Gavilan College marks 100 years, looks to the future

AERIAL VIEW Gavilan College's Gilroy campus is shown in this undated photo. Gavilan College archives

1919 was a bittersweet year.

The deadliest war of the time had just ended the prior year, yet the world was fighting another battle on a different front. The Spanish flu was at its height, and by the time it ended in late 1920, an estimated 50 million people died from the virus worldwide.

It is understandable that a decision that would forever change the course of history in San Benito and the South Valley quietly slipped under the radar that year.

Local education officials at the San Benito High School District, noting the lack of affordable options for higher education in the area, decided to join the budding junior college movement, according to research by Gavilan College history instructor Leah Halper.

However, when the then-San Benito County Junior College began offering classes in the fall of 1919, it was to little fanfare. According to Halper’s article “To Dream on Your Behalf: A History of Gavilan College,” the only mention of the debut was a line in the Free Lance mentioning that 18 students were enrolled in the new junior college at San Benito High School.

At 100 years old, the now-Gavilan College is certainly not letting its centennial go unnoticed.

The college is hosting a sold-out gala in early September to kick off a year of special events leading up to the college’s 100th graduating class in May 2020.

Guests of the gala will take a nostalgic stroll down Sycamore Lane, where stations will be themed to each decade featuring food, wine, music, students in period costume and more.

President/Superintendent Dr. Kathleen Rose said the college has been gearing up for the centennial for a year, researching the Gavilan’s history and talking to alumni about their experiences.

“I’m thrilled I have the honorable opportunity and privilege to be at Gavilan College at this point,” she said. “What’s been thrilling about it for me is all the history that is bubbling to the surface. It’s super exciting to be a part of that.”

‘It all started at Gavilan’

Gavilan College has produced numerous alumni over its 10 decades, from professional athletes to notable politicians and prominent business owners.

Luis Alejo, a former California Assembly member and Watsonville mayor who is currently a Monterey County Supervisor, graduated from Gavilan in 1994 with a degree in liberal studies.

“When I look back, it was my time at Gavilan College that was the most pivotal moment in my life,” he said. “It completely changed my outlook on my future.”

Alejo, a successful wrestler at Watsonville High School, said he originally went to Gavilan because it was the only local community college with a wrestling team. But the college, as it turned out, provided a springboard into a career as a legislator.

His first elected office was as a student body senator at Gavilan, where he met his best friend Felipe Hernandez, now a Watsonville City Council member.

“We are both in politics today, but it all started at Gavilan,” Alejo said. “I took my first ethnic studies course there and it helped me get serious about school, politics and community organizing.”

At Gavilan, Alejo became captain of the wrestling team and was a state championship placer in the sport.

“I learned to be tough running the cross country course in the hills behind the college on a daily basis in Gilroy’s hot temperatures,” he said. “In high school, we used to wrestle against all the local teams, like San Benito, Gilroy and North County high schools. But at Gavilan, we all became teammates and good friends.”

After Gavilan, Alejo transferred to UC Berkeley, graduating with honors. He later graduated from UC Davis School of Law and Harvard University. 

“Till this day, I thank Gavilan for helping me, as a young man, realize my full potential and fulfill all my academic and professional goals,” he said.

Julio Lucas, a 1968 Gavilan alumnus, attended the college after graduating from high school in Tulare County. His first year at Gavilan was in 1965, toward the end of the college’s time at the old Hollister airport.

During his run at Gavilan, Lucas was the student body president, wrestled and played football for the team.

“The teachers were incredibly, incredibly helpful,” he said. “It was a family environment. In my opinion, it still continues today.”

Lucas majored in business administration and marketing, which helped him launch a successful career in various businesses throughout the country. His wife Aydee also graduated from Gavilan, and enjoyed a long career at IBM, retiring as a software engineer.

“We’ve had a wonderful run as far as our career,” he said. “It all started at Gavilan.”

Future expansion

Today, Gavilan College has five sites throughout southern Santa Clara County and San Benito County, stretching from Coyote Valley to the north to downtown Hollister to the south.

It plans to eventually add a sixth site on a 78-acre parcel located at the intersection of Highway 25 and Fairview Road in San Benito County to serve the residents of Hollister and surrounding areas. Gavilan purchased the property located near the Ridgemark Golf Club and Resort more than a decade ago.

While still too early to say, Rose said the new campus could open its doors in the next three to four years. The college has selected a master architect and civil engineer for the project.

“It’s our number one project,” Rose said.

The San Benito Campus is closer to reality thanks to the 2018 passage of Measure X, a $248 million bond (the largest of all three bonds in Gavilan’s history) that will upgrade aging facilities and add classrooms, among many other projects.

“We are going to be able to transform our learning districts because of [Measure X],” Rose said.

The passage of Measure X speaks volumes of the support Gavilan has in the community that has allowed it to reach 100 years, she added.

“Our endurance is because of our students and the support of the community and faculty,” Rose said. “We’ve had faculty who have done their entire career here. Our teaching and learning environment has remained strong all these decades.”

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