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A Moving Education: Migrant Student Program has helped 15,000 students pursue their high school diplomas

When Juliana Quintanilla moved from Mexico to McAllen three years ago, learning English was just one of the challenges she would tackle head on. Quintanilla had been migrating with her family to California each year of her life, and from the age of 12 she had been working with them in the fields, picking apricots and grapes. Now a senior at James “Nikki” Rowe High School, Quintanilla is in the top 10 percent of her class. She has already received 22 hours of college credit and a slew of academic awards. This spring she will be the first in her family to graduate from high school and go to college.

Juliana Quintanilla with her mother Rebeca Quintanilla
Student of the Year Juliana Quintanilla celebrates with her mother Rebeca Quintanilla.

Quintanilla was named one of two Students of the Year by the Migrant Student Graduation Enhancement Program at The University of Texas at Austin on March 29.

The other Student of the Year, Antonio Manriquez, is a junior at Midland High School in Midland, where he has a grade-point average of 3.72. He takes honors science and math courses, is learning French as a third language and grooms the horses at his family’s rental stables every day before and after school. He has migrated with his family most of his life and recently migrated alone to Gulfport, Miss., where he cleaned shrimp.

Each year the Migrant Student Program names two Students of the Year as well as other exemplary students from the more than 1,000 who take courses through the program to earn credit toward their high school diplomas. Students are nominated by counselors and migrant educators in their schools and selected by a committee of former migrant students who are now in college. An annual recognition ceremony honors the students who despite the obstacles presented by their migratory lifestyle have triumphed academically and personally. It also marks the impact the program has on students across the state, enabling them to achieve on par with students who don’t have to migrate for work.

[My grandfather] passed away at the age of 62 and he would always say that 'field work is hard, mi hijo. Getting an education is the best way to afford a living.' Jeremy Chapa, exemplary student“The Graduation Enhancement Program has given me more than memories,” said Manriquez when accepting his award. “It has given me a whole new way to think about my life.”

Living as a migrant worker may be hard to imagine for the student who attends the same school year after year and returns to the same home day after day. But it is a reality for more than 138,000 Texas students. Texas has the second largest migrant population in the country behind California and the largest population to migrate between states.

Migrant students in Texas generally leave their homes in late spring and migrate across Texas and to 47 other states. They may pick oranges in Florida or blueberries in Michigan. They may paint fences in west Texas or can tomatoes in Indiana. They return to their schools in early fall and wait for the next cycle to begin. In addition to the hard work and long hours they work to help support their families, they face added stresses as a student.

“As a migrant student, you go on in life not the way that other students do,” said Mariana Ontiveros, a 2003 Student of the Year who is now a student at The University of Texas—Pan American. “You have to be able to handle school, be able to handle moving and everything else. Trying to keep up with the rest of the kids is very difficult.”

Antonio Manriquez with his mother Maria Manriquez
Student of the Year Antonio Manriquez, with his mother Maria Manriquez, said, “Living in a migrant family has shown me some of the most important values in my life.”

In addition, because the students may spend part of the school year out of state, they are often not able to take or complete courses required for graduation in Texas. They face interrupted coursework and missing credits.

“Continuity of education has been a big issue for migrant students from the beginning,” said Peggy Wimberley, Migrant Student Program coordinator and one of the program’s founders. “Students get instruction in Texas and then they move to another state and get instruction that meets that state’s requirements.”

The Migrant Student Program allows students to continue their coursework toward a Texas high school diploma even as they migrate. They can take their classes anytime in any place. This may mean they take them from home, from out of state or through summer programs for migrants. They may take classes that are Web-based, paper-based or earn credit by exam. Many classes are available on CD-ROM, and a gift from the Microsoft Corporation has enabled the program to purchase laptop computers for the students to use to complete classes.

