How St. Edward's University has uplifted migrant farmworker students for 50 years
The College Assistance Migrant Program scholarship at St. Edward's University turns 50 this year. It's the longest-running program of its kind in the nation. CAMP scholars, whose families do seasonal or migrant farm work, are often the first of their families to attend college.
IF YOU GO:
What: St. Edward’s University CAMP 50th Anniversary Celebration
Where: Ragsdale Center, Mabee Ballrooms at St. Edward’s University
When: Sat. Oct. 29
Cost and Tickets: Free for students; $25 for public. Tickets here.
In August 1986, life forever changed for Geronimo Rodriguez. After finishing the strawberry and raspberry harvest season in the state of Washington, work in the Oregon potato fields beckoned. As migrant farmworkers, Rodriguez and his family spent much of the year traveling from their South Texas home to follow various crops and work in the fields.
On their way to Oregon, the Rodriguez family stopped in the small town of Mabton, Wash., where they kept a post office box. There sat an acceptance letter to the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) at St. Edward’s University. Rodriguez had earned a spot, but classes were starting soon.
He rushed to a pay phone in a nearby grocery store with a handful of change and dialed the university’s CAMP admission counselor.
“I just got my notice,” Rodriguez said anxiously. “Can I still go to CAMP?”
Rodriguez understood the significance of the moment, but he never imagined just how much his CAMP experience would shape the rest of his life. After St. Edward’s, Rodriguez earned a law degree from the University of Texas School of Law. He served as counsel to the solicitor at the U.S. Department of Labor, helping to enforce 140 labor and employment laws during the Clinton Administration. He’s now the Texas chief advocacy officer for Ascension Seton, one of the leading nonprofit and Catholic healthcare systems in the United States.
CAMP was established by the federal government in 1972 as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society agenda. That same year, St. Edward’s welcomed its first class of CAMP scholars under the leadership of President Brother Stephen Walsh, CSC, ’62. Since then, nearly 2,900 students from migrant farmworker backgrounds have participated in CAMP at St. Edward’s.
To qualify for the federal program, a student must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident, meet the university’s admission requirements and demonstrate that migrant or seasonal farmwork is the family’s primary source of income. CAMP scholars are required to maintain good academic standing and are supported in their efforts by a dedicated staff of tutors, counselors and financial aid advisers. Each year, the university invites about 35 students to be part of CAMP.
The federal CAMP scholarship covers students’ first year of college: tuition, on-campus housing, a meal plan, medical insurance and a modest stipend for living expenses. Although the federal scholarship ends after the first year, St. Edward’s commitment to CAMP scholars extends through graduation. The university covers tuition up to four subsequent years after any other scholarship or grant funding has been applied.
Many St. Edward’s CAMP scholars are in the first generation of their families to attend college and the program has been a springboard for careers from politics to public health. The university’s CAMP graduates have blazed trails on the hilltop, too. In 2020, Sonia Briseño became the first CAMP alumna to direct the program at St. Edward’s. Alumna Anabel Rodriguez recently became the first CAMP graduate to serve on the university’s Board of Trustees.
CAMP at St. Edward’s turns 50 this year and is recognized as the longest continuous program in the nation. Ester Q. Yacono directed the program for 23 of those 50 years (1994–2017). In 1995, the Clinton Administration proposed budget cuts that eliminated federal funding for CAMP, sparking outrage among migrant education advocates who rallied to save the program. During the 2014–2015 academic year, St. Edward’s did not receive any federal funding from the Department of Education. Alumni and donors raised more than $460,000 to help the program continue.
Through the decades, CAMP scholars have formed strong, family-like bonds that supported the launch of the CAMP Alumni Association at St. Edward’s. Despite the specter of federal budget cuts and a global pandemic that threatened the program’s sense of community, the CAMP experience remains transformative. Often that transformation begins as soon as CAMP scholars arrive at Main Building’s iconic red doors.
