Portland Community College | Portland, Oregon Portland Community College

College pathway for local farm workers starts with PCC’s CAMP Program

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The CAMP mentor team: (left to right) Fatima Sanchez, Joceyn Tapia, Nejdet De Jesus, Alejandra Villanueva, Eulalia Francisco, and Sam Gonzalez. (Not pictured: Alicia Alvarez)

The CAMP mentor team: (left to right) Fatima Sanchez, Joceyn Tapia, Nejdet De Jesus, Alejandra Villanueva, Eulalia Francisco, and Sam Gonzalez. (Not pictured: Alicia Alvarez)

The notion of a self-directed existence is central to the American identity. The idea that with hard work, education, and determination someone can shape the course of their own life has brought people to the U.S.’s shores for generations. For some, though, the barriers to that self-directed life can too often seem insurmountable.

But at Portland Community College, there is a way forward. The College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which is based at the Rock Creek Campus and has an annual cohort of 45 students, is helping the children of migrant farm workers start down the path to earning a college degree.

“CAMP acknowledges that our students can go further with their education and their lives,” said the program’s Director Greg Contreras. “These are at-risk, first-generation students, all of them people of color. The CAMP program gives them a chance to be trailblazers into higher education from their families.”

CAMP mentor with students.
College Assistance Migrant Program

This federally-funded program supports students from migrant and seasonal farm worker backgrounds during their first year in college. CAMP provides students with financial assistance and support services, with the goal of preparing them to transfer to a four-year college or university.

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CAMP is one of 50 similar programs at community colleges, as well as both public and private universities, around the country. It’s funded by a federal grant, which was recently renewed for a five-year cycle lasting through 2026. 

Contreras is currently recruiting graduating high school seniors with backgrounds in migrant and seasonal farm work. CAMP’s current incarnation at PCC isn’t the first one, though. He said the program existed at the College in the early 2000s, but then went on hiatus. Now, Contreras isn’t interested in taking any more breaks. 

“We’re determined,” he said. “Let’s make this continuous. CAMP is making a real difference in peoples’ lives.”

CAMP, like many support programs aimed at first-generation college students, helps students become acclimated to campus life and to navigate the complex processes and procedures. These include applying for admission and financial aid, registering for classes, and connecting with the many services and resources available to them. All of these processes can seem overwhelming to someone who has never been to college before.

It’s a point of pride for CAMP that the program has been so successful in on-boarding students into the world of higher education, Contreras said, particularly with regard to tapping into financial support.

“None of our students take out loans,” he said. “It’s all financial aid grants and scholarships. I think it’s important to help students avoid debt early on in their education.”

The CAMP Resource Center is stocked with study areas, computers and a space for students to practice presentations. In addition to Contreras, the program has three staffers to support and advise students, but one of the real secrets to CAMP’s success, he said, is “students helping students.”

Each year, it employs seven student mentors, all of them past participants in the program. These students provide guidance, advice and comfort to the cohort. This fosters a sense of belonging among the students, Contreras said, helping them to see that they are valued members of the campus community, and to understand that they are right where they should be.

Claudia De Leon_Jose Lopez De Leon

Jose Lopez De Leon shares his PCC graduation moment with his mother Claudia.

“They don’t want to feel like token persons in the room,” he said. “Instead, they can relate to each other and confide in each other. The best part of my day is stepping out of my office and seeing students getting ready for class, socializing and offering encouragement to one another.”

Jose Lopez de Leon was a CAMP student in the 2019-2020 academic year and then signed on as a program mentor in the COVID-impacted 2020-2021 academic year. He’s now enrolled at Portland State University, where he is studying marketing. De Leon agreed that CAMP’s hands-on, inclusive approach is a big part of what makes the program work.

“I really liked that we had an advisor, Gabby Garcia, who just worked with us,” de Leon said. “She helped me to choose the right classes and grow my leadership skills. It really helped me prepare to move on to Portland State.”

Another component that makes the program effective –- and one that can’t be underestimated, Contreras said -– is the affinity shared between students, staff and mentors, born of a common identity and similar experiences.

“We can identify with our students and their families,” Contreras said. “We know what it’s like to pick apples, to harvest onions and berries. We know just how strong that makes you mentally, to be able to withstand the weather and the hard work. Many of our students have worked right alongside their parents. There’s pride there, there’s honor there.”

De Leon echoed these sentiments.

