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Helping migrant children succeed in high school and college

Angelica Aldana sits in a 53-story tower in downtown Manhattan overlooking the East River, an assistant loan analyst for a subsidiary of a Fortune 500 company.

It's a long way from the fields and barns around which her migrant farmer parents raised her.

She enjoyed a couple of benefits other migrant kids don't always get:

  • She had to work hard to help the family, but she didn't have to give up her future to act as translator, child-care provider and extra breadwinner.
  • Other than a move to Dutchess County from Texas when she was 14, she lived with a stable community where she could get the classes she needed in an environment where her friends and family expected her to go to college.
  • Her parents were enthusiastic about her improving herself, even if the family had to sacrifice to make it happen.

She also benefited – like thousands of other migrant children across New York – from two programs that help them get through high school and college, both administered by the Research Foundation for SUNY.

“If we can keep them in school until ninth or tenth grade, we increase their chances to graduate,” said Maryellen Whittington-Couse, director of the Mid-Hudson Migrant Outreach Program, which with 25 people supports 550 to 650 migrant students each year. Sponsored by the School of Education at SUNY New Paltz, hers is one of nine programs supporting 6,000 migrant students from pre-school through high school across the state.

Students come from a variety of places, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Haiti, Central and South America, Texas, the Deep South, Burma and Mexico with their parents to do agricultural work. Others are New York natives whose families move from farm to farm. Sometimes these students stay a season. Sometimes their entire childhood. They are 20 percent less likely to go to high school than their peers, and only half graduate.

“When you're really poor, the biggest challenge is survival. Migrant parents don’t always have the privilege or the resources to support their children’s education,” Whittington-Couse says. “Whether it is a matter of survival or a child’s sense of responsibility, if that child can work, they often do.”

And in agriculture, which often pays piecework, a teen in the field can be the difference between keeping the bills paid, the lights on and the tummies filled. “An increasing number of our students are homeless,” Whittington-Couse says. “Most of our kids live in sub-standard housing. It is a challenge to study, and hard to tutor a student when there's no place to sit.”

The programs provide tutoring and academic support for up to three years. The students, like kids anywhere, are a mixed bag with some unusual challenges. Some are very bright, but have difficulty passing a Regents exam because English is their second language. Others have bounced from camp to camp and state to state for so many years they haven't been able to put together a consistent curriculum that meets anybody's graduation requirements. Still others are swamped with family responsibilities – caring for younger siblings, translating for parents, working the fields to earn an adult's pay 

“They have the desire, but they don't have enough time and energy to go to school and their bosses often don't want them to,” Whittington-Couse says. And while her goal is to help them establish lifelong learning habits, that can be a challenge when the kid has a project due tomorrow, a need to translate for Mom, a handful of younger siblings and a field full of crops or a barn full of cows. 

But if they can make high school happen, they may find themselves meeting Pathy Leiva and her boss, Patti Hanley. Leiva will recruit them to go to college, and Hanley, as director of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at SUNY Oneonta, will find a way to support them through the years.

The students face money problems; the $1,500 scholarship and weekly stipend go only so far. They may need to overcome educational gaps. They may be homesick. “There's a lot of guilt with some of our students,” Hanley says.  The student knows that their parents feel the loss of an important part of the family workforce. Some parents must be convinced to allow their child to leave home, and support them emotionally, even though they fear their college-educated children will no longer respect them. 

Still, Oneonta's CAMP, the only one of its kind in the Northeast, employs tutors and counselors, and organizes events to introduce migrant students to campus and the college life. “We're a second family to them,” says Leiva, who faced many of the same challenges when she emigrated from Peru. 

The result, Hanley says, is a six-year graduation rate topping 81 percent, far beyond the New York six-year average of 59.2 percent. In fact, most of Oneonta's migrant students graduate within four years.

Aldana needed only three. She was born in Poughkeepsie and raised in San Antonio until her family moved to Dutchess County when she was 14. She's no stranger to work, sometimes in farm fields, but other jobs, too.

In high school, she faced a certain amount of hostility at first – “immigrants are so bad … They're stealing the jobs … There was a lot of that,” Aldana says. “But eventually they grew accustomed to me.”

Still, New York's academic standards are more stringent than those of Texas; she had to work hard to catch up and excel. The Mid-Hudson Migrant Outreach Program at SUNY New Paltz was a help. “For a while it was kind of lonely,” she says, but eventually she got involved in sports, clubs and the National Honor Society. Her parents drove her to every event and ceremony.

When she was accepted at Oneonta, the College Assistance Migrant Program kept the support going. “It was a family away from home,” Aldana says, and people were available to help find solutions or just talk her through a tough time – like that semester she took eight classes so she could graduate early. 

Now 22, she's mid-way through a master's program at Baruch College of The City University of New York and an assistant leverage loan analyst. Her paths are open, but her destination is clear: she wants to move into portfolio management. 

It's a long way from the fields and barns. But for her, the investment is paying dividends.

Tags Tags: SUNY New Paltz , College at Oneonta

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