Saddleback Graduate Suzee Ramirez Earns Certificate to Create Urban Farms Student Spotlight

April 19, 2023
Saddleback Graduate Suzee Ramirez

Suzee Ramirez loves the outdoors and all it has to offer, not the least of which includes hiking, mountain biking, the ocean, and spending time in the garden. Which is why, when she was looking for a career change, she looked to Saddleback College’s Sustainable Horticulture and Landscape Design Program.

Even before earning certificates in Landscape Design and Sustainable Horticulture, Ramirez, 54, and two of her fellow students launched a burgeoning landscape design and construction firm, Urban Ecology Studio, that is working with clients to create thriving, sustainable ecosystems, urban farms, and ‘living walls.’ Among its growing customer base are residents served by area water districts looking to transform their lawns into more drought-tolerant landscapes. One of their recent projects was to convert the courtyard of the Community Roots Academy charter school in Laguna Niguel to an outdoor learning area.

“The program definitely prepares someone to get a career in this field,” she said. “I know several students who started their own businesses and others who got a job in the field.”

Ramirez is not alone. The Saddleback College Horticulture and Landscape Design Program has welcomed thousands of students into its classes since it opened in 1975. The program works closely with the landscape and horticulture industry in developing its curriculum and offers cooperative work experience internships with the likes of Rancho Mission Viejo Farms, the Home Depot Garden Center, Gothic Landscape, BrightView Design Group, Roger’s Gardens, and others.

Classes run the gamut from Introduction to Horticultural Science, to Soils and Fertilizers, to Licensure for the Landscape Contractor, to Native Plants in the Urban Landscape. Certificates, associate degrees, and occupational skills awards are offered in Sustainable Horticulture, Landscape Design, General Landscape Design, General Horticulture, and Plant Identification.

Pay varies according to the job, but landscape architects in California are earning an average of nearly $90,000 annually, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Born and raised in Orange County, Ramirez grew up in Fountain Valley and graduated from Fountain Valley High School before she started her first career as a graphic designer and marketer, first for the Coca-Cola Company, then opening a design studio with two partners, and, for the last 15 years, as a freelancer. In all, she spent more than 30 years as a graphic designer, earning a bachelor’s degree in marketing from National University along the way.

But all along, the great outdoors was calling. “I was really looking to transition my career. I wanted to get outside, explore my love of nature and plants.”

After hearing about the Saddleback College program from a Facebook friend who was teaching a class, Ramirez took the plunge. Her two daughters were still in high school when she returned to college in 2018.

“Going back to school was an adjustment for me. Balancing work and family and school, but once I got into it, I made it work.”

“I was coming at it from a place of passion,” she continued. “I wasn’t going to waste my time or anybody else’s time. I asked a lot of questions. I went on a lot of field trips. I never missed a class. And I made a lot of friends. It was really neat to meet people from a lot of different groups, a lot of different cultures, a lot of different countries.”

The Horticulture and Landscape Design program is one of numerous career education offerings at Saddleback College that are boosting skills and yielding higher pay. In fact, students who earn a certificate – or as little as nine units in a career education program – are earning, on average, $7 more per hour than they did before enrolling. That comes out to $13,400 per year. Better yet, more than 71% of students get a job in their field of study within three months and 90% say they are very satisfied or satisfied with the training and education they’ve received.

Ramirez is satisfied she’s already planning to return. Just one year after earning her initial certificates, she’s considering returning to the college soon for another certificate, this one in Ecological Restoration.

And why not?

“The teachers at Saddleback and community at Saddleback were phenomenal,” said Ramirez. “If you dive in, they’ll give you all the support you need.”