STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Guillermo Altuzar could have turned out like so many of his friends — the sons and daughters of migrant farmers — who bounced from job to job, city to city, without an education and the stability it can bring.
He had the pedigree: long hours among the peaches, the sugar beets, the apples; a limited command of English; a Mexican birthplace.
And yet on Dec. 21, Altuzar graduated from the competitive engineering program at Penn State University with a $40,000-a-year job offer in hand. He was guided by a tiny federal aid program celebrating its 25th anniversary this year: the College Assistance Migrant Program.
Recruiters working with the Penn State program, one of six in the country, scour the fields of Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Vermont to find qualified students.
In 1993 CAMP personnel picked more than a dozen high school students from along the East Coast, promising them specialized counseling, spending money and school tutors at Penn State’s main campus and Altoona branch for their freshman year.
Altuzar and Julian Elliot, who studied hotel and restaurant management, are the first to graduate from the Penn State program. Four more are expected to finish course work this spring.
Altuzar always wanted to make a career for himself away from the fields, but for many children of migrant farmers desire isn’t enough. Moving rips holes in their education and working long hours burns away study time.
“It’s not so much the money, but just the fact that knowing that we come from the nothing — that’s how we put it — and now there’s pride in what I’ve done,” Altuzar said.
As many of the CAMP students, Altuzar spent much of his childhood traveling from farm job to factory job to farm job with his parents. The family first came to the United States from Cuernaba, Mexico, in 1975 to the peach orchards of Chambersburg.
While helping his parents, Altuzar, then 13, attended an English class where he learned to read and write with books such as “The Little Engine that Could.”
After working the summer of 1989 picking sugar beets in Montana, he returned to Pennsylvania and entered the ninth grade.
In the years that followed, Guillermo’s family moved to Gettysburg, Atlanta, and Harrisonburg, Va. Although his grades and SAT scores were good, family finances were not. That’s when CAMP found him.
The program, financed with just $1.6 million from the federal government, offered him a small monetary boost: a $400 grant toward tuition, another $200 a semester for books, and $80 a month for spending.
The money helped, Altuzar quickly acknowledged, but it wasn’t the most important aspect.
“What really helped was it was in the sense a family. More than anything it was support; you can do it,” he said. “And it’s not just a sense of belonging — you can always join a fraternity — we had things in common.”
The students may have shared experiences in the fields, but their backgrounds are varied. In 1993 most were Hispanic. Today they hail from Guatemala, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Southeast Asia countries.
Jeri Galaida, director of the program, said the new faces have forced her and the two counselors who run CAMP to take a fresh look at the way they approach new students.
“There are different styles and we have to be sensitive to that,” she said. “Now we celebrate Mexican Independence Day — and the Chinese New Year.”
One thing that doesn’t change much, no matter what the heritage, is the lack of academic prowess of the first-year students. Most take remedial math and reading courses and need help learning cultural norms such as arriving on time for meetings with professors.
It is Bao Ming Li’s job to make sure the students catch up as fast as possible, but without causing a scholarly or emotional overload.
“These students are a very unique group of minorities,” the academic adviser said. “Most of them are not prepared for higher education.”
Ms. Li said the most common problems involve skipping classes, poor time management and poor note-taking skills.
She said she has offered in the past to call students each morning to make sure they’re up for class. One time she even said she would walk one student to class. He declined.
Despite the high hurdles, more CAMP students make it to their sophomore year than the typical freshman, Ms. Galaida pointed out. And nationally more than 72 percent stay on to graduate — compared with less than 60 percent at Penn State.
Altuzar’s group didn’t fare as well. In 1993, 16 people began the school year. Now six are left. Some are wandering around, waiting for work, others are in the military. One or two transferred to one of five other CAMP programs, in Oregon, Texas, Idaho and two in California.
It’s a sad fact that he intends to keep in mind when he counsels young migrant children.
“It’s so hard,” he said. “I’m very lucky. I don’t want to give them any false belief. But if they continue to work hard, then maybe it will pay off.”