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NMSU's migrant assistance program celebrates 10th anniversary

Omar Hernandez and Bernice Juaregui are like most other college seniors looking forward to graduation next May -- with one exception. They grew up working in the fields as farm laborers beside their parents. They never imagined going to college until a program at New Mexico State University changed their minds and their lives.

NMSU's College Assistance Migrant Program will celebrate its 10th anniversary on Wednesday, Oct. 26, with a full day of activities and workshops sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences Stan Fulton Endowed Chair.

"We're academic facilitators, we're cultural brokers," said principal administrator Cynthia Bejarano. "We're able to serve as that bridge that is necessary for these students to make the transition to the university culture."

NMSU's CAMP was recognized this summer as one of the top 10 performing programs nationally in the past year, but Bejarano, an NMSU associate professor of criminal justice, is focused on CAMP's future.

"We're beginning our 10th year of CAMP, but are in the final year of our current grant," said Bejarano. "We are in the process of writing our application for another five-year grant. We know at the federal level that things will be highly competitive and it is always a concern for us, but we can only hope for the best."

NMSU's CAMP has succeeded in getting two five-year federal grants. Since 2002 the program, which provides dormitory, meal plan and student scholarships and book stipends as well as mentoring and advising students, has helped 263 students from across New Mexico and west Texas.

"This may not seem like a lot of students, but when you consider these are all first-generation migrant and seasonal farm worker students who would not have come to NMSU or even the community college, this is highly successful," Bejarano said.

Hernandez, who is getting a degree in education, grew up with three sisters in Hatch, N.M. Farm labor was the family business. His words tumble out quickly as he remembers his childhood.

"I grew up with a single mother," Hernandez said. "She used to work in the fields work in the onion sheds, the chile sheds. I've worked in the fields. That was our main income, our only income actually.

"A lot of my family would not even graduate, just drop out. Most of my older cousins dropped out in 10th grade or freshman year in high school and just started working, making money."

Petite and soft-spoken, Bernice Jauregui, who is majoring in sociology, grew up in Clovis, N.M., working in the fields side-by-side with her parents.

"I don't think I would have gone to college without the CAMP. I was always a very shy person, very insecure," Juaregui said. "I don't think I could have come far from my parents and stayed here and gone through all this without the CAMP program."

Bejarano says CAMP creates a safe space on campus where students can relax and remain focused on school within familiar surroundings. If students feel uneasy because they're first-generation college students and bilingual, they know that at CAMP they can be surrounded by others like them, who have shared experiences and who can switch back and forth between English and Spanish.

"We try to create a home away from home for our students. We greet the students with a hug, with a smile and a 'how are you.' We really try to personalize our relationships with the students," Bejarano said.

A recent survey of students in the program indicates 72 percent would not have come to college without the assistance of CAMP. The work experience they have had is different from most other 18-and 19-year-old students. NMSU CAMP students have started doing fieldwork as young as age five to help support their families. Some of these families have a joint income as low as $7,000 a year. The average family income for students in NMSU's CAMP program is $16,500 annually.

"Working in the fields is not easy," Bejarano said. "Waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to go out and pick chiles or pick onions or work in an onion shed is very arduous work. We're able to do what other programs and financial mechanisms are not able to do, and this is to understand the story and the lived experience of our students and help them apply those tools they have learned working in the fields to the academic setting."

Hernandez says there have been times he was close to giving up on college and going back to the fields and the life he understood.

"The whole college experience, we can't really find people we can relate with, so CAMP is the family you depend on the most in those first two years," Hernandez said. "CAMP teaches you the things you need to know in order to be successful in college."

Bejarano points to CAMP's success rate. Of the 228 students who have been in school for more than a year, 51 students have completed a bachelor's degree, another two are expected to graduate in December and 15 are expected to graduate in May of 2012. Five students have attained master's degrees and one student is currently in the third year of a Ph.D. program. Eleven CAMP students have earned associate's degrees.

"Our students ultimately are proving how successful we are by landing jobs in their fields of expertise," Bejarano said. "We have accountants, CPAs, engineers and teachers who are working in New Mexico and elsewhere - New York, California, Ohio - so they're really becoming the ambassadors of the NMSU CAMP program and talking about our good work."

Those graduates are already giving back to the program by serving as role models and mentors for current CAMP students. Bejarano hopes the network of NMSU CAMP alumni will grow and continue to give back to the program and the university in the future.

Hernandez and Jauregui are already giving back what they have learned through CAMP by helping fellow students. Both are peer mentors for the program.

"I basically do everything from helping them with homework to tutoring to guiding them and helping them with the basics that they need," said Jauregui.

Hernandez' has strong feelings about serving as a peer mentor.

"I want to be an example to all these other young kids that are here and I want to help them," Hernandez said. "I feel this passion to help. By being here doing whatever I can do, I'm trying to pay back for what CAMP has done for me.

"A lot of times I sit down with kids and I tell them, 'I know you think it's hard. I know it's difficult. I've been right where you're at. Trust me, you can get through it. If I did it anyone can do it.' For the kids in CAMP, it's about having that support."

Federal grants provide funding for initial scholarships and program staff, but the program relies heavily on state funding for follow-up services like book stipends and other assistance for students in subsequent years. Recently those funds have been reduced. After that first year, Bejarano says the third and fourth years are the most critical for CAMP students.

"We've relied on state funding for follow-up services for students after the first year for retention," Bejarano said. "Now it's been difficult to keep afloat and to continue to provide the same level of services I feel we've been able to provide for our students without that financial assistance."

As the staff and students of CAMP look back on 10 years of success, Bejarano is hopeful the program's proven track record will enable the NMSU program to qualify for its next five-year grant.

"In a perfect world we will be able to sustain our federal funding and our state funding and we will become a legacy here at NMSU for the next 50 years," Bejarano said.

Break out box

College Assistance Migrant Program CAMP Day
Wednesday, Oct. 26

? 11 a.m. - 2 p.m. CAMP Office, Milton Hall, Room 16 - Research Expo
? 2:45 p.m. - 3:15 p.m. - Corbett Center Auditorium - Speaker Francisco Garcia, director, Interstate Migrant Education Council and former director, Office of Migrant Education, U.S. Department of Education
? 3:15 p.m. - 4:30 p.m. - Corbett Center Auditorium - CAMP Alumni Panel
? 4:30 p.m. - 5:30 p.m. - Corbett Center Auditorium - Reception for speaker Jose Uranga, author and NMSU alumnus
? 5:30 p.m. - Jose Uranga lecture on the "Hispanic Experience"

More about NMSU's CAMP program call 575-646-5081or check online at http://web.nmsu.edu/~camp/