Migration to Education

Migration to Education

A Department of Education program provides the chance for children of migrant workers to attend college–and succeed.


Zachary Jay

October 4, 2007

Raul Ramos is descended from four generations of migrant workers. He spent many of his summer vacations throughout elementary and middle school tagging along with his parents to harvest crops in the hot sun.

So Ramos, the associate director of Michigan State University’s chapter of the College Assistance Migrant Program, or CAMP, understands the migrant life. Affectionately known as “Rudy,” he has a pretty good idea of what freshmen from migrant families need in order to adjust to university life.

Ramos was born in Battle Creek, Mich., while his parents were migrating to work in the fields. Even though his mother had only an eighth grade education and his father was illiterate, Ramos’s parents knew the importance of a good education and drove Ramos to continue his academic career. Now he has the opportunity to help students making the same journey. “The real rewarding thing for me is to be able to go back to my roots, and to help these students. It’s very fulfilling,” Ramos said.

CAMP was founded in 1981 by the U.S. Department of Education, and has since grown to serve about 2,400 students annually on campuses throughout the country. The MSU chapter was the brainchild of Luis A. Garcia, who is now its director. Garcia applied for a CAMP grant three times before the Department of Education was convinced his collected data showed a genuine need to accommodate the large number of migrant and seasonal farm workers in the area–people who can almost never afford to provide their children with college educations. In 2000, the Department of Education agreed to fund the MSU chapter, and CAMP was given the green light. It now accepts around 70 students a year, or 50 percent of its applicants. A majority of CAMP students are the first in their family to attend college.

The primary goal of the CAMP program is to provide academic and monetary support to freshmen students with migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds, helping to ensure a smooth transition to college life and a successful first year. Many students’ families are from Texas and Florida and have been traveling to work in Michigan for generations. All are either U.S. citizens or in the process of becoming permanent residents.

Because of their migrant backgrounds, CAMP students face a unique set of challenges when coming to a major university like MSU. Many students have had to cobble together their high school educations at several different schools, depending on where their families migrated to work. CAMP tries to get past obstacles like this by providing academic tutoring. The program also assists students in buying their textbooks, and can even provide winter clothing, basic health insurance, and funds for optical, dental, and emergency care to those who need it most. Another job of the CAMP staff, which has just three members, is to find ways to help students fund their additional years at MSU, as many are unable to afford student loans. This has led to partnerships with banks, and MSU has named CAMP one of its top five endowment programs.

Because most parents of CAMP students never attended college, many are unaware of resources such as financial aid, which are essential in providing a means for students to continue their education at a post-secondary level. Part of Ramos’s job as a liaison between the students and the university is to ensure that financial forms like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, are properly filled out. But even though many CAMP students receive the maximum amount of federal assistance, there remains a sum of money known as “unmet need” which the CAMP program, depending on the student’s financial situation, is often able to cover.

CAMP’s goals aren’t entirely material or education-related; the program also seeks to knit its students into a large, loving, family-like unit. The CAMP staff fosters this kind of connection by placing all CAMP students in the same dorm, where they can easily visit the CAMP offices and hang out together in the nearby study lounge.

Ramos’s pride in his students is apparent when he talks about the program’s success. He said the graduation rate of CAMP participants is “well above” the national average for Hispanic college students enrolled in major universities. “The students are definitely making us look good.”

Javier Pescador, an assistant professor of history at MSU, believes CAMP is an important redress from a U.S. government that has, in the past, exploited the Latino labor force in times of great need without opening up many pathways toward citizenship. “The U.S. has a tendency to forget the contributions of people of Mexican descent,” Pescador said. “The United States government has signed international labor agreements with Mexico, so that the U.S. economy could benefit from the importation of Mexican laborers.”

Pescador cited the Bracero Agreement as an example. Signed in 1942 by the United States and Mexico, it ensures fair treatment by the United States for Mexican laborers in hopes that they would cross the border, work in the fields, and contribute to the economic goals of the World War II era. While the braceros (“unskilled laborers” in Spanish) contributed greatly to the U.S. economy as well as the war effort, their years of work were never adequately acknowledged by the United States, Pescador said.

And now, since 9/11, Pescador believes Mexican immigrants are becoming scapegoats. “There’s no connection whatsoever between the protection of the border and terrorist threats,” Pescador said. “If you see the legal status of the people who perpetrated the attacks, they had visas. They did not cross the border into the U.S. from Mexico. Now it seems to me that since the U.S. government hasn’t been able to capture Osama bin Laden, they want to make an example by illustrating muscle against the Mexican immigrants.”

Pescador sees CAMP as an important step in acknowledging the contributions of Mexican immigrants to American society. “I think it’s very important that the land grant institution keeps the opportunity to the children of migrant families that work the land to receive the benefits of an education,” he said. “There’s no question that the members of migrant families that come to school face a lot more obstacles than the regular student. But at the same time, they are used to enduring hardships, and they are very strong-willed. They see education as a way to improve their social and economic status.”

Elvia Gonzalez is a student benefiting from an MSU education through CAMP. After graduating high school in Polly, Tex., Gonzalez learned about CAMP through recruiters visiting her state and from students already involved in the program. A migrant worker since the age of 12, Gonzalez traveled with her parents to Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Florida, employed in various jobs. She trimmed Christmas trees; picked blueberries from a factory line; harvested corn; and cared for plants in a nursery. She spent many hours laboring in these exhausting jobs all summer, from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Blueberry processing could sometimes last from 7 a.m. until 2 or 3 the next morning.

In migrant circles today, a child must be 14 to be considered “of age.” However, there are loopholes. “Before [you are of age], you could go along with your parents and work with them,” Gonzalez said. Blueberries, for example, when picked by the bucket, could be counted along with the buckets that her parents picked.

During the summer months at these various jobs, Gonzalez and her family stayed in what are called “migrant camps.” “They’re kind of like apartment complexes, but not as nice,” Gonzalez said. The camps are usually located near a city or town, and can range from two or three trailers to dozens. Ramos cited this often inadequate housing as one of the challenges CAMP students like Gonzalez have faced and overcome.

There is talk at MSU of accepting 80 CAMP applicants next year instead of 70, making the family even bigger and allowing it to further level the playing field for its students. “You get back what you put in” to the program, said Gonzalez. But with approximately 13 million migrant workers nationwide, CAMP can only make a systemic difference if it’s expanded to more campuses and grown to include thousands of more students.

An earlier version of this article ran in The Big Green, a Campus Progress-sponsored publication.

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