ONTARIO — “Over here, in this area, there’s sometimes not a lot of help for people in migrant homes. There’s not a lot to look up to. There’s the stigma surrounding a lot of migrant kids as being lazy or being in gangs. Just taking the kids from the area in is such a big help to both the community and the schools. You can see it in their faces that it really helps them.”
These are the words of Gonzalo Espinoza, an Oregon State University student and Ontario High School alumnus. This past week, Espinoza has been working as a mentor in the Oregon Migrant Leadership Institute’s Eastern Oregon camp hosted at Treasure Valley Community College, the same sort of camp that helped him get his foot in the door to college a couple of years ago.
The institute is run by Greg Contreras, in partnership with the Oregon Migrant Education Program, which uses its funding to help support programs like this statewide.
This is the second year of the program in Ontario, which had about 150 total students (broken up into three weeks, 50 students each). Contreras said he’s gotten a lot more help from the migrant education programs at both Ontario and Nyssa School Districts over the past year, both in terms of funds and recruiting.
According to Contreras, one of the biggest goals for OMLI is to get the students ready for college. The camp features several educational activities that are geared toward college, including a financial aid workshop, a resume workshop, a college resources fair, and classes to help them work on their essays.
“[We want them] to know that this is very attainable. They can go to TVCC, they can go to Boise State. They can go to any of these colleges that are here. There are resources.”
When it comes to the need for migrant education programs, Contreras said he’s one of the prime examples. Contreras came from a migrant family and graduated from Ontario High School in 2001.
“I’m very happy to be a part of it,” Contreras said. “Having grown up in this community. Having been a migrant student myself and working in the fields with my family, I can relate well with these kids.”
Contreras said there wasn’t much in terms of migrant student services when he was growing up in Ontario.
“Not that I know, I would have been eligible for any of them,” he said, laughing. “There’s been minimal resources for migrant communities but I’m happy that it’s here now. This is important. A lot of these students are going to be first generation. They’re taking their families to another level, to go to college. So having this opportunity is crucial.
“[There are] struggles when it comes to not having a lot of education in the family. Not having a lot of role models in their lives. Their parents aren’t really able to help because they haven’t been there. So when students come here, and they see folks who look like them, who speak Español, who also speak English, who have gone through those trials and tribulations and are now in college, they see role models. Like, wow, OK. You did it, show me how.”
Working with migrant students was not always in the cards for Contreras, but it ended up being a part of his life after learning about it in college.
“It’s something that kind of manifested over time,” Contreras said. “As I went through TVCC and transferred to Oregon State, I became a lot more aware of my history and my migrant roots.”
When in college, Contreras became aware of the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) “which is all about serving that migrant and seasonal farm worker,” he said.
Contreras is now the CAMP director at Portland Community College.
After spending time running similar camps at Oregon State, Contreras found out that there was no camp in Eastern Oregon and he jumped on the opportunity to run his camp in his hometown.
“I’m happy to work on that side of the state,” Contreras said. “But now I get to come and work on this side of the state, with my community… I’m very aware of the needs that are missing here to get students the proper mentorship and the resources, and also the confidence that they can go to college.”
The camp is available for any migrant students in Eastern Oregon. Contreras said students as far as Hermiston and Umatilla are eligible to come.
While giving local migrant students more insight into what it takes to get a college education is a major key to the camp, Contreras said that it’s just half of the program.
“It’s really two-fold,” Contreras said. “It’s definitely character development and leadership development and developing a person’s self-worth and identity, to see themselves as a leader even though they may be underserved or low-income.“
Throughout the week, there are several non-educational activities that the students go through. This includes recreational activities like kickball, a scavenger hunt and even a rafting challenge.
“We get the students to face their fears,” Contreras said. “Because you need to work on facing those challenges and fears of a college education. There’s a connection there. It helps them see the big picture.”
Former OMLI students, and other college-level students, are able to rejoin OMLI as mentors. According to Contreras, the mentorship program takes the students who have gotten the OMLI experience and allows them to give back to the next generation, while building leadership skills in the process.
Contreras said one of the most exciting things about OMLI is the mentorship program, as he gets to see many of the former camp members and the strides that they have made.
“Now they’re back and a year has passed but they’re making better decisions in school, they’re applying themselves in their studies, they’re getting involved in clubs, they’re leaders within this group. They’re matured in a year and have an extensive understanding of what it takes to make that goal and can create steps towards that goal.”
Anthony Cervantes, a Nyssa High School alumnus going into his second year at TVCC, was one of the OMLI mentors this summer.
“I just wanted to help give back,” Cervantes said. “I can help give a little bit of guidance, that I never got in life. I never got that advice, for scholarships and college. All the kids need is that support.”
Cervantes said he was able to learn a lot about himself as a mentor at OMLI.
“I learned that I had a lot of room left to grow,” Cervantes said. “And that was I have a lot of ability to connect more with the kids here. Today I’m doing what I want to do and learning my worth as an individual.”
Espinoza participated in OMLI when in high school, but that was before the Eastern Oregon one started in Ontario. Espinoza said he had to get on a bus to Corvallis for the week.
“That’s when I actually knew that that was the place for me,” Espinoza said of going to school at Oregon State.
Espinoza also said he learned a lot about himself being in a mentorship role this summer.
“I’ve always told people close to me that I’m just an open book. But I think I learned this week that I’m not always an open book. Sometimes I find it hard to open up to people,” Espinoza said. “But being here, it inspires me to really put myself out there and give others the attention that they need.”
Contreras said he’s currently brainstorming a way to make an advanced version of OMLI, he called it “OMLI 2.0,” which would take the mentors through an even more comprehensive camp.
“Lets now go to another level,” Contreras said.