Education Opportunity Migrates to Nation’s Farmworkers

If you’re a high school student in rural America, it’s not always easy to get to school. You may have to travel a lot farther than you would in the city. But what if you live in a rural area and also need to travel with your family to go to work on a farm? How would you get to high school? Could you go to college?

The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Migrant Education (OME) recognizes the challenges that migrant families face and oversees two competitive grants that provide high school and college opportunity for migrant and seasonal farmworkers. The High School Equivalency Program (HEP) funds selected two-year community colleges, four-year universities, and nonprofit community organizations that provide high school equivalency classes tailored to the needs of these students. The College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) grants money to community colleges and universities to offer migrant students their first year of post-secondary education.

Acting Assistant Secretary Jason Botel presents an award to CAMP student speaker Sandra Reyes (center) while Project Director Jennifer Nunez looks on (photo credit: Mike Johnston).

“These HEP and CAMP programs change lives for many generations,” said Lisa Ramirez, director of both OME and the Office of School Support and Rural Programs, as well as the daughter of migrant workers and a former migrant worker herself. “To my knowledge, there is no other program that is set up the way HEP and CAMP are set up, and the support activities that we provide to our students are unique.”

Nationwide in 2016, 2,405 migrant and seasonal farmworker students earned a high school equivalency diploma through HEP, and 1,475 migrant and seasonal farmworkers completed their first year of college through CAMP.

This past August, OME held its annual HEP/CAMP Directors Meeting, at ED headquarters. Approximately 130 grantees attended the two-day conference to receive OME technical assistance and collaborate. The agenda featured two student speakers, one of whom graduated under a HEP grant and one who is studying in a CAMP-funded college program.

Yolanda Ambrosio Barrientos (right) and a co-worker pause at the plant nursery where they work. (In the photo at the top of this post, Ms. Barrientos is shown arriving with her family for her high school equivalency graduation.)

Students Yolanda Ambrosio Barrientos and Sandra Reyes spoke about their respective experiences in HEP and CAMP. Barrientos arrived in the U.S. without a high school diploma and not speaking English. While a migrant farmworker, she was subjected to violent domestic abuse in her marriage. However, Barrientos persevered and earned her high school equivalency diploma under HEP at Wake Tech Community College in North Carolina.

Reyes overcame performance anxiety and challenges in family relationships while she was a migrant farmworker and is now pursuing college studies under CAMP at Eastern Washington University in the state of Washington.

Maria Fister, director of Wake Tech’s HEP, arranged for Barrientos to speak at the Washington meeting. “Something that makes our program stand out is that we establish a really close connection with the students,” Fister said. “Students make a commitment not only to their personal education goals but to the program.”

“We don’t want students to stop with the high school equivalency. We want them to go to college, to get better employment,” Fister said.

Ramirez explained why having student speakers is important. “The tenor of the students’ speeches reminds us that every day, we’re not just pushing paper; that what we do impacts lives,” she said. “Yolanda’s speech reminded us that not all students are young children and that being a lifelong learner is critical. And someone can survive domestic abuse and still be an English-language learner, and the progress doesn’t stop there.”


Joe Barison is a public affairs specialist with the Office of Communications and Outreach.

Photo at the top: Yolanda Ambrosio Barrientos arrives with her family for her high school equivalency graduation at Wake Tech’s partner school Wayne Community College, where Yolanda attended classes. Wake Tech HEP has collaborations with community colleges across North Carolina (photo credit: Maria Fister).

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