Lighting the Path Forward
Beginning the journey as a first-generation college student isn’t easy. CAMP alumna Iliana Meléndez remembers crying as she said goodbye to her parents and walked on to campus. “I was alone, and I was terrified,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘I can’t do this.’”
For many CAMP scholars, their first night on campus also marks their first time being away from family. Anabel Rodriguez, who now serves on the university’s board of trustees, traveled with her family from South Texas to Southern California every summer to pick grapes.
“In the migrant camps, we had one restroom and two tiny rooms where we all slept,” she says. “You’re used to being with family 24/7, and then at St. Edward’s you’re like, ‘Oh my gosh — I have a room?’”
Geronimo Rodriguez had doubts about success and experienced pangs of homesickness during his first night on campus. He didn’t grow up going to sleepovers. He’d never stayed anywhere without his family.
“I remember spending the first night at St. Edward’s underneath my blanket with a flashlight, looking at my high school yearbook of a few friends from South Texas for a sense of familiarity,” he says.
In recent years, CAMP at St. Edward’s started a new tradition: a candle-lighting ceremony held at the beginning of the year. Each candle’s flame symbolizes a new beginning, a path to transformation and a promise for the future. The tradition comes full circle at the CAMP graduation ceremony — an intimate event in addition to the university-wide graduation that is presented by the CAMP Alumni Association and the CAMP office — when graduating scholars light another candle to mark the completion of their journey.
In the Fields
College is a world away from the settings where many CAMP scholars grew up, and the adjustment to campus life can be difficult.
After growing up migrating from Texas to the Northwest and harvesting everything from cucumbers to potatoes, Geronimo Rodriguez didn’t think college was possible for him. When he was in the seventh grade, his parents asked him to work in the fields full time and attend night school three times a week. It wasn’t what they wanted him to do, his mother told him. But it was what the family needed to survive.
At 7 a.m. one day in 1980, he watched his younger siblings and cousins board the yellow school bus without him.
“As the school bus is driving away, all I’m feeling are the doors of opportunity closing,” he says. Anger washed over him.
His parents promised that when he was older, they would help him go wherever he wanted. That’s when he began to dream of attending college.
Janet Wright-Santos grew up in Belle Glade, Fla., working in orange groves and radish, tomato and sugar cane fields with her parents and nine siblings. Dreaming big didn’t come easy for a Black child living on the poorer side of a town divided along racial lines. Prostitutes worked on the next block from her neighborhood. College wasn’t on people’s minds, she says. “I could’ve been just like them or six feet under. CAMP saved me.”
College seemed like a way out of farmwork, but Wright-Santos didn’t tell a soul about her aspirations. She quietly researched universities on her own at the library and discovered CAMP. Her high school guidance counselor helped Wright-Santos apply to St. Edward’s.
To make it to college, Wright-Santos had to make a deal with her mother to work the fields every summer until she graduated. She fulfilled the bargain.
Her classmate Juan Felipe Santos arrived in Austin on the bus from Laredo with all his belongings in a brown paper bag. Santos grew up missing about five months out of the school year as he and his family traveled from South Texas to Minnesota, Wisconsin and other states to pick cucumbers or work in the sugar beet fields.
He’d dreamed of going to college but “it was such a distant dream,” he says. “I didn’t want to voice it. I felt like if I talked about college, I was going to be so let down when I didn’t go, so I just kind of kept it in.”
Santos and Wright-Santos eventually fell in love at St. Edward’s and married in 1984. Today, he’s a neurologist based in Corpus Christi, and Wright-Santos is the chief operating officer for the medical practice.
Political Science major and current student Vince Martinez says his migrant experience made him a stronger person. He remembers his family arriving to weed Arkansas cotton fields when the skies were still dark and the grass wet from dew. Weeding the peanut fields, he worked through pain on his hands and knees.
