Interns aid in migrant education

By: - August 9, 2005 5:13 am

Reidsville Review
Sarah Rabil Staff Writer

Lupita Lopez knows what it’s like to dive headfirst into a new culture, learn a second language and move across the country every year to follow crop seasons.

She knows the long work hours and inadequate social services that face some migrant farm working families. She grew up in one.

"I know their struggles," Lopez said. Her family traveled between Texas and Michigan, Illinois and Indiana to follow the corn, asparagus and blueberry seasons.

Now 21 years old and a rising senior at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas, Lopez has dedicated her summer to giving back to migrant farm working families.

Lopez is paired up with another college student, Julia Finkelstein, as two of about 30 summer interns with the nonprofit Student Action with Farmworkers. The two have spent their summer months in Rockingham County working with the county school system’s Migrant Education Program. Last year, it was the largest Migrant Education Program in the state with 1,072 students.

But unlike Lopez, Finkelstein isn’t from a migrant farm working family, and she isn’t fluent in Spanish ? at least not yet.

Rather, she heard about migrant farm workers’ challenges with health care, education and decent housing in her college courses as a Spanish and interdisciplinary studies double major at Appalachian State University.

She said she has seen this summer that the reality of migrant farm worker’s lives that she’s heard about in lecture halls really exists, and it’s been shocking.

With the Migrant Education Program, they helped out with several weeks of summer school for English Second Language students and even held a chef school for young students working on perfecting their English language skills.

Finkelstein said after years spent trying to learn Spanish in the classroom, she was impressed with how quickly young students became proficient in English.

"They’re so much more immersed in it than their parents, per say. As children it’s so much easier to learn," she said.

Spanish and English are spoken interchangeably in the Migrant Education office. Two employees are natives of Mexico, one of Colombia and another of Peru.

Lopez said she spent two years in ESL classes when she moved from Mexico to Texas about 10 years ago. Her mother is from Mexico, and her father is from Texas. After the two years, Lopez was mainstreamed into the English-speaking classroom full-time and is now bilingual.

And the switch isn’t easy, said Paula Tillotson-S?nchez, director of the county’s Migrant Education Program.

"The biggest challenge is the transition into the American school system," she said. "A lot of the parents have not been educated in their native (Spanish) language."

S?nchez said she constantly runs into situations where written material sent home with her students does no good because the parents can read little English or Spanish.

But two or three nights a week spent recruiting families for the program has been even more eye opening, the two interns said.

Few qualify

To be eligible for the program, participants must be between 3 and 21 years old, have been in the county for less than three years and be part of a migrant family working specifically in agriculture.

Working with recruiters, Finkelstein and Lopez visited farmer-provided housing for migrant workers across the county. And oftentimes, Finkelstein said they found only single, over 21 men who were not eligible, or they found no one at all.

"Sometimes it can be frustrating," Lopez said. "The farmers are not really growing tobacco this year. We found a lot of empty homes."

Because of a federal tobacco buyout, many farmers have been compensated and are no longer growing as much of the crop. A tobacco farm that may have hired six migrant farm workers last year, only needed two workers this year, Lopez said.

Even when they meet migrant workers who do not qualify for the program, S?nchez said they still have resources to offer such as at-home English study packets, help with job placement and connections to health care services.

The majority of migrant farm workers who come to North Carolina are guest workers hired from Mexico through the H2A program. Annually, about 10,000 workers come to the state through the program.

During door-to-door recruiting efforts, S?nchez said the interns often visited run-down trailers with no air conditioning.

"We’ve been to some places that are decent, but I’ve also been to some places that look like they’re in a third world country," Finkelstein said. She said some migrant workers did not have mattresses on their beds and shared one toilet with about 15 other workers.

Lopez said visiting migrant farm working families was her favorite aspect of the internship because it set the Migrant Education Program apart. When she lived in migrant farm worker camps with her family in the summers, she said many children missed out on summer school opportunities because it required parents to take the initiative to go to the school and sign-up.

With Rockingham County’s program, recruiters seek out the families.

Other interns working with Student Action with Farmworkers are tackling the various social issues that Finkelstein and Lopez ran into on a day-to-day basis. Placed across North and South Carolina, they are interning at migrant health care centers, Legal Aid, worker ministries and the Farm Labor Organizing Committee. About half of the interns are from farm worker families, and many are bilingual.

"We’re all from everywhere, but we all have something in common," said Lopez, who is considering teaching ESL students after college.

Finkelstein said her experience has reinforced her desire to work with farm workers and the Hispanic community.

"It’s not something I feel like I can walk away from ? It’s part of me now. It’s part of my life," she said.

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Chris Fitzsimon

Chris Fitzsimon, Founder and Executive Director of N.C. Policy Watch, writes the Fitzsimon File, delivers a radio commentary broadcast on WRAL-FM and hosts "News and Views," a weekly radio news magazine that airs on multiple stations across North Carolina. [email protected] 919-861-2066