As a migrant I have had to learn to work for much of what I wanted in life. It is this strong work ethic which I believe will continue to keep me committed to meeting my goals in life. Belinda Garza, exemplary studentIts flexibility is key to the program’s success. Students can use it to meet their individual needs, whether it means finishing a required class they weren’t able to complete when they left in the spring or taking extra classes to allow for more time for extracurricular activities. The students are provided with a network of support, with secondary counseling and on-site grading as well as instruction and grading through telephone, computer and e-mail.

The Migrant Student Program provides tools, services and courses to help students achieve and maintain scholastic levels equivalent to those of their classmates who remain in school throughout the year. A program of the Division of Continuing and Extended Education, it has enrolled nearly 15,000 students since it originated in 1987. Many of the students are the first in their families to graduate from high school, and many go on to college.

One who has is Lupita Hernandez, an exemplary student in 2000 from Donna, Texas, who is an office assistant in the Migrant Student Program office and a third-year student at St. Edward’s University. For 12 years while growing up, she and her family migrated to Michigan to pick tomatoes, zucchini and cucumbers. Her father still migrates every year.

Educator Yolanda Gonzalez with Eduardo Olvera, Mariana Ontiveros and Juliana Quintanilla
Educator Yolanda Gonzalez has worked with previous Students of the Year Eduardo Olvera and Mariana Ontiveros from McAllen Memorial High School, as well as with Juliana Quintanilla.

“I tell my little brother our parents gave us the experience of migrating so that we would know how hard it is to work out there,” Hernandez said. “They don’t want us to live this life. They want us to get our degree and succeed.”

Migrating made it hard for Hernandez, already a strong student, to keep up with her studies and be involved with the extracurricular activities that would make her a well-rounded student. She used the courses to free up time to work a few jobs and train and work as a volunteer firefighter.

“Our experiences as migrants are very limited,” she said. “We live in camps and only see diversity if we go to school.”

Hernandez, who is majoring in communications, said the program allowed her to expand her opportunities and break the cycle of working in the fields. She hopes to continue working with migrant student education when she finishes her degree.

If it had not been for the migrant program, my life wouldn't be as rich as it is right now.  The program has provided me with experiences that have inspired me even more to continue educating myself. Francisco Triana, exemplary studentStudents nominated as exemplary students complete an application and write an essay about their experiences as migrants and their academic and personal goals. They are evaluated on the basis of obstacles overcome, academic achievements, participation and leadership in extracurricular activities and performance in Migrant Student Program courses. As the students are recognized during the ceremony, often with their parents and teachers by their side, it is clear that these motivated students are making a difference not only for their families, but in their schools as well. They run track, sing in the choir, tutor their peers and edit literary magazines.

This year’s Students of the Year were awarded $4,000 scholarships funded by ExxonMobil Corporation and Elva Treviño Hart, a former migrant herself and author of the book “Barefoot Heart: Stories of a Migrant Child.”

The scholarship checks were handed out by State Rep. Aaron Peña from Edinburg. The challenges of the migrant student are particularly real for Peña, whose father and grandfather were both migrant workers.

“Let me say that you are fulfilling the prayers of your grandparents and of your parents and for those educators that are present,” he told the students. “Each of us believes if you study, if you work hard, if you persevere, you will succeed. You students are a living example of that belief.”

The Migrant Student Program’s innovative curriculum is just one way of helping the students succeed. Whether they take English 3, Government-on-a-Disk, Economics or Algebra Across the Wire, they are taking one more step toward completing their education. But the university only offers the classes. The students themselves add the impressive motivation that will enable them to create better lives.

“It’s striking to think that when these students migrate to other states, they usually have to work very long hours in the field every day. They may start at 5 a.m. and not finish until 6 p.m. and then those students go to school to get the credits they need to graduate,” Wimberley said. “The remarkable thing is that students are willing to put out so much effort to succeed and get an education.”

Vivé Griffith

Photos: Marsha Miller

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  Updated 2014 October 13
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