'Learning the Possible'

Author discusses new book on the challenges facing Mexican-American students.

March 12, 2013

In his new book Learning the Possible: Mexican American Students Moving from the Margins of Life to New Ways of Being (University of Arizona Press), Reynaldo Reyes III charts the progress of five participants in the College Assistance Migrant Program, a federally funded program for students from a low-income and/or migrant backgrounds enrolled in their first year of higher education. The students described in Reyes's book attended the CAMP program at a rural Colorado community college that he does not name in the book (the college's anonymity was a requirement for gaining access to the students he follows). Those  Reyes follows, whose names have been changed, faced a variety of disadvantages going in, including difficulties with English, unplanned motherhood, and criminal backgrounds. Reyes, associate professor of teacher education at the University of Texas at El Paso, responded via e-mail to questions about his book.

Q: What is CAMP?

A: CAMP (College Assistance Migrant Program) is a federally funded one-year scholarship and academic support program for students who come from families that do migrant or agricultural-related work, and who typically come from low-income situations. The scholarship is for the first year of college, and provides students tuition and other forms of financial assistance, tutoring, various types of workshops, and a social network of personal and academic support. It is a program that takes one of the most vulnerable student populations out there and gives them a chance at college. There are many CAMP programs that exist at various colleges and universities around the U.S

Q: In what ways were the students you write about marginalized, and what did the program do to try to offset that marginalization?

A: When students in today’s schools are marginalized, they are living on the margins – existing on the outside looking in – of a classroom, a school, a community, even their own family. They don’t feel like they are part of something significant or meaningful. They simply exist. So they are trying to find their way into a community that allows them to learn and maintain an identity as a student that gives meaning to their existence in today’s schools. The students I wrote about here were marginalized by teachers, extended family members, schools, society. The CAMP program created a community of students, support staff, and teachers that included workshops with motivational guest speakers, learning communities in courses, social events, team-building, cyber mentors, and the presence of CAMP staff to assist in personal and academic struggles that were remnants of their marginalization going into CAMP.

Q: What do you think are the long-term societal benefits of making this kind of investment in students who might not get a chance otherwise?

A: When we, as a society, strive to provide opportunity to those who might otherwise not have one, it shows that we still have a sense of humanity, compassion, and social justice. It shows that we haven’t completely forgotten about students like those in CAMP. This type of investment in these students reflects our capacity in educational innovations to guide, teach, mentor, and help build up those individuals who may have been close to giving up. And society benefits from this by getting hard-working, intelligent citizens who will make their mark in a corner of the world that needs them.

Q: Do you think the CAMP format could be adapted for students with other disadvantages, such as physical or mental disabilities?

A: Absolutely. A program like CAMP is more of a philosophy and attitude toward the students. Program and curriculum designers, teachers, and leaders just need to know who the students are – their needs, their strengths, their histories, their backgrounds – and build around such student characteristics.

Q: A recurring theme throughout the book is the difference between student identity and successful student identity. Can you explain those two concepts and the difference between them?

A: First, identity is who we are and who we are becoming based on our interactions with the world, our histories, and ultimately how we see ourselves and how others see us. In the current high-stakes, testing environment, I believe too many teachers have lost their passion for teaching, through no fault of their own, but of our current educational system. As a result, many students have become more and more disengaged with school and what it means to learn, explore, discover, understand. A "student identity" is a state of being in which a student doesn’t feel "connected" to teachers, who are extremely vital in helping students make a "connection" to the world of learning. They are simply a "student" – they show up to school, sit in their desk, eat lunch, hang out with friends, but still feel like they simply "just exist" in our educational system. Not much has meaning for them in such a system. Then we have those who have learned and enacted a successful student identity – they are engaged, they have distinct roles in a community of learners, they sense a purpose with their existence in schools and within the broader system, and they are concerned not only about grades or tests, but about the world them.

Q: You talk about the importance of e-mail correspondence to the students’ success with CAMP. How was that used, and what was its significance to the learning process?

A: E-mail correspondence was part of the Cyber Mentor project in this particular CAMP program. CAMP students were assigned a mentor, who would e-mail the students and provide advice and support related to being a college student. They initially meet at an orientation and then at social events to celebrate accomplishments. This part of the program was significant because it let the CAMP students know that there were others beyond the college walls who cared about them and wanted them to succeed.

Q: The students described in the book have similar socioeconomic backgrounds, but there’s quite a bit of variation in terms of personalities and individual difficulties they’ve had with traditional education formats. How does one sort of format an education program so that it’s adaptable to those variations?

A: The foundation of any education program, especially for students like those in CAMP, should be love, care, and compassion for the students that program serves. When administrators, teachers, parents, and members of the community provide such things to our students, then it is easier to adapt to their unique academic needs. In terms of logistics, you can’t design an entire program around individual needs, but you can design teaching approaches for individuals. In this particular CAMP program, instructors worked with students outside of class and provided tutoring sessions. Students organized themselves in providing academic and personal support. CAMP coordinators were available to help students. And in these initial stages of student support, you will see that the CAMP students, each with their own unique needs and struggles, eventually, and relatively quickly, learned to become more independent. This process initially required some extra investment of time and resources by leaders and instructors, but in the end you will see that such an investment pays off in different ways.


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