Students transforming their lives honored by Big Bend

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Tiffany Sukola/Big Bend Community College/courtesy photo Left to right - Terry Leas, BBCC President; Jon Lane, Board of Trustees Chair; Thomas Stredwick, BBCC Trustee; Juanita Richards, BBCC Trustee; Miguel Cruz-Santiago, current student; Anna Franz, BBCC Trustee; Agustina Gutierrez, BBCC Alumna; Stephen McFadden, BBCC Board of Trustees Vice Chair; James Leland, current BBCC student.

MOSES LAKE — It was on an inauspicious day two years ago that Jim Leland, a veteran, husband and father, was abruptly laid off from REC Silicon. He had worked there as a chemical operator for a year and a half, but he was still at the bottom of the totem pole and was just one of many who lost their jobs that day.

It was the second time he had been laid off from a job, and Leland decided it was going to be the last time – he wanted to work for himself. At a Worksource event with displays from various employers, Leland was pulled in to a Big Bend Community College booth demonstrating medical simulation devices. While he found the technology fascinating, he was more interested in a footnote program in unmanned systems that wasn’t quite off the ground.

The day the program became accredited, however, Leland was one of the first on board. He not only had to learn how to fly drones with professional precision, he needed to know how to build them or any other remotely-controlled vehicle, and he needed to know how to write the programs that made the whole thing work.

It was not Leland’s first time dipping his toes into the Byzantine world of software, having had spent time in a cubicle writing tax software for some time after he got out of military service. But for Leland, being stuck behind a desk for the rest of his life wasn’t a valid option.

But building drones from scratch and flying them in the great outdoors to improve surveying techniques for farmers, law enforcement and forest managers?

“It was a perfect fit,” Leland said.

Now, two years after losing another job, Leland and his wife have started their own business, 360 Aviation. Though a young business, Leland has big dreams of using drones to help farmers spot problems in orchards or line crops, using thermal imaging to help law enforcement find people hidden in the woods, or to help firefighters spot flare-ups in a wildfire.

But Leland has accomplished more than a fledgling business during his time at Big Bend, including work as the college’s Vet Corps Navigator. According to a letter of recommendation by Melinda Dourte, executive assistant to the president of the college, Leland has led a school supply drive for veterans and their dependents, supported a food drive for veterans, and helped organize both a programing event and the recent Search and Rescue summer camp.

Leland credits the college’s staff, from instructors to program coordinators, for much of his success.

“I don’t know if there’s a way to express the gratitude,” Leland said. “This has been a singular, unique opportunity. It defies explanation.”

But for staff and administrators at Big Bend, Leland earned every inch of his success. It was because of the work Leland has done to use education to transform not only his own life, but also the lives of others, that the college’s board of trustees nominated Leland to represent Big Bend at the Association of College Trustees (ACT) Transforming Lives Awards ceremony Jan. 21 in Olympia.

There, Leland will be honored for his work and possibly be among the five award winners designated by the ACT. Nominees will have their stories and picture included in an awards booklet shared by the ACT with legislators, the higher education community, and on the ACT’s website.

Three other current and former Big Bend students were also celebrated at a dinner Nov. 29, as the college’s board of trustees held its own version of the Transforming Lives Awards night.

Those students are Erika Armengol, who graduated Big Bend Community College with an Associate of Arts and Science Degree in 2016 and is studying at University of Washington Bothell for a Bachelor’s Degree in Health and Educational Studies; Miguel Cruz-Santiago, a graduate of the college’s GED program who is currently studying for a Direct Transfer Degree in Agriculture; and Agustina Gutierrez, a 2017 honors graduate of the college currently in her senior year at Eastern Washington University.

All three were recognized Nov. 29 for overcoming various barriers to success and transforming their lives through education.

For Leland, who has seen his life transform dramatically since losing his job, it wouldn’t have been possible without Big Bend Community College, he said.

“If you’ve got to get let go from a job, this is the place to go,” Leland said. “I couldn’t have done it without the people that I met. It’s absolutely mind-boggling the talent that I encountered.”

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