Miguel Torres, helping children follow their educational dreams.

Miguel Torres didn’t think college was an option.

Not when he was 17 and his family was traveling back and forth from Palmview, Texas to Holland, Mich. every year to follow the harvest seasons. At 17, he feared that simply graduating from high school was becoming less likely because he had to change schools so often and lost credits every time.

“I would be taking regular classes in Texas, but then in Michigan they would stick me in wood shop or home economic, classes that didn’t really benefit me,” Torres said. “Then, by the time I got back to Texas in October, I would be starting my classes late. 

But then a counselor, J.R.Flores, at his high school in La Joya, Texas asked him if he’d ever heard of the College Assistance Migrant Program at Michigan State University. 

Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, CAMP was created in 2000 to help the migrant farmworkers and their children attend college.

Torres checked it out, and it changed everything. He stayed behind in Texas while his parents and sister came to Michigan for work. For months, Torres worked late at school to make up the credits he was missing so he could qualify to graduate and attend MSU. 

Today, Torres said his life has come full circle. Not only did he become the first in his family to graduate from high school and earn his degree at MSU, he now works for MSU’s office of Migrant Student Services helping other farmworkers and their children follow their own educational dreams. 

As Recruitment and Placement Coordinator of the High School Equivalency Program, Torres works with farmworkers of all ages to help them finish high school and earn their GEDs – a necessary first step for moving on to college.

Because of his work, Torres is also one of the inaugural class of scholars, community leaders, and activists in the prestigious W.K. Kellogg Foundation fellowship program. Torres is part of the foundation’s Community Leadership Network, which was created in 2013 to foster positive change for children in vulnerable communities.

The foundation announced its inaugural class of fellows in 2014. Fellows serve for three years.

Torres said he hopes his work with the Community Leadership Network will continue to expand opportunities for children of farmworkers like himself.

“My family always wanted the best for me, but I didn’t really have guidance as to how to get there or what was actually the pathway to achieve that,” he said. “It took a counselor to believe in me and work with me. I have this fire in me because a lot of students are going through something similar.”

Fifth in the nation

Nearly 50,000 seasonal and migrant farmworkers are employed by Michigan’s many fruit and crop farms and food processing businesses during the peak harvest seasons, according to a report by the Department of Civil Rights. 

Those workers support nearly the same number of dependents or other family members during that time, bringing Michigan’s population of farmworkers and dependents to nearly 100,000 people, with the largest concentration on the west side of the state.

Michigan has the fifth-highest number of seasonal farmworkers in the nation, behind California, Florida, Washington and Texas. 

It’s not only a humanitarian necessity to serve the needs of the farmworker community but also an economic one, said Luis Garcia, director of MSU’s Migrant Student Services. 

“MSU is a national leader,” Garcia said. “If you look at the history of the land grant, MSU has always had a history with agriculture. One thing that Michigan State has committed to the human factors that have been part of that agricultural success in Michigan. An educated work force is good for the entire economy and the nation. So, one thing we’re really focused on is exposing that community to the educational opportunities in America.”

Educational hurdles

Farmworkers and their dependents are especially vulnerable to dropping out, Garcia said. As many as 60 percent of farmworkers leave school before finishing.

The constant moving around means children often lose credits from classes that don’t transfer. Plus, they are often working after school alongside their parents during the peak seasons, making it difficult to focus on their studies, Torres said.

The High School Equivalency Program is designed to meet the needs of the students, he said. HEP has two satellite campuses – one in Hart and another in Sturgis – and also offers online classes. They also teach in both English and Spanish.

The goal, he said, is to clear as many hurdles up front that make it difficult for farmworkers to pursue their GEDs. 

They have more than 20 graduates so far, even with an overhaul of the GED program last year that made the exams tougher and require them to be taken online only.

“We have one student who got honors in social studies and another who got honors in math,” Torres said. “Those were drop outs who are now getting honors. That shows the hidden potential they have.” 

Torres said that is the greatest reward from his work – seeing students, no matter their age, achieve something that was not possible before.

“I believe that once you go through an opportunity, another opportunity opens up,” he said. “We take a lot of pride in our line of work to motivate the students to achieve success. When they earn their GED, I work with them to increase their job wage, to obtain jobs, to get an associate’s degree, or even to go into the military. Whatever the student wants to pursue, I work with them step by step so they can achieve that success.”

This story is part of a series of solutions-focused stories and profiles about the programs and people that are positively impacting the lives of Michigan kids. The series is produced by Michigan Nightlight and is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read other stories in this series here.

Photos © Dave Trumpie
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
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