Gaddi Vasquez was so eager to get started on his college education that he took core community college courses while still a high school senior and graduated early so he could enroll for the spring semester at Santa Ana College.

For Vasquez, who was the first person of Hispanic ancestry to serve as Peace Corps director, a college education was a way out of crippling poverty.

The son of migrant farm workers, Vasquez was the first in his family to get a college education, first at Santa Ana College and then a bachelor’s degree in public service management from the University of Redlands.

He has had a varied career, serving as a police officer and chair of the Orange County Board of Supervisors along the way. But his two highest-profile jobs came as Peace Corps director and as United States ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome.

He remains grateful to his community college roots.

“My Santa Ana College experience was fulfilling and insightful,” said Vasquez, whose resume also includes vice president of public affairs for Southern California Edison. “Back then, the classes were smaller and the interaction with professors was frequent, and their good counsel had a great impact on me.”

One of Vasquez’s major initiatives as Peace Corps director during his term that ended in 2006 was teaming with the American Association of Community Colleges to increase the number of community college students in the Corps. He noted that much of the workforce training taking place at community colleges provides exactly the type of skills and experience needed to help Third World countries.

Vasquez liked the initiative so much that one of the community colleges he stopped at to announce the partnership between the Peace Corps and the American Association of Community Colleges was Santa Ana College.

“Santa Ana College was defining in so many ways,” Vasquez said. “It gave me a strong foundation for life-long learning and I am grateful for the education I received there.”