Sometimes it disappoints Martinez when people don’t understand that migrant farmworkers still exist. Too often people assume that all farm labor is accomplished nowadays by machinery. Not only are actual humans doing this work, he says: “I was doing it — just a couple of years ago.”
Through CAMP, scholars not only earn a college degree but also go on to inspire others. Martinez hopes to work in Washington, D.C., one day, perhaps as a senator. Maybe even as president.
“CAMP and St. Edward’s have shown me that it is possible for me to go to graduate school or law school,” Martinez says. “It’s like all these windows of opportunity are there for me. I didn’t know that was possible before.”
When Geronimo Rodriguez filled out his application to St. Edward’s, he wrote that he wanted to work at the intersection of policy, politics and the law.
“I wanted to be able to influence these areas for people who looked like me, who grew up like me, who are like me,” he says. “I’ve been able to do that, and we need to do more.”
At Ascension Seton, he oversees multiple departments including one that identifies and provides services for survivors of human trafficking. He also led a medical response unit that provided more than 270,000 COVID-19 vaccinations throughout Central Texas in 2021.
He also serves as president of the Austin Independent School District Board of Trustees. During his tenure, the mission of the school district changed to include providing all students the knowledge and skills to thrive in college, career and life. “And that is what I dreamed of in that field, working during the day and trying to go to night school,” he says. CAMP helped him flourish to his own fullest potential.
As a graduate student, Anabel Rodriguez began realizing her fullest potential when she took a research assistantship that focused on improving the occupational health and safety of dairy workers.
“I loved going out there to the farms,” she says. “Every worker I saw reminded me of my parents, my tíos (uncles), my cousins. When I saw the young girls working, I’d think, ‘Oh my gosh — that’s me.’” Rodriguez went on to earn a PhD from the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and is now an occupational epidemiologist and assistant professor in epidemiology at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston School of Public Health in San Antonio.
For Meléndez, now an associate dean of students at the University of Houston–Clear Lake, seeing the CAMP staff made up of individuals who “looked like me, sounded like me and were there to support me” made a significant impression.
Growing up in the Texas Panhandle, she’d never had a teacher of color nor felt the degree of love and support from the school staff that she felt from the CAMP team. Meléndez credits them with inspiring her passion for student affairs.
“When I think about the connections I want to have with students and the impact that representation had for me, I think about the CAMP staff,” she says.
Briseño began as the St. Edward’s CAMP director in the fall of 2020. It was the start of the academic year, and classes were fully virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But she was determined to keep the new scholars connected. That meant delivering the programming — group meetings, counseling, tutoring and advising with success coaches — entirely online.
“We definitely saw the digital divide,” Briseño says. Some students, she says, had unreliable laptops or no home computer at all. Other students living at home lacked internet access. Some found themselves suddenly juggling caretaker duties for their grandparents, younger siblings or nieces and nephews. Others had to earn money to support their families as their parents experienced job losses or reductions in hours.
“We tried our best to keep them engaged and let them know that if any concerns arose they could easily call us,” Briseño says. Constant communication, including text messaging, was key to maintaining those connections. “We made sure they heard from us every other day,” she says.
During the 2020–2021 school year, the program’s peer academic coaches — upperclassmen who ease the transition to college — served a vital role. Martinez, a sophomore in Fall 2020, served as one of these coaches. He’d been so motivated by his own peer academic coach during his freshman year that he wanted to give back. A lot of the struggle for CAMPers who started college during the pandemic, Martinez says, was in forming friendships and making connections outside of Zoom. As a coach, he talked to his CAMP mentee about everything from time management to nutrition habits.
“Despite all of the challenges that we faced, it’s extremely rewarding to see our students persevere, especially our 2020 CAMP class,” Briseño says. The end goal — seeing students graduate — keeps the staff pushing forward. “That’s going to help CAMP scholars with their upward mobility, and then they’ll have an opportunity to help themselves and possibly help their families as well,” she says.
