Edna Luna will never forget working in the sugar beet fields of Montana in the summer of 2006. In the blaring 105 degree heat she became dehydrated as she experienced chills and saw darkness.
By Luna’s side was her mother, who urged her to finish her work quick so she could take a break. It was during that time that she promised herself she would continue her education because she didn’t want to work in the fields anymore.
The 23-year-old alumna, who earned her Mexican-American studies degree from UTPA Dec. 15, is the first participant from Abriendo Caminos Living Learning Community program to graduate from the University.
The one-year program, provided by UTPA’s Migrant Student Success Office, was established fall of 2009 with the purpose of serving as a support system for entering freshmen who migrate to the north to work in agriculture fields or work as seasonal farm workers.
Luna, a native from Denver City, Texas, explained she never had a place to call home.
“I’ve been traveling with my family ever since I was born,” Luna said. “We traveled every year from Montana to Colorado to West Texas and then back to Edinburg. The longest we would stay in a town was about three months.”
Having worked full time in the fields since the age of 12 with her father, mother, younger brother, Luna recalls the struggles of the labor.
“I never liked it. We had to get up at 5:30 a.m. to go cut off all the weed that grows with the sugar beets with a hoe,” Luna recalled. “In the cool mornings, we would get soaked from the waist down from the fog. We worked under the sun in up to a 110 degree weather.”
Although Luna and her family never worked in the same place every year, they usually spent their summers in Montana working in the fields hoeing sugar beets. In 2005 they also worked in a sugar beet factory and picking up pumpkins from August to November.
Once school started in August, only her parents would migrate to Colorado where her father would work in a potato factory and her mother in a corn factory. By October, her father would travel to West Texas to work in the cotton gin. Luna’s parents would also sell merchandise at flea markets in the Valley from February to May. Recently in the past summers, Luna and her family traveled to West Texas to work in the fields hoeing cotton.
Luna, who believed she’s attended approximately 14 different schools throughout her lifetime, said it was difficult to adjust to her surroundings.
“I was always ‘the new girl’. I’d been changing schools all the time,” said Luna, who graduated from Economedes High School in 2007. “It was difficult for me to become stable. I would make friends but by the time I left I would have to leave my friends behind and start all over
In 2006, Luna’s father was diagnosed with a kidney failure that persisted for the next three years. She then felt the urge to drop out of high school and didn’t believe she should attend college.
“It’s really hard for me to talk about this,” Luna said as she teared up. “I wanted to quit school and help my mother financially by working in the fields.”
Her parents, however, encouraged her to continue her education at UTPA, explaining that would be the only way she could truly help her family.
“My goal is to get a job and help my parents financially so they can stop migrating and working in the fields,” Luna said.
Under work-study, Luna was able to work with the Migrant Student Success Office since her sophomore year at UTPA. She was also a member for Cosecha Voices, an organization that provides testimonial experiences from students growing-up in migrant farm-working families.
During Luna’s junior year, once her father had recovered from his health, her parents bought their first house in Edinburg. Luna now had a place to stay where she could take care of her younger brother while her parents migrated and still be able to attend class at UTPA.
Before receiving her diploma on Dec. 15, the Mexican-American studies graduates hosted a ceremony of their own. In her first ever graduation ceremony, Luna said the experience was smaller and more intimate.
“I felt very nervous because we had to talk about our experience in MAS and our goals,” Luna said. “I gave thanks to my parents, professors, and friends. I knew my parents were very proud of me at that moment.”
Now, Luna was accepted into the Master’s of International Studies program at The University of San Marcos at Texas but instead plans to continue her education under UTPA’s Master’s of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies: Global Security Studies program.
As for her future, a hopeful Luna sees herself in a career as an immigration attorney.
“I have witnessed how immigrants are mistreated and all the struggles they need to pass to come to the U.S.,” Luna said. “They are humans and just because they were not born in the U.S. does not make them any different than others.”
Throughout her experiences, Luna advices migrant students to continue to pursue their college degree.
“I know that a lot of us want to quit school in order to help our parents financially but if we really want to help them out we need to have a good education,” Luna said. “If I could do it, everybody else can do it too.”
Cesar Alvarado, director of Abriendo Caminos LLC program, explained their goal is to increase retention among migrant students.
“There are a lot of reports that these migrant students tend to drop out,” Alvarado said. “We help them stay in college and become more stable.”
He said retention rates in migrant students have improved since the start of the program.
“We started with seven students in 2009 and the following year all seven students came back,” Alvarado said. “We are really making an impact to help these students stay in college.”
In 2010, the LLC program’s retention rate was 89 percent, having started with 35 students, 31 of which returned the following year. In 2011, the program started with 37 students and 27 returned, having a 73 percent retention rate. Currently, the overall retention rate between the years 2009 through 2011 is 87 percent.
When Luna began attending UTPA in fall 2008, she was accepted in the University’s College Assistance Migrant Program.
To qualify for CAMP, students must be a migrant or seasonally employed agricultural worker or an immediate family member of one. They must have spent a minimum of 75 days during the past 24 months as a migrant or seasonal farm worker. Housing assistance is awarded based on need and on a first-come first-serve basis to 20 students. A personal essay is also used to determine students qualified for the program.
The CAMP program, which provides academic advising, career planning, housing assistance on campus, and a monthly stipend of up to a $100, is available for 70 entering freshmen for their first academic year only.
The following year, Luna turned to Abriendo Caminos LLC program because she had no place where to stay.
The Abriendo Caminos program offers housing assistance to entering freshmen students through scholarships of up to $2,730 per semester in which Luna benefited from. If extra funding is available, second year scholarships are offered based on need and on a first-come first-serve basis. Luna’s case was one of the few exceptions, in which she was accepted into the LLC program as a sophomore.
Under the LLC, students are able to share floors in Heritage Hall and attend classes together. Additional services include, tutoring and mentoring sessions, game and movie nights, educational seminars and BBQs and special dinners at the residence halls. Members are also required to participate in two community service projects per semester.
“We got individual tutoring, help with homework and had a mentor to talk to. My mentor told me about the Texas State Grant, which I didn’t even know about,” Luna said. “I had a family with Abriendo Caminos and because of that we did good in our classes.”
The LLC program currently has 20 freshmen and 14 second year returning students from Abriendo Caminos and CAMP. Although there is no exact number of slots available, Alvarado said he hopes to increase the number of LLC members to 50 if funding permits.
While the LLC offers similar services to CAMP, it also aims to provide a stable and social-friendly community for migrant students in order to encourage them to continue their education.
“Our students’ obstacle is getting to know people but being involved with the program helps them socially,”said Alvarado. “By the end of the year, when evaluation comes around, these students refer to their experience as a home away from home.”
Alvarado said he plans to have the application available online soon and will continue market the program through flyers. He will also continue to inform migrant high school seniors and counselors about the benefits of the LLC program. Interested students are encouraged to stop by the Migrant Student Success Office located in the Emilia Schunior Ramirez Hall for more information.
Luna said being part of the LLC program was great, allowing her to meet people who shared the same experiences as her.
“With Abriendo Caminos I had the opportunity to make real friends, know their experiences and stories, and have someone who cared for me while my family was up north.”