The notion of a self-directed existence is central to the American identity. The idea that with hard work, education and determination someone can shape the course of their own life has brought people to the U.S. for generations. For some, though, the barriers to that self-directed life can too often seem insurmountable.
Oregon’s Portland Community College (PCC) offers a way forward. The College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which has an annual cohort of 45 students, is helping the children of migrant farmworkers start down the path to earning a college degree.
“CAMP acknowledges that our students can go further with their education and their lives,” said Greg Contreras, the program’s director. “These are at-risk, first-generation students, all of them people of color. The CAMP program gives them a chance to be trailblazers into higher education from their families.”
CAMP is one of 50 similar programs at community colleges, as well as both public and private universities, around the country. It’s funded by a federal grant, which was recently renewed for a five-year cycle lasting through 2026.
Contreras is currently recruiting graduating high school seniors with backgrounds in migrant and seasonal farm work. CAMP’s current incarnation at PCC isn’t the first one, though. He said the program existed at the college in the early 2000s, but then went on hiatus. Now, Contreras isn’t interested in taking any more breaks.
“We’re determined,” he said. “Let’s make this continuous. CAMP is making a real difference in peoples’ lives.”
Offering critical support
CAMP, like many support programs aimed at first-generation college students, helps students become acclimated to campus life and to navigate the complex processes and procedures. These include applying for admission and financial aid, registering for classes, and connecting with the many services and resources available to them. All of these processes can seem overwhelming to someone who has never been to college.
It’s a point of pride for CAMP that the program has been so successful in on-boarding students into the world of higher education, Contreras said, particularly with regard to tapping into financial support.
“None of our students take out loans,” he said. “It’s all financial aid grants and scholarships. I think it’s important to help students avoid debt early on in their education.”
The CAMP Resource Center is stocked with study areas, computers and a space for students to practice presentations. In addition to Contreras, the program has three staffers to support and advise students, but one of the real secrets to CAMP’s success, he said, is “students helping students.”
Each year, the program employs seven student mentors, all of them past participants in the program. These students provide guidance, advice and comfort to the cohort. This fosters a sense of belonging among the students, Contreras said, helping them to see that they are valued members of the campus community, and to understand that they are right where they should be.
“They don’t want to feel like token persons in the room,” he said. “Instead, they can relate to each other and confide in each other. The best part of my day is stepping out of my office and seeing students getting ready for class, socializing and offering encouragement to one another.”
Coming from the same place
Jose Lopez de Leon was a CAMP student in the 2019-2020 academic year and then signed on as a program mentor in the Covid-affected 2020-2021 academic year. He’s now enrolled at Portland State University, where he is studying marketing. De Leon agreed that CAMP’s hands-on, inclusive approach is a big part of what makes the program work.
“I really liked that we had an advisor, Gabby Garcia, who just worked with us,” de Leon said. “She helped me to choose the right classes and grow my leadership skills. It really helped me prepare to move on to Portland State.”
Another component that makes the program effective — and one that can’t be underestimated, Contreras said — is the affinity shared between students, staff and mentors, born of a common identity and similar experiences.
“We can identify with our students and their families,” Contreras said. “We know what it’s like to pick apples, to harvest onions and berries. We know just how strong that makes you mentally, to be able to withstand the weather and the hard work. Many of our students have worked right alongside their parents. There’s pride there, there’s honor there.”
De Leon echoed these sentiments.
“A lot of people in CAMP are from the Hispanic community, and that made a big difference for me,” he said. “During breaks between classes, I would hang out in the CAMP Center and connect with the students there, who all had similar backgrounds to me. It made me feel like I belonged.”
A family affair
Even as the program honors the agricultural history of its students and their families, CAMP students seek to advance their career options into business, social work, healthcare, education and more. Their parents want the same thing for them, he said, so the program makes an extra effort to reach out to and build relationships with students’ families.
“The buy-in from families is huge,” Contreras said. “We invite our parents, and we talk with them about college and what it means. We hold regular parent nights, where we provide food and an inspirational speaker. We’ve even kept this up through Covid. We can’t provide food over Zoom, but we can give them everything else.”
This kind of engagement has even reaped dividends for the parents themselves. Many CAMP parents, inspired by their children, have enrolled in PCC’s High School Equivalency Program.
Finally, when students have completed their time in a CAMP cohort and are ready to transfer to a four-year institution, the program helps them to bridge that gap, too. Staff write letters of recommendation for students and remain available to support them through this next transition in their educational journey. It’s all part of the program’s long-term commitment to each student.
“We stick with them and follow their success,” Contreras said.