Children of local strawberry workers get a boost to college

By David Courtland 05/30/2013

Channel Islands High School graduating senior Andrea Jasso has always wanted to help people, and sees a career in medicine as the way to accomplish that goal.

“I kind of want to go into something with the human body, to keep families together, to have a better life,” says Jasso. “Something probably involving new medicines, to find cures for diseases.”

Jasso plans to attend San Francisco State University to pursue a biotechnology career, a big change “because I’m moving five hours away” from home, she said on May 20 at the California Strawberry Scholarship Awards dinner.

But she wasn’t certain she would be attending college and says she might not have if she hadn’t received one of the scholarships handed out to more than 200 high school and college students at the Hilton Garden Inn in Oxnard.

“Yeah, it’s kind of important because I’m the first one,” says Jasso, the youngest of three children, whose sister “went to community college but didn’t finish” and whose brother is in the Army. “I didn’t have a lot of guidance to it, but I really want to go to college.”

This is the 20th year that California strawberry growers, shippers, processors and affiliated companies have provided scholarships for the children of California strawberry field workers. Since it was formed in 1994 by the California Strawberry Commission, the program has awarded more than $1.7 million to 1,487 children of California strawberry farm workers.

Andrea Jasso’s father does landscaping, but her mother has worked for 25 years in the strawberry industry.

“She’s very proud,” Andrea translated for her mother. “She’s always wanted me to go to college. She’s wanted that for all of her children.”

The scholarships support students attending accredited trade schools, community colleges and four-year universities through undergraduate and graduate programs. This year, the program is awarding scholarships to a record 234 students, including 46 from Oxnard.

Scholarship award amounts are based on merit, ranging from $400 to $2,000 — Andrea’s is $750 — and can be renewed annually by students already attending college, including advanced degree or professional certification programs.

Rene Farfan, whose mother worked in strawberry fields for 17 years, received the scholarship each of the five years he attended Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, where he is an aerospace engineering student. After graduating this year, he will be relocating to Connecticut to work for Sikorsky Aircraft.

“(The scholarships) definitely helped me have success within the major. It’s very competitive,” says Farfan, whose father works in the industry as a forklift driver. “It’s thanks to the scholarships I was able to focus on academics and books and not work, so I could be in class.”

Oxnard High School guidance counselor Mig Cordova says his campus typically has at least four students receive awards each year, but has had as many as 10.

“Most of the students come from modest households,” says Cordova, who comes from a farmworking family himself.
“My parents couldn’t afford day care. They would take us to the fields on weekends and during the summer,” recalls Cordova. “We’d migrate to the Salinas Valley to work for a month or two. That was the foundation of my goal to pursue higher education.”

Cordova, who has worked at OHS for 12 years, says his farmworking experience “showed me that I definitely didn’t want to do this for a living. Rather than work with my hands or my back, I could work with my brain.

“I wish they’d had this when I was in school.”


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