Newswise — ​​​​​​​​First-generation college student Briseida Vasquez-Vasquez always knew she would go to college.

The Fresno State freshman comes from a multigenerational family of farmworkers—her parents and grandparents all worked in agriculture—setting her fate of working in the fields. Growing up, she watched her parents leave at dawn every morning and come home in the evenings physically exhausted. In high school, she got her first experience in the industry, working alongside her aunt picking tomatoes, blueberries and grapes in California's Central Valley.

“I wanted to change my career path," says Vasquez. “I want to do something that I truly love, where I can achieve more and live financially stable."

Supportive of her ambitions, her father urged her to attend college to find a future off the fields, to land opportunities where she could thrive. “He would tell me, 'you don't want to do this type of work every day, you don't want to be doing what we're doing. You deserve something better.'"

Upon arriving at Fresno State, Vasquez found support in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which aims to help students from migrant and seasonal farmworker backgrounds succeed in a university setting. The program helps students transition from high school to college and offers first-year support services to develop the skills necessary to persist and graduate with a degree. Services include academic and career counseling, mentorship, peer advising, tutoring and leadership development opportunities. Participating students are also encouraged to study together, socialize and engage in campus activities—now all virtual during the pandemic.

“What's unique about CAMP is that it is designed to be an extension of their families, a home away from home, to fully embrace their farming backgrounds and connect with others who have faced the same obstacles and challenges," says Viridiana Diaz, Ed.D., associate vice president for Strategic Student Support Programs at Sacramento State. “CAMP creates a sense of belonging where students learn to navigate their unique identities and appreciate their struggles."​

Many students in CAMP came to the United States as children or grew up in migrant camps. Diaz says that 95 percent are of Latinx background, with English as their second language, and their parents have worked in agriculture for most of their lives. Oftentimes the students themselves have also worked in the fields or have had to migrate, causing interruptions in their education. These students are commonly from low-income households and the first in their families to attend college.

“The goal of CAMP is to help students gain more career options in life and to break the generational cycle of having to work in agriculture," explains Diaz. “Many students become influenced by the very nature of the program—which is to uplift the community—and they decide to go into careers where they can help others reach their potential, such as social work, teaching and public service."​

Reducing ​students' time to degree

The program has existed at the CSU for more than 35 years and is instrumental in the CSU's ongoing success of meeting Graduation Initiative 2025 goals of closing achievement gaps and increasing graduation rates. Currently, five CSU campuses located in close proximity to California's large farm communities (FresnoSacramento and Monterey Bay in the Central Valley; Bakersfield in the San Joaquin Valley; and San Marcos in the south) have been chosen to receive a competitive, five-year, multi-million dollar federal grant based on their previous stellar perfor​mance rates.

CAMP students have significantly higher retention and graduation rates compared to non-CAMP participants from first generation, English as a second language (ESL) and Latinx populations. At Sacramento State, for example, Diaz discusses a recent 2014-2018 report that shows an average of 96 percent of CAMP students completed their first year of college and 100 percent continued their post-secondary education. Performance rates of CAMP students are higher than non-CAMP students on all levels: retention (92 percent vs 85 percent), persistence to graduation (90 percent vs 73 percent) and graduation (42 percent vs 34 percent). Sac State CAMP's 2011 cohort of students excelled with 85 percent of them graduating with a bachelor's degree in comparison to 55 percent of non-CAMP participants. These accomplishments are noteworthy considering that 90 percent of Sac State CAMP students enter the university with greater needs and lower standardized test scores than the campus average.

Increased support during the pandemic

Support provided by CAMP is especially helpful during the pandemic, as farm and agricultural employees are designated essential critical workers. The CSU's CAMP administrators are increasing their efforts to serve the specific needs of their students. With courses being offered virtually this school year, students are facing unique challenges balancing school and home life. For Vasquez, that means meeting expectations to help at home and work part-time while her father leaves for work every day.

“My parents don't understand the demands of college and it's been difficult having to work a job and helping maintain the house while taking college courses," says Vasquez.

“It's comforting to hear from other students who are in the same boat as me. Although we don't meet in person, my peer advisor reaches out to help me with my weekly schedule so I can manage my time. Thanks to CAMP, I have been keeping up with the demands of my life."​