New Fields to Conquer : Children of Migrant Workers Get Chance to Attend College

Times Staff Writer

For as long as she can remember, 17-year-old Alta Rodriguez has spent her summers as a migrant worker, harvesting grapes in vineyards near Fresno.

She gets up at 5 a.m. every day and works from 6 in the morning until late afternoon, with breaks for breakfast and lunch. Summer temperatures in the San Joaquin Valley fields where she works soar well over 100 degrees, but that does not stop Rodriguez and her six brothers and sisters from working 12 hours a day.

But this summer is different. Rodriguez is one of 93 California high school students chosen to spend five weeks at UCLA participating in a federally funded program designed to encourage children of migrant farm workers to graduate from high school and pursue a university degree.

The program, called MENTE (Migrants Engaged in New Themes in Education), is a five-week intensive learning course during which students spend six hours a day in UCLA classrooms preparing for the rigors of a college education. They take classes in math, English, computer literacy and study skills and can choose from a variety of electives, including speed reading, leadership skills, music and drama.

Students chosen for the program usually have high grades in high school--the minimum grade point average is 3.0--and are considered capable of handling a rigorous academic schedule.

"This is like a crash course," said Kimberly Antalik, one of six MENTE instructors. "We're programming them for success."

According to statistics compiled by MENTE, fewer than 10% of children of migrant farmers graduate from high school, compared to 70% for the general population. Educators say the high attrition rate is due to the absence of a permanent home and to close-knit family ties among Latinos, who make up the bulk of the migrant population. Such ties frequently make it difficult for children of migrant farmers to break away from home to get an education and pursue a career.

"That's how Mexican families are," said Carmen Serna, a MENTE supervisor who was a student in the program five years ago. "They're very protective, especially with their daughters. They are afraid of letting go of their children."

As a result, MENTE organizers had to convince many reluctant parents that it was in their children's best interest to spend five weeks at a big university far from the fields where they would normally work during the summer.

"The families always think of their children's best interest," said Ignacio Rojas, one of the program's coordinators. "They want their children to go to college, but the problem is economic. They don't always have the money to pay for a college education. We're trying to show them that, yes, it can be done. In Spanish, we use the term 'Si se puede' --Yes, it can be done."

The efforts of Rojas and other MENTE organizers appear to be paying off. In contrast to the low matriculation rate for migrants in general, more than 80% of MENTE students graduate from high school, and 75% attend college.

MENTE supervisor Serna is one such student. After completing the program five years ago, Serna graduated from high school and went on to pursue a degree in liberal studies at the College of the Sequoias in Visalia. She plans to attend Cal State Fresno in the fall.

Change in Thinking

"Back home, you always think only the smart ones can do this (go to college)," Serna said. "This program showed us that we do have the talent to continue."

Just two weeks into the program, MENTE students are already talking about what they plan to study in college and what careers they are interested in.

"I'm studying to be a chemist," said 15-year-old Mimmie Castro, a junior at Holtville High School in the Imperial Valley. "MENTE helps you adjust to a (university) schedule. The work is going to be hard (at the university), but you just have to stick with it."

Crispine Calsada, 16, whose mother is a migrant worker in the Imperial Valley, said she would like to study engineering at UC San Diego after she graduates from high school in Calipatria.

"I think it's a really good experience," she said of the program. "You learn a lot from it--that it's difficult in some ways when you come to college and that you have to adapt." Calsada said her parents were initially skeptical about the program, but agreed to let her participate after some convincing by her older brothers. "They want me to see other things (besides farming)," she said.

Parents Had Doubts

The parents of Maria Tapia, 17, also had their doubts about the program, since they are used to having their daughter at home during the summer to help with work around the house. But they eventually agreed to let her go, and Tapia is thrilled about her new experience.

"I learned a lot about making friends," she said. "In school they tell us that in the university they (instructors and administrators) don't take care of you. I'm already used to that. I know how to be responsible and how to do all that work."

The work, by all standards, is rigorous. The program revolves around a demanding schedule of classes, physical education and studying. Students must be awake every weekday morning at 6, and classes start at 8:30. They get a 40-minute lunch break after their third class and then start another round of classes, which ends at 3:30 p.m. At 4:30, students don shorts and sweats for an hour of physical education. Dinner lasts from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., and from 7 to 9:30, students are required to do their homework and study for exams. Bedtime is at 10, and supervisors are strict about making sure no lights are on after that hour.

"It's pretty hard, but now we know what it's like at the university," said Angelica Rios, 16.

Rodriguez shared Rios' sentiments: "I'm getting used to it because I know how to be independent," she said. "I strive to make friends and I like to be with people. The first day was a little bit hard, but now we're a big happy family."

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