’s hand.
Vasquez said the path in between was quite a journey and was fueled by his need to be involved and make a difference. “I just couldn’t be a spectator.”
He finds it incredible that he has a job he loves so much and in which he can do so much good. “I still pinch myself every day,” he said.
Taking the job in a tense global environment hasn’t been especially tough, Vasquez said. He has focused on reorganizing the corps to emphasize safety and security. “I think it sends a strong signal to those who are applying,” he said.
Which is doubly important because Peace Corps volunteers “put a face on America.” Vasquez has found that overseas that face is almost exclusively considered white. As the first Hispanic director of the corps, he’s especially sensitive to the fact that whites make up about 85 percent of the corps.
He would like to change that to better reflect the ethnic diversity of America and to scale some of the barriers to recruitment in traditionally poorer parts of American culture.
Accordingly, at the American Association of Community Colleges’ 2003 convention in Dallas, the Peace Corps will unveil a new effort to recruit on America’s two-year college campuses where ethnic minorities are more likely to enter higher education.
It seems a natural fit. After all, Santa Ana College is where Vasquez began his education.