‘Opening a window’ to education

Jada Krening, News Reporter

Editor’s note: Some quotes in this story have been translated from Spanish to English.

Each year, Oregon State University’s federally funded High School Equivalency Program serves a total of 38 students from migrant or seasonal farm working backgrounds, providing individuals from these traditionally-marginalized communities the opportunity to obtain their GED and attend college. 

There are two main objectives that OSU HEP must meet, according to guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Education. The first is that 69 percent of students graduate from the program, and the second is that 80 percent of those graduated students transition into post-secondary education, job training or military enlistment. OSU’s full-time HEP instructor, Marcelo Peralta, a teacher beloved by his students for his dedication, said that OSU’s HEP graduated around 77 percent of their students last year.

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Peralta has worked for OSU HEP for a year and a half. However, he has about twenty years of teaching experience combined, working in the public education system and at Chemeketa Community College. Originally from Argentina, Peralta came to the United States 22 years ago with his wife and children. He obtained his master’s in education in the U.S. and specializes in science, mathematics, reading and writing. In addition to teaching HEP classes at OSU, he currently teaches night classes at Chemeketa. 

As a bilingual teacher, Peralta teaches HEP classes in both English and Spanish. Classes start at 8 a.m. and conclude around 8:30 p.m. each day. Although it is a 10 week program, Peralta says some students have passed their exams and graduated in six weeks. 

In addition to his classes on the OSU campus and at Chemeketa, Peralta also has a Youtube channel and has gone to great lengths to teach his students, traveling to Eugene to teach at Lane Community College, as well as teaching students in their resident homes and even once teaching in a restaurant. 

“I am showing them what I would like to see from education. A different kind of teaching — more personal, more one-on-one,” Peralta said.

OSU’s HEP is currently in its third year, yet the program has existed nationally since the 1960s. It is an adult program, serving students 18 years and older. Peralta explained that his classes often consist of a variety of age ranges — twenties, thirties and forties. The program is funded to run three different cohorts each year, and each cohort participates in a 10 week term, similar to the university. 

Yet, unlike many programs nationwide, OSU’s HEP has 12 residential students from each cohort who are housed in the OSU dorms during their time in the program. There are only four residential HEP programs in the country, including OSU. 

“The housing component is covered through the grant,” OSU’s HEP Student Program Coordinator, Bartolo Marquez, said. “That way, we try to minimize the barriers for students trying to access their education.”

Prospective students must meet several requirements to be considered for the program. They  must have completed at least 75 days of agricultural or farm work within the last 24 months, must have a Certificate of Eligibility through the Migrant Education Program, or must be enrolled in the National Farmworker Jobs Program. 

OSU’s HEP Recruitment and Outreach Coordinator, Gabriela Santos, spends much of her time recruiting students for the program, visiting community fairs, parent meetings, and college nights across the state. With the permission of farm owners, Santos even recruits students while they are working in the fields. 

“We want to make sure students continue to receive and have formal access to education, that’s why it’s important,” Marquez said. “Our program is not specifically for one ethnicity. We serve any student that meets the requirements.”

Ana Maria Rodriguez Villafranco, a student from Boardman, Ore., is a member of the winter 2019 cohort. She received information about HEP through the Migrant Education Program, and is now a residential student, living in the OSU dorms. 

“I am receiving great support that is paired with great motivation and role models such as the teachers and the tutors,” Rodriguez Villafranco said via email. “I am very happy with the staff from the classroom to the administrative personnel. The environment is excellent. You feel the support.”

Rodriguez Villafranco said her teacher, Peralta, goes above and beyond to help his students.

“The teacher, Marcelo, gives it his all, dedications, experience and his heart to teach me and the group,” Rodriguez Villafranco said via email. “He is an excellent teacher.”

Peralta said one of the most exciting aspects of the program is seeing his students continuing their education at OSU upon graduating from HEP. 

Santos also expressed this excitement, attributing the students’ transition into OSU to the residential program and the unique experience students have while living on-campus.

“They’re living in the dorms, around other college students, so they really get inspired and say, ‘I want to go here. I want to go to Oregon State,’” Santos said. 

Aldair Abel Acosta Juarez is one of these students. He completed HEP as a residential student in 2017 and is now in his second year at OSU, studying biochemistry and molecular biology. Originally from Acaxochitlan, Hidalgo, Mexico, Acosta Juarez said the resources and opportunities the program provided him were invaluable. 

“In my case, HEP is not just a program. Throughout the months and now years, the HEP staff has made me feel like part of a family. They helped me since the first day, not only in the program, even in personal problems,” Acosta Juarez said via email. “The HEP program opened doors for me to be a student at Oregon State University and apply to the College Assistance Migrant Program at OSU.”

Santos stated that one benefit OSU HEP provides is motivation and support for students who may have lacked it in past academic endeavours. 

“I think that our students just need encouragement in general. They need that understanding of what they’re going through,” Santos said. “Getting to know a student for 10 weeks so closely, they start to disclose their life story. And it really does make sense why they’re falling behind.”

Peralta said he has noticed, throughout his years of teaching, that students are dropping out of the regular system because they feel unsupported by peers and teachers, and because they “don’t fit in the machine.”

“I think we are opening a window for those students that have never had the opportunity before,” Peralta said.