By Roger Croteau
New Braunfels — For years, Alejandro Marquez and his wife, Juanita, have traveled the region, baling hay, mending fences and doing other work on ranches.
It's a tough life, with no real roots in any community, low pay and long days of hard manual labor. The migrant worker life also has been hard on the couple's five children.
Alejandro dreams of becoming a plumber or electrician, and Juanita hopes to become a cosmetologist. But with little education ? and no resources to pursue one ? their prospects of building a better life were dim. Then they found the High School Equivalency Program run by Palo Alto College.
Aimed at migrant workers, the program provides classes in English or Spanish, individualized tutoring, and life and study skills training.
Participants use loaned textbooks, have their GED exam fees paid for them and receive a $250 stipend.
In September the Marquezes stumbled into the first such class offered here. They thought they were showing up for an English as a Second Language course. They stuck it out and now are on their way to receiving their GEDs in March.
"It's a privilege to get an education," Alejandro said through an interpreter. "I've worked all my life. Before, I could not help my kids with their homework. Now I can. I get to set an example for my children."
It's hard to do ranch work all day, then attend classes at night and care for five kids, but the effort is worth it, Juanita said. The couple still plan to take that ESL course, too.
"Before, we used to go home and watch TV," she said through an interpreter. "Now we read books. I look at the world in a different way because I see things I never knew before."
"I want to get a better job," Alejandro said. "With a GED and knowing English, I think I can do it."
The program was started by Texas State University-San Marcos in the Rio Grande Valley several years ago. But Palo Alto officials saw a need for the same thing in and around San Antonio, said Cynthia Blizzard, educational skills specialist at the college.
So, with Texas State's blessing and a federal Department of Education grant, the college took it on.
Classes for any migrant worker are offered in San Antonio, Pearsall and New Braunfels.
Comal County does not have much farmland left, but it still has many migrants working on ranches and at meat processing plants in New Braunfels, Blizzard said.
"Getting their GED is only half the program," she said. "The other half is helping them go on to get a better job than they have now. Or there are grants available for them to go to college or a vocational program, or we can help them get into the military."
Sylvia Quijano, migrant education supervisor at the Comal School District, said she identifies eligible participants from employment surveys sent home with children at the beginning of the school year. She then visits the migrants' homes and works with them to ensure their children get an education and that they, too, get education services.
"Besides getting a better job, getting a GED gets their self-esteem a little higher," Quijano said. "And it really is a good example for their kids, to show them that education is important."
The program's GED classes are open to anyone, but only people who fit the program's definition of migrant workers qualify for the paid testing, stipend and tutoring. Information is available toll-free, at (866) 363-6103.