SOLEDAD — Leily Garcia will graduate from Soledad High School this Saturday, but at 16 years old, she also concludes the school year with four degrees from Hartnell College.
The May 21 community college commencement ceremony marked a turning point in Garcia’s journey toward becoming a doctor. She said finishing high school with an additional 85 college credits was a matter of using her time wisely.
That personal investment means Garcia will enter University of California, Los Angeles, at roughly a mid-sophomore level. She plans to study biology and continue on to medical school.
Garcia, however, views the journey as something extracurricular, like sports or clubs.
“After seeing my parents’ proud faces and seeing them send the link to family members and seeing them really proud of me, it made me see it in a different perspective,” she said.
The first-generation college student also will receive a diploma on June 12 as the youngest member of the Soledad High School Class of 2021, with a weighted GPA of 4.6. Her Hartnell GPA is 3.8, earning her summa cum laude honors.
Garcia leveraged her work ethic and determination through Hartnell’s concurrent and dual enrollment programs, which allow students to earn college credits in their spare time and while taking high school courses. She was able to fit in other activities, as well.
Garcia competed for Soledad in cross country and swimming, played clarinet in the marching band and was president of the D.I.Y. club. On weekends, she sometimes helped serve meals to the homeless at the Victory Mission in Salinas.
“I was still able to go out with friends,” Garcia said. “I still had time to relax. I still had time to spend with my pets. I would watch TV shows. I would sleep in during the weekends. There were some sacrifices I had to make, some changes I had to make maybe, but I wouldn’t say I didn’t have the normal high school experience.”
Garcia’s four associate degrees from Hartnell are in Spanish, plus three separate areas of emphasis in liberal arts: culture and society, humanities and languages and literature. She also has completed the Intersegmental General Education Transfer Curriculum (IGETC), a series of courses that California community college students can complete to satisfy freshman and sophomore level general education requirements before transferring to most colleges and majors at UC campuses.
The multiple degrees came as a bonus in addition to the primary goal of earning a Spanish degree, Garcia explained.
“The only degree I was pursuing at that time was Spanish,” she said. “I grew up speaking Spanish and knew how to write it, but I wanted to make sure that I could communicate properly with people of my culture. I wanted to become a doctor and wanted to make sure they had a familiar face and a language.”
She said the rest of the degrees came from classes that she felt would benefit her in the future or enrich her or that met general education requirements. Through the myriad of classes, extra degrees fell into place.
“It wasn’t that I was pursuing those degrees, but because I took those classes to gain more understanding, that’s where they came from,” Garcia said.
Garcia credited the Upward Bound summer residential program at Cal State Monterey Bay, where she earned CSUMB and Monterey Peninsula College credit and was able to tour all the UC campuses in Southern California. She also credits the encouragement of her immigrant parents, Maria Elena Garcia and Alfredo Garcia, and the example of her older brother, who likewise earned a Hartnell degree while in high school.
Garcia said that when she began taking courses at Hartnell’s King City Education Center during the summer after eighth grade, independence was her primary motivation. But over time, she began to focus more on her long-term goal of becoming an anesthesiologist and how she could accelerate the typical 12-year path to that high-stakes career.
“I wanted to become a doctor in the shortest time possible,” said Garcia, who was able to skip kindergarten after two years of preschool. “I wanted to help people sooner.”
Garcia described her career goal of anesthesiologist as being the medical technician responsible for putting people to sleep and waking them up. In the job, she would monitor patient vitals to make sure blood pressure was fine and watch for any complications to ensure the patient’s condition during surgery.
“Since I was very young, I showed signs I want to help people,” she said. “When I was in preschool, I would say I wanted to perform surgery on people and make them feel better.”
Garcia said neither the older students in her Hartnell classes nor her instructors ever made her feel uncomfortable or cut her any slack because of her age.
While taking afternoon and weekend courses at Hartnell’s King City center and on the Main Campus in Salinas, as well as some online, she also began taking dual enrollment courses as a Soledad High sophomore.
The summer won’t be a time of complete break from academics for Garcia. On top of her job at Starbucks, she plans to pick up a few more credits at Hartnell before starting at UCLA.
“I’m going to take a couple, calculus and chemistry, that are undergraduate requirements at UCLA,” Garcia said. “I thought I could get the classes out of the way.”