Eighteen-year-old Alfonso Lucio remembers the sun beating down on the back of his neck as he toiled in asparagus fields in Michigan, something he began doing at age 12. His cousin Jazmine Hernandez, who is the same age and also came from a family of migrant farm workers, was often at his side.
“Just wait,” he would tell her. “A few more years of this, and then we’re going to college.”
It took the help of a decades-old federal program that focuses on migrant students, but he was right. Last month, as the cousins had lunch in a dining hall at St. Edward’s University in Austin, days before starting their freshman year, they beamed with pride even as they wiped away tears.
“I know my mom sacrificed so much for me, and she always said she didn’t have the support system I have,” Hernandez said. “I want to make her proud. I want her not to work as hard as she did her whole life.”
Lucio and Hernandez are among 42 freshmen entering St. Edward’s, a Roman Catholic university, this year through the federal College Assistance Migrant Program, or CAMP. This is the 40th anniversary of the program, which has served more than 2,700 migrant students at St. Edward’s.
Four colleges were part of the program when it was created in 1972 — two in Texas, one in Colorado and another in California — but St. Edward’s is the only university that has met the necessary benchmarks and successfully navigated the occasionally tricky terrain of the federal financing process to remain part of the program from the start.
According to the federal Office of Migrant Education, in 2011 more than $16.4 million went to the program, serving 1,925 students at 40 campuses nationwide. There are currently six in Texas.
“It’s something beautiful that they do at this school. Something unreal, very unreal,” Lucio said. But college officials said the presence of the hard-working, high-achieving migrant students had raised the university’s overall academic quality, making the investment worthwhile. Officials reported that CAMP students at St. Edward’s outperformed their peers. The six-year graduation rate for the St. Edward’s class that entered in 2005 was 62 percent, which is significantly higher than the national average for first-generation students (approximately 40 percent).
For many of the students, who spent their childhoods cobbling together a secondary education in various states as their families moved from crop to crop, and who often had to do fieldwork as well as schoolwork, just spending a full academic year in a single location will be a new experience.
Keeping the program going is no easy task. “Every time there are going to be potential cuts in education, we come under scrutiny,” said Esther Yacono, the director of the program at St. Edward’s.
The closest call came in 1995, when a proposed budget eliminated the program’s financing, sparking an outcry from migrants. Supporters successfully blocked the proposal.
Each university operates CAMP differently. The University of Texas-Pan American, which was also one of the original campuses but did not participate in the program between 1987 and 1999, receives about $425,000 in federal money for the program and accepts about 70 students each year, providing assistance to them in their freshman year. Less than half receive housing scholarships, which come from part of the additional $251,000 the university sets aside to supplement its migrant services.
“I’d like to be able to help more, but I can’t afford it,” said Robert Nelsen, the president of UT-Pan American.
Dwarfing many others, the total CAMP budget at St. Edward's is more than $3.4 million, of which the federal contribution is a relatively small slice. Nationally, the program is focused primarily on helping students complete their first year of college and then continue into a second year, but St. Edward’s extends that commitment.
The school typically accepts 35 of about 120 applicants each year. Once they are accepted into the program, freshmen are responsible for $2,000 in expenses, which can be paid with federal loans, and everything else is covered. In their remaining years, the university continues to cover tuition and fees for those who maintain progress toward graduation and provides housing stipends to those with high grade-point averages.
In recent years, federal financing has been steady, but Yacono said even that had not prevented a reduction in progra She described the competition to apply for the grant, which must be renewed every five years, as “vicious.”
The University of Texas at El Paso’s grant for the program ran out in August without being renewed. Officials said that many of the services provided by the program — a summer bridge program, tutoring and advising, and financial literacy education — had been institutionalized. But Armando Aguirre, an assistant provost, said, “Without the program, it will be a little more challenging, especially for the students, to find a place that directly targets their needs.”
Randa Safady, a former director of the St. Edward’s program and now the vice chancellor for external relations at the University of Texas System, said that in addition to college costs, students often struggled with guilt at leaving their families behind.
“They were key breadwinners, and they took care of their siblings,” she said. “I had so many students coming in terribly upset, wanting desperately to be at the university, but needing to know their families were okay. We were constantly calling home.”
For some students the pressure proved too much. They may have said they were leaving for a semester, but that sometimes turned into a year or two. Some came back, and some did not.
Others found a way to bring their home to St. Edward’s. Geronimo Rodriguez, 43, said his experience in the program changed his life and that of his family. After years of picking strawberries, blueberries and raspberries in the Northwest, two of his four siblings followed him to St. Edward’s, which he said helped them “transition from the fields of labor to the fields of education.”
Rodriguez went on to work in the Clinton White House and on Vice President Al Gore’s presidential bid. He now serves as vice president for diversity and community outreach at Seton Healthcare Family in Austin. On his office wall, he keeps a CAMP poster that reads: “Last year we picked apples in Washington. This year we picked college.”
George E. Martin, the president of St. Edward’s, has been successful with private fundraising for the program, which is one reason he recently said, “If the Department of Education ever pulled its money, we’d find a way to keep it going.”
Martin said the return on investment outweighed the cost to the university. “One of the great benefits we get out of this is it brings people together from all different backgrounds to educate each other about the subcultures and cultures that make up our community,” he said. “You cannot truly educate someone without creating that cultural sensitivity.”
Weeks into his college career, Lucio says he is thriving. In an email, he wrote, “I would never in a million years change anything in my life, because it has led me to this moment, in this place, in Austin, Texas.”