“A lot of people in CAMP are from the Hispanic community, and that made a big difference for me,” he said. “During breaks between classes, I would hang out in the CAMP Center and connect with the students there, who all had similar backgrounds to me. It made me feel like I belonged.”

Even as the program honors the agricultural history of its students and their families, CAMP students seek to advance their career options into business, social work, healthcare, education, and more. Their parents want the same thing for them, he said, so the program makes an extra effort to reach out to and build relationships with students’ families.

“The buy-in from families is huge,” Contreras said. “We invite our parents to come to Rock Creek, and we talk with them about college and what it means. We hold regular parent nights, where we provide food and an inspirational speaker. We’ve even kept this up through COVID. We can’t provide food over Zoom, but we can give them everything else.”

This kind of engagement has even reaped dividends for the parents themselves. Many CAMP parents, inspired by their children, have enrolled in PCC’s High School Equivalency Program.

Finally, when students have completed their time in a CAMP cohort and are ready to transfer to a four-year institution, the program helps them to bridge that gap, too. Staff write letters of recommendation for students and remain available to support them through this next transition in their educational journey. It’s all part of the program’s long-term commitment to each student.

“We stick with them and follow their success,” Contreras said.

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x by Luz Maciel Villarroel 6 months ago

Thank you for this great story and Gregg Thank you for making the difference in the life of our Migrant Students and Families, without your support and the CAMP staff many of our immigrant students and their families would not have these opportunities to follow their Dreams and their wishes. I have served and worked for many years with CAMP and other Immigrant students and they amazing, hard working, dedicated, and very committed to their studies, families and community, with Kindness, gratitude, and respect, Luz

x by Bryan Hull 6 months ago

Remote teaching during COVID didn’t give me much, but it did give me the opportunity to work with these amazing CAMP students. Hats off to everyone involved in making this program a reality at PCC!

x by Karen Sanders 6 months ago

It is so wonderful to see this program thriving – it’s just what we hoped for when we brought the program back after the hiatus. Great work Greg!!

x by Alejandra 6 months ago

As a pervious CAMP recipient and now a mentor for the program, it has made me grow as a student and has motivated me to continue my education as a first generation. CAMP was the first door that opened to me. Not only did the program help me financially but it guided me to my goals and has become like family to me and until then continues on supporting my education and dreams. Thank you Greg, and the rest of the CAMP team.

x by Emmilie Caterham 5 months ago

Greg was my instructor for a career class that I took and his personal story is very inspirational. He is working very hard to make a positive difference in the world and it’s wonderful to see that his work is being recognized. This is a very important program and as a student at PCC, I am proud that we have this program available to open up the pathway for migrants. Everyone, no matter what your cultural background is, has a right to education, to fair and equal education. I truly believe that we can change the world through education alone. To see migrants being given the opportunity to advance in their lives through education is really wonderful.

x by Diana Jimenez 5 months ago

It’s so exciting to see how far CAMP has come! I was part of the 2018-2019 student cohort and my experience was amazing. This program is full of resources and opportunities. As a first generation student college can be a scary thought but with CAMP, the transition to from high school to my first year of college was very smooth, given all the support from the CAMP staff. With such a great experience I decided to be a CAMP mentor the following year. It was a great opportunity to guide and support other students that had a similar background as me. Overall, CAMP helped me through my whole college experience and even after graduating I continue to receive help. Such an amazing program and staff!

x by Simmy Kiran 5 months ago

I wonder who is paying for this program. It seems like the college is strapped for cash as it is.
Why do we have to put money into one program. The money for this program should be spent for the good of all students and not just migrant workers.
We already have the “Dreamer’s center” for undocumented workers. Why do we need another program for them?

x by Jaqui Mendez 5 months ago

As a previous CAMP member and a mentor I am extremely happy to see CAMP grow! This program extremely helps incoming migrant students provides them resources, advising appointments and brings guest to help students grow in their academies. With such an incredible staff CAMP students are guided in their path for their major. Even after I graduated from this program CAMP is still there with me. My family and I are extremely grateful that CAMP is still willing to help me in my education. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me!

x by Natalie Perez 5 months ago

Being able to read and hear how far CAMP has come demonstrates how hard-working, staff and students work to make a difference within the community and family. As a first-generation CAMP became the support system I needed academically. I learned how to become a responsible, independent student. Working with CAMP as a Mentor taught me PCC/CAMP was just the beginning, they gave me the push I needed to continue my learning now at PSU.