Designing a Future at Saddleback College Feature Story

June 01, 2021

Sara VandenBroek is a believer. Bachelor’s degree in hand and a steady job on her resume, VandenBroek was nonetheless left wanting for a career that would feed her creativity. Thanks to Saddleback College, the 30-year-old Rancho Santa Margarita native found a successful future as a landscape designer at a Long Beach architectural firm.

“This is my dream,” VandenBroek said. “This is a career where I can influence how people live and interact with each other while also taking care of the environment and promoting low-impact development.”

Established in 1975, the Saddleback College Horticulture and Landscape Design Program is but one of dozens of career education programs that are building the regional economy. It has welcomed thousands of students into its classes over the years, and its dedication to industry collaboration has yielded work experience and internship opportunities with the likes of Park West Companies, BrightView Design Group, Tree of Life Nursery, Sendero Urban Farm, and the Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center.

VandenBroek wasn’t new to Saddleback when she enrolled in the Landscape Design Program in 2016; she took several dual enrollment courses at the college while she was a senior at Tesoro High School.

It would be a few years before she returned. Along the way, VandenBroek attended California State University Long Beach to study vocal performance but found after she earned her bachelor’s degree that her heart just wasn’t into it. While she contemplated her options, she continued working at a local biomedical engineering firm while researching other careers that better fit who she was and what she wanted to do.

During this time, her love of landscape design evolved.

“I like the problem-solving of engineering and the art and creativity of music,” VandenBroek said. “Put it together and you have landscape design and architecture.”

When an aunt recommended the Saddleback College Landscape Design Program, VandenBroek was intrigued. She initially took just one class, then two more. “I wanted to make sure that I liked it and could still work full time.”

That was in 2014. After two years of building a portfolio, completing multiple internships, and acing landscape design courses, VandenBroek transferred to the two-year, Cornell University Landscape Architecture Graduate Program in Ithaca, New York.

She graduated with her master’s degree in 2018 and almost immediately began working as a designer at Studio One Eleven, a firm whose projects include creating landscaped plazas, courtyards, parks, affordable housing complexes, commercial buildings, and more.

Her former Saddleback College faculty say VandenBroek embodies how California’s community colleges are helping students find their calling.

“Sara’s passion for creating sustainable living environments was easily recognizable from the moment we met,” said Professor Ken Lee, co-chair and CTE Faculty Liaison of the Horticulture and Landscape Design Department and CTE Committee Co-Chair at Saddleback College. “With her positive and proactive attitude towards all challenges she faced, she was always able to find a way to recognize the positive side of the challenge and to enhance it with her creativity. Her caring for others is always genuine and sincere, reflecting her wonderful personality in a teamwork environment. I have absolutely no doubt that she will be a successful landscape design professional caring for our environment and people in it with her creativity and passion for sustainable living.”

Robert Farnsworth agrees. “Sara exhibits leadership and teamwork and inspires others along the way,” said the Horticulture and Landscape Design Department co-chair. “Sara will be the first to sit down with ‘sharp pencil and trace’ to solve a design challenge. She’ll be the first to wield a sharp shovel for a volunteer garden project. She is smart, creative, confident, and patient with others. Sara sets a fine example.”

What would VandenBroek tell someone contemplating a move to the Saddleback College program?

“Do it. Absolutely. Do it. The amount the program has grown just since I left has been amazing. The amount of time and effort the professors put into the program and their students is impressive. This program can take you anywhere. It can take you to a good job or prepare you for a graduate program. I’m grateful for what I found there. That program is a complete gem.”