Summer program gives farmworkers’ children a taste of college


To kick off his summer vacation, Herik Lopez rolled out of bed at 3:30 a.m., dressed in the dark and within an hour was among the workers in an Imperial County field, yanking melons from the dirt.

The 16-year-old worked through the morning, taking only a 15-minute break to gobble down the tacos de machaca y huevo — shredded beef and eggs — his mother had made.

A few days later, he awoke at 7 a.m. in a dorm room at the University of La Verne. Well-rested and among other teenagers like him, he strolled across the quaint campus to Founder’s Hall for his English class.

Herik was one of 37 students who spent a month this summer taking part in the university’s Migrant Education Institute, designed to give the children of farmworkers a taste of college life and teach them skills to better their chances of attending college.


The students come from the Imperial Valley, a desert region near the Mexican border that is one of Southern California’s main agricultural centers.

Their families move often, following the harvest. Some of their parents are gone for months at a time, leaving them to attend school and care for siblings. All the teenagers are learning English and have been in the United States for less than three years.

Many had never before set foot on a university campus. And for migrant students — of which there are about 150,000 in California — the odds of ending up in college are long.

Migrant students drop out at higher rates and score lower on state tests than their classmates. They are also less likely to pass the California High School Exit Examination or take courses needed to apply to a four-year state university.

“They are powerfully disadvantaged,” said Glenn Miller of the Migrant Student Information Network, which is part of WestEd, a Sacramento-based education research group. “They don’t have that consistency of going to the same classroom, seeing the same teacher each day. They don’t have that immediacy in education that students need, because in six weeks they’re gone again.”

The 2-year-old La Verne program provides academic and personal counseling and English and math courses geared toward the mandatory high school exit exam. Even just the exposure to college life is invaluable for a group of teens who largely have never considered attending college, said Adonay Montes, an assistant professor of education and the program’s director.

“They live the life of a college student here,” Montes said. “We try to provide that experience so when they go back they know how to navigate the educational pipeline by being able to advocate for themselves.”

Montes, who moved to Los Angeles at 14 from El Salvador, believes his immigrant background helps parents feel better about allowing their children to participate in the program. “They believe that we will do whatever we can to guide their children,” he said.

Herik, a junior at Central Union High School in El Centro, was doing his best impression of a first-time college student. He was behind on his homework.

“Herik, let me hear your poem,” said Shannon Garcia, 22, a University of La Verne student who leads the poetry classes.

“But it’s no good,” Herik replied sheepishly in Spanish. “I only have like two sentences.”

“Come on, what did I tell you? It’s not bad — it’s yours,” she said. “I want to hear it.”

He read softly, in English:

How to learn to keep going without you.

Forget the things you did and leave your memories behind.

Forget the beauty of your eyes.

And climb again.

“Perfecto!” Garcia said, as the class applauded and a group of girls smiled and whispered to one another.

After a few days, the students begin gaining confidence in speaking English, Montes said. The poetry classes have proved to be an effective way to pull words — and emotion — from the students.

“Poetry is about thoughts, reflection and creating meaning,” Montes said. “It gives them a sense of ownership … that gives them confidence.”

And surrounded by those with similar backgrounds, they often write about the struggles they are encountering.

“I feel most alone when my family is not with me,” one student wrote. “Or when I am in the dark night because in the moments of loneliness I encounter my bad feelings.”

In Imperial County, where there are about 7,350 migrant students, many families move to Central and Northern California in the summer, settling in such cities as Fresno and Salinas to work. They typically move back as summer ends to work the winter crops. By November — several months into the school year — most of them have returned, said Sandra Kofford, director of Imperial County’s migrant education program, which works with the University of La Verne to run the program.

For most of his life, Eduardo Huerta, 15, stayed in Guadalajara with his mother and siblings while his father lived and worked in California. In Mexico, Eduardo worked in the fields — mainly picking corn.

In January, the rest of the family immigrated and moved to Calipatria. His mother and father both work in the fields, and whenever he’s off from school he does as well, usually in the lemon groves. Other times he picks dates or oranges and washes the trailers that haul the crops.

He earns $8 an hour. His father, who has worked in the fields for 30 years, earns $9.

“My dad and mom make barely enough to get by,” he said in Spanish. “So I want to work to help out.”

He has made strides in improving his English since the move but understands he still has a long way to go to speak well enough to attend college and later join the military. In a practice test for the English portion of the high school exit exam taken at the beginning of the summer program, he scored well below passing.

In their final English class, students closed their textbooks and popped open a few bottles of sparkling apple cider. Each took a turn toasting their successes and took small sips. Eduardo’s cup was dry by the time he spoke.

“For everyone here who helped us and for the university that gave us this opportunity. With their help I figured out what I want to do in the future, and, well....” he said in Spanish. He smiled, drowned out by applause and raised his empty cup.

Salud!” he said. Cheers.

A few minutes later, the teacher announced scores on the final practice exit exam. Eduardo missed passing by one point.