California State University, Long Beach
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$2.375 Million HEP Grant Gives Migrants “A Path Up”

Published: September 15, 2015

CSULB’s Rafael Topete says the High School Equivalency Program (HEP) is not a path out for migrant workers, but rather a path up. He also noted that program graduates most likely won’t instantly qualify to enter CSULB, but that’s not the intent. The goal is to help them get one step closer to improving their future outlook.

“Eventually it pays off,” said Topete, the director of HEP at CSULB. “We’re creating a pipeline through this program which gives participants a path to get here or help adults so they’re better equipped to help their kids. Eventually they could be Cal State Long Beach students. That’s the hope.” He anticipates HEP’s first classes to begin in October.

CSULB’s HEP is supported by a five-year, $2.375 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Prior to this year, the only HEP in Southern California was community-based organization in Oakland, with an office in Whittier. The next closest one was in Bakersfield. With recent funding, however, Southern California now has three HEPs—at CSULB, Cal State Fullerton and San Diego County’s SER/JOBS For Progress, Inc., a community-based organization in San Diego.

HEP, along with the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), are federally funded programs created to serve migrant students. While CAMP supports college freshmen who come from migrant and seasonal farm working backgrounds, HEP helps migrant or seasonal agricultural workers and their families obtain their high school equivalency (commonly known as the GED), allowing them to pursue higher education, military service or improve their employment opportunities.

Grants for HEP are competitive with the most recent cycle seeing 34 organizations/institutions applying for just 15 slots, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

A National Agricultural Worker Survey noted that California is home to roughly 650,000 migrant farmworkers. In the 2015 school year, 5,021 migrant and seasonal farmworker students across the country were enrolled in a HEP and 66.6 percent of those went on to earn their GED.

To be eligible for HEP, students must be at least 16 years old and they or a family member must have been a migrant worker employed in agriculture sometime during the past two years. HEP also allows for other family members, even extended family, to participate. And while students can be as young as 16, the majority are 25 or older, sometimes in their 50s.

Grant money will be used for stipends to support individuals participating in the program; educational staff, which includes instructors, tutors and tutor assistants; facilities; staff salaries; and test prep materials, as well as costs associated with taking the actual test.

For greater accessibility, there will be several classroom locations throughout Los Angeles County.

HEP is funded to serve 80 participants each year, with classes running six to eight weeks. HEP looks to have its initial group graduating in May. Thereafter, Topete sees graduation ceremonies taking place in May and December.

The painting of migrant workers was created by CAMP student Gaspar Onofre-Almanza.
The painting of migrant workers was created by CAMP student Gaspar Onofre-Almanza.

Classes will be taught based on the high school equivalency exam and, upon graduation, students will come away with a high school equivalency diploma.

“Classes will basically be taught at about a ninth-grade level,” said Topete. “For the recently out of school youth it shouldn’t be that big of challenge because they may have been close to that level already, but for some of the field workers, if you factor in any language barriers, it may be more difficult.”

“Our function is to help them get a high school equivalency diploma, to prepare them and help them pass their equivalency exam,” added Topete. “From there we will help them enroll in a program that will make them more marketable in terms of getting a better job and we can get them placed in either a community college, technical or trade school. And we can also assist them if they choose to join the military. So, whatever path they choose we need to prepare them for that path.”

According to Topete, there is a huge benefit of running HEP through a university simply because of resources, reputation and longevity.

“We come in with prestige, a university name behind us and come with the resources of a university,” he said, “so that has a big impact.”

Topete also praised campus leadership for seeing the need and the potential of such a program as well as a long-term view.

“It truly has to be a labor of commitment by the university because we’re not doing this primarily to attract students to Cal State Long Beach,” he said. “But now we can create a pipeline through the community college and then get them here. It is a real commitment by the university because there is no direct short-term benefit other than you’re doing great work in the community. Fortunately, we have leadership that sees that and sees the need for us to be in the community where we can make an impact.”