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Almost every summer, as his friends unwind in Galveston or scroll through their phones at home, 18-year-old Andy Olvera inches along furrows of sticky tobacco plants, pulling weeds in the Georgia sun.

A few rows away, his mother, father, two sisters and brother work, too. They will usually stay there, eight hours a day, until August, when the family drives back to Houston for Olvera to start school. This year, however, school will be the University of Houston – which Olvera will attend with a $12,464 scholarship for children of migrant workers.

Olvera is one of 21 urban migrant workers currently attending UH thanks to a scholarship founded in the 1970s for seasonal farmworkers. Each year, funded by the federal government, 59 universities around the country admit students from farmworker families. At UH, many of these farmworkers actually live in the city.

Though it might seem like a relic from the Grapes of Wrath, the work of hand-picking and harvesting tobacco, tomatoes, oranges and other crops remains critical to America’s trillion dollar agriculture industry. In the 2016-2017 school year, about 300,000 children migrated with their families to work in seasonal crops, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In Texas, many of these children travel from a home base in the Rio Grande Valley. But some – like Olvera – live in Houston, where they shoulder both the same educational burdens and distinctive strengths of seasonal farmworkers in rural areas.

Like the more familiar migrant workers who travel throughout the year, Houston’s urban migrant workers are impoverished, mostly Latino, and are used to having their schooling disrupted as they work the fields with their families. The main difference from more typical, rural migrants, Houston experts say, is that the urban migrants limit their work to the summer growing season.

For 50 years, CAMP – College Assistance for Migrant Program – has offered some of these students a path to college and, just as importantly, support to ensure they benefit from it.

Fifty-nine universities now offer some version of the scholarship. At UH, CAMP offers money for the first year of college, covering room, board and tuition for a year; tutoring plus peer mentoring by other migrant students; and biweekly workshops on time management and financial planning on how to fund the next three years of college.

CAMP began 50 years ago, as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The Civil Rights Movement had goaded the government and media to confront the mechanisms denying economic and educational opportunities to swathes of America. Johnson himself had been deeply disturbed as a young man teaching poor farmworkers in Cotulla, Texas.

In 1966, the Education Department launched several programs to help migrant farmworkers get access to education. One of them, the Migrant Education Program, provided counselors, supplies and tutoring for migrants in the public school system. CAMP, funded in 1972, offers scholarships for first-year financial and academic support to migrant students with qualifying grades and legal residency.

Today, because the country’s various CAMP programs range from privately subsidized scholarships such as St. Edward’s University in Austin, and newer, publicly funded programs such as that at UH, the program’s outcomes are hard to generalize, said Sarah Marin, director of UH CAMP. But recent research suggests that graduation rates are close or comparable to that of non-migrant students, and that 84 percent of CAMP students accumulate enough credits to complete their freshman year, and 96 percent of those proceed to sophomore year.

That’s especially striking, administrators say, because academically, migrant students are very similar to other low-income students: wrestling throughout their school years with the effects of underfunded schools, troubled neighborhoods and economically stressed families with limited education. While many migrant students are fluent in Spanish, they typically struggle with literacy in English and math, especially at the elementary levels.

But migrant students also face other, distinctive challenges: relentlessly unstable living environments; pressures as part of a family labor unit; punishing physical labor when their peers are resting or studying; and a stigma that mushroomed during the Donald Trump administration, when many families hid their migrant identities or even quit farm work so as not to be confused with immigrants. In reality, many migrant children are second- or third-generation Americans.

A shared experience

For students who win CAMP scholarships, the sum of these pressures linger even in college. “We are a collective culture,” said St. Edward’s CAMP director Sonia Briseño who grew up harvesting vegetables with her family in the Rio Grande Valley. Traveling vast distances together, working until nighttime for economic survival – both reflect migrants’ extraordinary attachment to family, she said, which can prompt guilt about leaving their families and their communal labor.

“I feel like I was forced to grow up at a young age,” a UH migrant student named Lizett posted in the CAMP newsletter. “When my siblings and I were younger, we had, and still do, carry a lot of responsibility on our backs. For example, the mortgage of my family is under my sister’s name, and my family and I still divide a lot of bills.”

