While studying abroad in Salamanca to improve his Spanish-language skills, Leighton Rice immersed himself in the rich history and culture of Spain. The experience left him inspired to learn about his own history and return to his hometown of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. There he joined the family business, Rice Fruit Company – the largest apple-packing facility in the Eastern U.S. – despite not having a background in agriculture. In our interview, Leighton shares how the lessons and skills he learned in Salamanca continue to impact his career, and why he supports scholarships for IES Abroad students.
IES Abroad: As a student at Haverford College majoring in Religion, why did you decide to study abroad and what drew you to Salamanca?
Leighton Rice: I decided to study abroad because I had talked to so many people who said that it was a must, that it was a life-changing experience and gave them a healthier attitude towards their college education. I wanted to go to a Spanish-speaking country because I had two years of college-level study in the language and thought that immersion was the best way to improve. This turned out to be very true. I remember towards the end of my study…renting some bikes and riding through the little pueblos outside the city with a friend who was doing study abroad concurrently in Holland. We stopped and chatted with some locals out for a walk. They asked me, after hearing me speak for ten minutes, if I was from Salamanca. That was a “wow” moment for me!
I wanted to go to Europe instead of Latin America because I’m more interested in European history and culture. I’ve also had a fascination with Spain since the summer of 1999, when my family went on a three-week vacation to Spain where we drove most of the Camino de Santiago. Also, I had recently read James Michener’s Iberia which details the different cities and regions of Spain. Salamanca called to me for some reason. For one, I’ve never been a big-city guy and Salamanca seemed just the right size. I feel like I explored every little nook and cranny of that beautiful town.
IES Abroad: What are some of the most influential memories from your time in Salamanca?
LR: One of the things I loved most about study abroad and about Salamanca, specifically, was the sense of discovery. You could walk down a crooked side-street and discover something magical – the likes of which would make it the main attraction in a town in the U.S. But in Salamanca, it was just one those hidden treasures that almost seemed forgotten. It might be a beautiful 900-year-old church or civic building or maybe a beautiful park or a piece of public art. The history practically dripped from the walls. I took a class on literature and poetry from Spain’s golden age. I remember one morning studying a poem written by a poet who, the book stated, also happened to be an organist. Stepping outside the classroom into one of the many beautiful plazas in the town, I took notice of a statue standing in front of what looked like organ pipes glistening with water that was trickling down in the fashion of a public fountain. When I looked closer, I saw it was the same name as the poet we were just reading. Somehow the professor didn’t think to mention that the same poet was an organist at one of the large cathedrals in Salamanca and that his statue stood just outside the door of the building.
IES Abroad: Why did you decide to go into agriculture and work for the family business, R&L Orchards and Rice Fruit Company?
LR: My role now is Quality Assurance Director at Rice Fruit Company. It is a fairly large business that packs and sells fruit for the wholesale market, mainly on the East Coast. Our largest customers are Walmart, Costco, Kroger, Sam’s Club, Publix, and Whole Foods. We also sell heavily into the New York and Boston markets. I came here about two years ago after seven years working at R&L Orchards, which is the field branch of the same family company. When I left Salamanca, I had the strong sense that I wanted to go into the family business. Similar to that was the feeling that I wanted to learn more about my hometown of Gettysburg. I can’t say why, exactly. For one, when you immerse yourself in world history, you become more aware of your own history and your role in the world. Just like the native Spaniards who might not think much of the cultural riches that surround them, I didn’t think much of the National Park at Gettysburg and all the monuments and stories about the battle. Now, I am more curious to learn about those things. And I am more interested to do my part to supply the world with quality apples and peaches.
IES Abroad: What are some of the biggest challenges you face in the business? Were there lessons learned in Salamanca that are valuable in your work today as both a farmer and a businessman?
LR: A family business presents many challenges that a normal business does not. I’ve weathered many challenges related to that aspect of my career. In the end, I see it as a positive thing, and I have to attribute some of that optimism to the lessons I learned while studying abroad. Specifically, I learned a great deal of humility when I was abroad. Study abroad is not an easy experience, and I don’t think anyone should expect it to be smooth sailing. You are stepping way out of your comfort zone into a culture and language that might not be familiar to you. So, you are forced to use the language skills you have. If those skills are not highly-developed, you are often left feeling stupid and weak – a good life lesson. Having Spanish language skills has been very important in my career. Most of the force behind agriculture is Spanish-speaking. Most industries in the U.S. employ Hispanic workers at some level. Half of the interactions I have during the day are carried on in Spanish. When I worked on the farm it was more.
IES Abroad: What is one thing you learned while abroad that remains a constant in your life today?
LR: The importance of spirited action. The only way to do anything in life is to do it! I walked into the family business knowing practically nothing about an industry which is highly complex and relies on nuanced aspects of weather and world markets. It was very overwhelming, but I never ran from anything out of fear. I just got out there and learned it, one day at a time. That means hop right up on the tractor, drop the clutch, and go. I made plenty of mistakes, which are all-the-more embarrassing when you’re the boss’s nephew. Once I even drove a tractor straight into an irrigation pond. But after nine years in the business, I’ve learned a tremendous amount. I guess you could say that study abroad helped me to embrace the principle of spirited action. Just give it a try, even if you don’t know what you’re doing (within reason of course). And don’t look back.
IES Abroad: You participated in IES Abroad’s first ever #GivingTuesday campaign in 2014. Why is study abroad so important to you, and what motivated you to make a gift to support scholarships for future students?
LR: I think we learn a lot about ourselves by experiencing contrasts. Therefore, one of the greatest achievements of the study abroad experience is self-discovery. I came away from my semester in Salamanca with a much clearer idea about my future and many of the skills I would need for that journey. In the context of most people’s lives, there is no better opportunity to undertake this type of learning than through study abroad. IES Abroad provided each of us with a greater chance to explore. I have given to IES Abroad because it is a sure bet for positive change.