As the first alumna to direct the program, Briseño identifies with CAMP scholars and their experiences. She grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, traveling to the Texas Panhandle with her family over the summer to weed sorghum fields, cut forage fields and harvest onions, tomatoes and cucumbers.
“Through this arduous labor, I learned the true meaning of a strong work ethic and making considerable sacrifices to guarantee a more prosperous future for myself and my family,” Briseño says. “In those fields, I shared laughter, hopes, dreams, stories and tears with my family — and that’s something I would not change. As CAMPers, our experiences shape us and help us to embrace our pioneering spirit, courage and desire to thrive.”
Lessons Beyond the Classroom
After decades of running a medical practice and building a life together, Santos and Wright-Santos say their commitment to their community, their patients and social justice is inspired by their St. Edward’s experience. Coming from humble beginnings, Santos worried he would be viewed differently than his campus peers. But the professors at St. Edward’s treated him and other CAMP students with dignity — something he says helped build his confidence as he pursued medical school.
When Wright-Santos arrived on campus, she was hesitant to open up about her migrant farmworker background. “It was like, ‘How much of my life experience can I share with you? Am I going to be looked down upon?’”
Gradually, Wright-Santos says, her self-worth began growing thanks to teachers like Brother John Perron, CSC, who began teaching English at St. Edward’s in 1970. “I found my voice,” she says.
Geronimo Rodriguez has seen the program help students both find and strengthen their voices. He credits CAMP with giving students the courage to speak up in the face of injustice. The program helps create a more compassionate and just society by ensuring that migrant farmworker students gain a pathway to the middle class. “We need to continue to speak up for people who are not fully participating in our society,” he says.
Briseño’s own CAMP experience taught her the importance of self-advocacy and seeking assistance when necessary. “Culturally, we’re not taught to ask for help,” she says. “We’re taught to figure it out by ourselves. But CAMP taught us that the faculty and staff at St. Edward’s are here to help.”
Over the years, the program’s family-like environment has made scholars feel like they belong.
“CAMP allowed us to be ourselves,” Anabel Rodriguez says. She remembers seeing other first-generation students on campus wanting to hide the fact that they spoke Spanish or that their parents were immigrants. But she and her fellow CAMP scholars were proud of their heritage and openly discussed their migrant backgrounds.
“If you know who you are and are comfortable within your own skin, you will have more confidence to go after your dreams,” she says. “I feel secure in my identity because of CAMP — because I was given that safe space.”
On the Horizon
The power of CAMP reaches beyond its graduates. Meléndez, the higher education administrator, says the program’s impact extends to her students as well as her family.
“It’s changed my lineage forever,” says Meléndez, who’s working toward a doctorate in the Adult, Professional and Community Education program at Texas State University. “My family will no longer be able to say, ‘I can’t do that because nobody’s done it.’ I’ve done it.”
As she looks to the future, Briseño says financial sustainability is among her top priorities to ensure the legacy of CAMP at the university endures for decades to come. Continued funding from the U.S. Department of Education and the university is essential to the program’s future.
“When students are asked what their No. 1 challenge is to persist from one year to the next, they will let you know that it’s financial hardship,” she says. Although their tuition is covered through graduation, upperclassmen must secure funding for other expenses such as housing, books and meals. “We want to make sure that support continues for the upperclassmen.”
Martinez, the Political Science major, wants CAMP at St. Edward’s to be a beacon of hope for new generations. As a child, he would arrive at the Arkansas cotton fields and feel overwhelmed by the endless rows he’d have to clear of tall weeds. His father often told him he just had to make it to the end of the row. Then, he’d be done and could tackle the next row.
“That’s kind of how I think of life’s challenges now,” he says. “It might look big and daunting. It might be difficult. It might be a stubborn task. But bit by bit, with the support of the people around you, you’ll get through it.”
This article originally appeared in the St. Edward’s University Magazine. Editor Nancy Flores is an alumna of the CAMP program.
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