CAMP provides opportunities for children of migrant farm workers


President George Martin greeted alumni at the program’s 40th anniversary celebration.

Asparagus grows straight out of the ground and rarely gets any taller than the length of the stalks available at a typical grocery store. This means that in order to harvest them workers must bend over and pull the stalks directly from the earth.

Imagine doing this type of bending-and-pulling labor for hours on end for days, weeks or even months, and you can catch a glimpse of what it is like to be a migrant worker.

For some St. Edward’s University students and their families, working in the fields instills a strong work ethic and determination to succeed.

“I want my parents to enjoy the fruits of their labor and to make everything they have done for us worth their trouble,” senior Elvia Valle said.

Valle is a participant in the highly competitive College Assistance Migrant Program, known as CAMP for short. Her father was a migrant farm worker, and parents like Valle’s are faced with two options when it comes to their children. While they spend months traveling for work, parents can bring their children to work or leave them at home with a relative. This type of habitual disruption is the norm for migrant workers’ children, who are often denied access to a college education.

The CAMP program is a prime example of St. Edwards’ Holy Cross values, which emphasize social justice.

The program has become so successful that it recently caught the attention of The New York Times. The newspaper profiled two CAMP students in an article a few weeks ago.

To qualify to participate in CAMP, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident. Because CAMP receives funding both from St. Edward’s and from the U.S. Department of Education, applicants must also fit federal definitions for migrant and seasonal farm work. CAMP students have experienced something that some consider to have faded into antiquity, but seasonal and migrant work is still alive in America.

Each year, hundreds of students apply for the CAMP program at St. Edward’s, but a mere 42 are accepted. This number is an increase in admission from years past. Those selected receive all the benefits CAMP provides, including funds for room and board and access to a tailored academic support structure.

These students’ transitions into college-level courses can be challenging. Fortunately, the program has a specialized academic advisor whose job is designed to help students meet these transitions head on.

“Each student has regular meetings with me to discuss issues such as time management, tutoring and academic performance in their classes. But we also talk about social things like roommates, homesickness and relationships,” Gilbert Contreras, CAMP’s academic advisor, said. “I try to address all aspects of a student’s life so that they can focus on their academics.”

Contreras realizes that these aspects of a CAMP student’s experience can differ from those of other students.

“I have found that CAMP students face many of the same issues as many college freshmen. But they also have another set of issues that they have to deal with,” Contreras said.

Contreras said Many CAMP students face feelings of guilt when they come to college.

“Many [CAMP students] were wage earners in high school… Now, without that wage, the family must learn to manage without it,” Contreras said. “There is a feeling… that they are leaving their family behind to suffer while they are here in Austin. It is a difficult thing to accept that, in the long run, they are doing what is best for their family.” 

Valle knows the burdens of providing for family.

“My dad was a migrant farm worker. This meant that although I was not physically in the fields, he was gone for months at a time,” Valle said. In my opinion, this made me more mature growing up as I… had to step in and help my mother in any way I could.” 

While some CAMP students decide that the need to provide outweighs the need to pursue an education, others turn to the drive to work harder and succeed. The opportunity for a better life is not wasted on CAMP students.

“My parents’ work ethic, determination and ethics are contagious,” Valle, who stuck with the program, said. “I do believe that I am more determined to succeed than the average college student.”

A member of the McNair Scholars Program, Valle will graduate with a degree in global studies with a concentration in Europe and a minor in French. She has also taken full advantage of St. Edward’s global perspective, traveling abroad multiple times. After graduation, Valle hopes to become a Fulbright Scholar and attend graduate school.

As Valle forges her path away from St. Edward’s, freshman Alfonso Lucio is on his way in.

Lucio was quoted in The New York Times about his childhood spent in Michigan asparagus fields, working closely with his family to earn a living.

“My mother and father started moving for agricultural work after they got married at ages 19 and 18. My whole family–mother, father, two brothers and one sister–has worked in the fields,” Lucio said.

Lucio had college on the brain, though, and actively worked to find a way into St. Edward’s. He described the application process and subsequent waiting time as “excruciating.”

His hard work was worth the months of waiting. He still remembers the day, Feb. 6, when he opened a letter from St. Edward’s.

“When I read the first word, ‘congratulations,’ I jumped out of happiness and yelled for my whole family. [My parents] cried. Their tears were more than happiness for me. It was reassurance to them that their life work and days in the hot sun were paying off,” Lucio said.

The gravity of Lucio’s–and every other CAMP student’s–opportunity is immense. Lucio plans to major in education and minor in political science. After he graduates, he hopes to help motivate children who come from backgrounds similar to his.

“Sometimes, I have trouble realizing I am walking the grounds of St. Edward’s,” Lucio said. “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.”