When Pedro Magdaleno arrived at California’s Anderson Valley High School in the ninth grade, he was a young immigrant from Mexico who spoke no English and had no idea what FFA was.
“I met Beth Swehla, the agriculture teacher, and she showed me the school’s 12 hens and a rooster in the pasture,” Magdaleno recalls. “I had never seen chickens like those, and I was interested in raising poultry, so I signed up for her Intro to Ag class.”
Soon after, Magdaleno joined the school’s FFA chapter.
“I thought FFA was the coolest thing ever, but I always needed someone to translate for me, so it inspired me to learn more English,” he says. “I started paying extra attention in my ESL class. My English was really broken at first, but the following year, I was able to be sentinel for our FFA chapter. Later, I became treasurer and vice president.”
That was 12 years ago. Today, Magdaleno works as a helicopter repairman in the U.S. Army. He credits his FFA experience as one of the primary reasons for his success, both personally and professionally.
“I graduated in 2007 from high school with honors. I couldn’t afford college, and I was an undocumented immigrant,” he says. “But the leadership and skills I acquired through FFA had so much meaning for me and provided me with a foundation to build on.”
After high school, Magdaleno worked at Tractor Supply Co. and attended community college, where he graduated from a two-year program with honors.
“It actually took me longer than two years because we had some family challenges, and I had to focus on making a living and surviving,” he says. “My mom and dad had six children, and when I was 19 and 20 years old, I had to be the head of our household and support my siblings financially.”
But he never gave up. Due to the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration policy enacted by President Obama in 2012, Magdaleno was able to become a legal immigrant and apply for college scholarships. He earned a full-ride scholarship to the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where he completed his bachelor’s degree in social sciences in 2016.
“After that, I pursued my master’s degree in clinical social work from USC [the University of Southern California], and I took courses where I learned about how PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] affects military families,” he says. “When I earned my master’s degree, I ended up enlisting in the U.S. Army as a helicopter repairman. I plan to make this a career and become an officer in the Army.”
Meanwhile, Magdaleno was able to pursue U.S. citizenship. During his time in the Army, he says he has seen things he would like to change. That’s why he’s planning to move up the ladder and become an officer.
“If I can’t change it, at least I can improve it to help benefit our soldiers,” he says.
Now 31 years old and stationed in Colorado, Magdaleno recently visited his high school in California and had the opportunity to speak to current agriculture students.
“I stopped by my former FFA advisor’s office to thank her for teaching me so much, and she invited me to give her students some advice,” he says. “My advice to students is that it’s not about where you came from that matters – it’s where you want to be. Your accomplishments shouldn’t be measured on how much money you are making. It’s more about your efforts, your struggles and how you make your dreams feasible for you.”
That has certainly been true for Magdaleno.
“If someone tells you no – that something is not possible for you – you have to exhaust every option you have. I have never walked away from an opportunity to make doors open for me,” he says. “But it takes hard work and ethics.”
Magdaleno also says students should appreciate what they are doing in the moment.
“In high school, you don’t always appreciate the opportunities you have,” he says. “When teachers give you advice, hold onto that advice because it’s valuable to you. Every piece of information, every opportunity, becomes an asset. Your future success starts with you.”