Cesar Saquic draws a sample of the biofuel in process from a plant centrifuge. Courtesy photo
Partnership between community college, industry leader made the difference for this first-generation student
By RACHEL COLEMAN
When Cesar Saquic heads to work at High Plains Bioenergy in Guymon, Okla., he rides his bicycle and carries a backpack stuffed with jeans, work boots and a sack lunch slung over his shoulders. It’s just a few miles from his rented room to the plant — but it might as well be another world.
Saquic’s life today is nothing like it was a year ago, before he enrolled at Seward County Community College/Area Technical School in Liberal to study process technology. That was also before he met a recruiter from Seaboard Foods, the parent corporation of the biodiesel plant and sponsor of scholarships for promising students.
Saquic had no idea he would work for a Fortune 500 company: college itself was a continent away from where he began.
“I still think of it as a great privilege, to be able to go to college and to work,” Saquic said. “It seems too good to be true. I’m living as an example that if you go to college, you can express your true potential. You can succeed and have a job you like.”
Such heights were unimaginable in the Central American village where Saquic’s family grew corn, tomatoes and sweet potatoes, and raised chickens and pigs, laboring to produce enough food to keep everyone alive. Saquic and his four siblings attended the only school in the area, a two-mile trek across the river.
“Our situation was difficult,” Saquic said. Floods sometimes made the river impassable. Medical care was limited to occasional penicillin shots. Hopes for a more prosperous life drew the family to the United States and Liberal, Kan.
Saquic and his brothers learned Spanish and English, and forgot the dialect of childhood. They made friends, attended church and studied hard in school. Yet when Saquic earned his high school diploma, his father felt the family’s third son had learned all anyone needed to know.
“Now you can get a job,” his father said. “What’s the point of coming to the United States if you can’t work?”
But Saquic had other ideas.
“I knew I wanted to go to college,” he said, “and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t know how this is going to work out.’”
To comply with his family’s wishes, Saquic took a job at a local restaurant. He also enrolled in summer classes at SCCC/ATS. By August, English composition and college algebra vanquished, Saquic signed up for a full course-load. Along the way, he realized a teaching degree in the subject he loved would only reinforce his father’s suspicion that college was a waste of money.
“My parents would go crazy if I became a math teacher,” he said. He needed a more pragmatic approach.
Saquic thought back to his senior year in high school, when SCCC/ATS process technology instructor Harold Fick visited an environmental science class.
“He told us about the new process technology program, how you don’t have to be a genius, it’s just some chemistry, some algebra — and then he started throwing numbers out there,” Saquic recalled. “Depending on your expertise and your knowledge, you can make $40,000, $80,000 as an operator. I was thinking, ‘sign me up.’”
That’s what he did.
Saquic’s father “was still pretty down on college,” Saquic said. “He told me, ‘If you have not accomplished anything in one year, you’re out.’”
More obstacles materialized. When Saquic took a second-shift job at the local meat-packing plant, he quickly learned the mental price of physical fatigue.
“I couldn’t focus on college, but I thought I was going to save up money and it turned out my parents needed it,” Saquic said. “That’s normal in the culture I live in, but I felt sad.” He let the job go, though he worried about his tuition bill and his grades.
Things changed when Saquic attended a career day event at his former high school to earn extra credit. While he manned the process technology information table, he heard about a scholarship offered by Seaboard Foods.
“I thought, there’s no such thing as free money, but they do — they give scholarships away,” he said, still sounding a bit astonished. “I talked to their recruiter, Chad Bransgrove and he told me if I signed up by the end of the day, I might get help.”
Bransgrove emailed the application form and Saquic submitted it before the deadline.
“My relationship with Seaboard started that day,” he said.
The $1,000 scholarship proved to be the pivotal factor in Saquic’s first year as a first-generation college student. He completed his one-year certificate in process technology in May. By June, he had secured a position — full time, not an internship — at High Plains Bioenergy.
“He’s one of the fastest workers they’ve moved along,” Bransgrove said, who has tracked the progress of his scholarship recipient with approval. “His coworkers can’t believe how much he knows. Now they’re talking about how they want to go take the process training at the college.”
Seaboard Foods recruiting manager David Watkins would like nothing more.
Partnerships with educators like SCCC/ATS benefit everyone, he said — the region’s economy, the company itself, the employees and the industry at large.
“Across the United States, we see the skilled workforce aging out and diminishing at an alarming rate,” he said. “Industry is requiring more qualified, trained technicians in the future — and there is a limited number of new technicians in the talent pipeline.”
Seaboard Foods has great opportunities in a variety of areas, Watkins pointed out: maintenance and process technicians, animal production and processing, commercial drivers, to name a few. The company felt the need to create a scholarship program and a career pathway, supporting training and education to those interested in these opportunities. It hopes this will fill some of the void coming in the near future.
“We give scholarships to encourage students to get the training they need,” Watkins said. “Sure, some of them might take that training and move on, but in the end, it’s good for everyone.”
Watkins is especially pleased when he sees the positive effect on longstanding employees, who consider getting into the classroom when they realize it’s possible and even encouraged by the company.
At his workstation, Saquic monitors the machines that transform animal fat into fuel. Periodically, he dons a hard hat and collects samples from the centrifuge units. His father, he says, has trouble visualizing his son’s job.
“He asks what I do all day, and I tell him I sit in front of the computer, I collect samples, I use what I learned in class,” Saquic said. In contrast to the manual labor that has marked his father’s life journey “it’s hard for him to believe,” said Saquic. “The first paycheck I got, I took it to show him. I asked, ‘What do you think about college now?‘’
Saquic’s father examined the check, a larger sum than he’d ever earned in a single pay period. He looked at his son and said, “You should try to convince your brothers to go to college, too.”
For information about the process technology program at Seward County Community College/Area Technical School, contact the college at 1-800-373-9951 or visit www.sccc.edu. Learn more about Seaboard Foods and High Plains Bioenergy at www.seaboardfoods.com and www.highplainsbioenergy.com.
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