Jason Garcia grew up in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he had lived since the age of 5. During their son’s adolescence, Garcia’s parents made a sudden decision to move away from city life. Their new home was a rural piece of land well outside the small town of Arcadia, Fla.
“We lived about 10 miles outside of town, in the middle of the country,” said the native of Parma, Ohio, just outside of Cleveland. “Our closest neighbors were cows and orange trees. It was a huge culture shock, being from Cleveland, then living in St. Pete, then moving to Arcadia.”
Garcia did well at DeSoto County High School, class of 2000, then began an initially ignominious collegiate career at Florida Southern College in Lakeland on a campus famous for its Frank Lloyd Wright architecture. But for Garcia, who was studying chemistry and biology on an academic scholarship, stunning surroundings failed to strike a chord for academic inspiration.
“I just had to work a little on-campus job and go to class, but I didn’t take things very serious,” he said.
Not only was his future at stake, but a familial tradition was wavering on the brink, as well.
“My dad’s family is from the Philippines,” he explained, “so as a tradition, you’re supposed to go be a physician. His parents were physicians. Their parents were physicians. So when it’s time for you to go to school, you’re going to be a physician.”
But if Garcia learned one truly valuable life lesson at Florida’s oldest private college, it was that he wasn’t going to be able to shove a square peg into a round hole.
“After my first semester at Florida Southern, I wasn’t going to be a physician anymore. My grades were awful, absolutely awful. I can remember the talk distinctly. My parents said, ‘Okay, you’re moving home. You’re going to work full-time, and you’re going to go to school full-time.’ And that’s what I did the rest of the time I was an undergrad. I worked 40 hours a week and went to school. And I struggled,” he recalled, still shaking his head at the memory. “It was terrible. To be frank with you, it sucked.”
His new academic home was in Ft. Myers at what was then known as Edison Community College (now Florida Southwestern State College). He did a bit better academically, arguably much better given the circumstances, and completed his AA in 2003.
“As I went through, I still did poorly in a lot of classes,” he said, “but I did enough to pass.”
His next stop was elsewhere in Ft. Myers, at Florida Gulf Coast University, where he found a new major in his former minor, biology.
“I had to work twice as hard as everybody else, because I didn’t have the foundations,” he recalled. “In 2006, I graduated with my degree in biology, and I can remember walking into the auditorium at graduation and crying, because I made it to that point, and there were several times along the way that I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m over this. I can’t do any more.’
“But then you realize, okay, what are your options? You’re not doing anything for yourself by quitting. So I kept pushing myself, kept pushing myself, kept pushing myself, and I made it to that mountaintop. That was a huge confidence booster for me.”
Garcia’s girlfriend, Amy (now his wife), was a USF undergrad majoring in athletic training (graduated 2008), so he moved to Tampa. With degree in hand and newfound confidence in head, he made his own sudden decision to apply to graduate school at USF, even though he didn’t think it likely that he’d get in with his so-so GPA and a sub-par GRE score to boot. He was right: application denied.
“I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to go work, get some experience under my belt, and then I’ll revisit this down the road.’ I got a job with Nestle Waters of North America, which is the parent company of Zephyrhills Spring Water. I started out as a quality control technician working the third shift,” he said, then added with slowed emphasis, “and … it … was … awful. I would go to work at 11 p.m. and work ’til 7 a.m., and I never knew what day it was.”
Nonetheless, Garcia believed that paying his dues through hard work would eventually bring rewards. He hung in with the night shift for six months, then found deliverance in a promotion to plant microbiologist. In one fell swoop, he was off nights and into work he actually enjoyed, a job that eventually would lead him to public health.
“It was my job to make sure there were no chemical, physical or biological hazards in our product,” he said, “and it was fascinating. I absolutely loved it. It’s not every day that you see people graduate and then get to work in their field. I was doing things that I’d learned in school. I have friends who take chemistry and say, ‘Hey, I’ll never use that again.’ I used it every day. It was a great experience for me.”
After almost two years on the job, he was promoted again, this time to quality systems coordinator. As such, he would analyze complaints, find the underlying causes, then troubleshoot for solutions.
“It’s a huge manufacturing plant,” he said. “It has 11 production lines, over 300 workers. That’s where I became interested in industrial hygiene. We had people who would come in and do assessments on the workers there, whether it was noise or exposure issues or whatever. I said, ‘That looks pretty interesting.’”
It was, he decided, time to check his bearings. He determined that he was far enough down his road to try another drive toward graduate school. He retook the GRE and got a higher score. This time was different: application accepted by Nova Southeastern University, where he earned a master of public health degree and passed the Certified in Public Health exam issued by the National Board of Public Health Examiners.
Suddenly a reluctant scholar no longer, Garcia served as president of the Public Health Student Association. He worked with HIV and AIDS patients for the Broward Regional Health Planning Council. He worked on various fronts with the alumni association. He completed his field experience by overseeing a project with the Broward County Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control to increase influenza vaccination rates.
“It was very rewarding,” he said. “I learned a lot. I learned about politics involved with different things. I learned how to go out into the community and speak with different people. That was really powerful, because you can learn about it in class, but being out there is a completely different story.”
As he wrapped up his MPH, Garcia received the Chancellor’s Award for best public health student and the Public Health Service Award, given to the public health student who displays exemplary leadership in the field.
“I had a chance to make up for my undergraduate failures,” he flatly declared.
That in itself felt so good, he couldn’t deny himself one last rush of accomplishment as a student: the terminal degree.
“I want more for myself and for us,” he told his wife. She agreed.
“If there’s one thing that I can say for sure,” he said, “it’s that I have been very, very fortunate, because my wife and I have been together since 2002, and she has been right by my side. Even though decisions might seem crazy, she always stands by me and supports me.”
And evidently, with good reason. That last possibly crazy notion has produced a USF College of Public Health doctoral candidate who just brought home a pair of major scholarship awards from the American Industrial Hygiene Association for a combined $6,600.
After he got the phone call that he’d received the awards, Garcia said, he first sent e-mails to his major professors in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health thanking them and telling them it was as much their doing as it was his.
“That’s just how I feel about it,” he said. “They put so much time and effort into educating us. If you need help, they’ll sit with you and not bat an eye. I know a lot of places where it’s not like that.”
Then Jason Garcia, the once-reluctant scholar, gave his drive for completion one last mention.
“It’s been a long road,” he said. “I’m almost there. The light at the end of the tunnel is very small, but I can see it.”
Story by David Brothers, College of Public Health. Photos courtesy of Jason and Amy Garcia.