CAMP softens these stresses by introducing migrant students to peers who share their experiences, said Houston dentist Grace Rodriguez, 44, who grew up moving every 6-8 weeks with her migrant family and siblings. Her CAMP scholarship to St. Edward’s made her later dental degree possible financially, but also emotionally.

“I was the only one in my family to go to college,” Rodriguez said. “We picked oranges, strawberries, tomatoes and apples. We didn’t have daycare. You’d get your oranges in a plastic box, and they’d put me in that.”

  • Dr. Grace Rodriguez, left, applies anesthetic to her patient
  • Dr. Grace Rodriguez
  • Dr. Grace Rodriguez examines a patient’s teeth x-rays.
  • Dr. Grace Rodriguez puts on her gown

She began harvesting when she was 12, moving with her family to migrant camps in Michigan to harvest cucumbers and apples, followed by camps in Florida for oranges. By junior high, she said, she had attended 15 different schools. By high school, she said, her parents were pressing her to drop out to contribute more to the family.

In college, however, Rodriguez was buoyed by CAMP staffers and classmates who understood her. “It was hard to make friends,” outside of CAMP, she said. “I didn’t know I was poor until I got to college. But I feel like everybody in CAMP helps each other. Unless you’ve been through it, you can’t understand it.”

While Rodriguez’ childhood reflects a traditional migrant experience, HISD students Andy Olvera and Jonathan Rojas, grew up with a different rhythm. “Migrant work can look very different from generation to generation,” said Miriam Bocchetti, CAMP director at Central Washington University and a scholar of migrant students. “It is one of those topics so nuanced you would be hard-pressed to form an overview of them. For example, CAMP students in the Midwest might typically work in the meatpacking industry – cold, hard work – while others in Washington and California might work outside picking cherries.”

Finding joy in working hard

In Houston, Rojas attended Kashmere High School and actually never worked in the fields. Instead, his mother was able to enroll him in CAMP because the family had followed Rojas’ father to Oklahoma, where he’d worked as an itinerant ranch laborer cleaning stables. After his parents’ divorce, Rojas’ mother moved often with Rojas and his three siblings, trying to support them alone. When they arrived in Houston, she enrolled her children in HISD’s migrant education program and found a $95 a day job as a construction worker. Jonathan contributed as much as he could, earning money making digital logos for friends.

“My responsibility is to my children,” Rojas mother, Elizabeth Gallegos, said recently, from her spotless apartment accented with artificial trees salvaged from construction sites. “If you worked as a housekeeper in the Rio Grande Valley, you made $45 a day. After I got the construction job, I’d look in the mirror and say, is this me? And cry.”

But that resourcefulness is what made it possible for Jonathan to focus on grades – and, this spring, earn a CAMP scholarship to attend the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. Jonathan’s 13-year-old sister Vanessa, meanwhile, is already contributing to the family economy, earning $100 a month from a tiny after-school store in the family’s living room.

That adaptability and work ethic, higher education experts say, is common among migrant students. “We tend to think, did you get a house from your parents?” said Bocchetti, the CAMP director at Central Washington University who wrote a dissertation on migrants. “But wealth comes in different forms. I think you can absolutely find joy in working hard, being resilient and learning your family history.”

Andy Olvera’s mother, who grew up in extreme poverty in Mexico City, grew to appreciate the life skills in farm work after undertaking it voluntarily. As a newcomer to Houston, she worked her way up from cleaning offices to working in a laundromat. In 2017, when Andy was 12, a coworker’s acquaintance showed up to announce he was leading a group of friends to work in Georgia’s tobacco fields.

Intrigued by the prospect – a family of six could earn much more than two adults working for minimum wage in Houston – she used her time off to pack the family in a car and go pick tobacco.

“It’s hard. It’s really, really hot,” Andy said of his summers in the tobacco fields. But he didn’t hate it. It was also social, family-oriented, endurance-building – and, his mother learned, qualified her children for HISD’s migrant program, which includes field trips, school supplies and college counselors who told him he should apply for CAMP.

“She’s like Dora the Explorer,” Andy said of his mother, smiling over brunch at La Mexicana in Houston. Although his mother never graduated from high school, Olvera said, she will go to any length to benefit her children. Working in the fields, it turns out, has educated them in more ways than one.

Claudia Kolker is a freelance writer based in Houston. Reach her at [email protected]. A version of this story first appeared at Palabra, a multimedia platform for independent journalists.

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