HEP program helps migrant students

Photo: Antonio Chiprez and Johnny Gongora.
Antonio Chiprez sums up his reason for being in Pullman this way:  “Getting my GED is the start of a new beginning.”

Since 1967, farm workers and their children have been coming to WSU to redirect their lives with the help of the High School Equivalency Program (HEP). Lisa Ramirez, acting director of the U.S. Office of Migrant Education, recently acknowledged it as the oldest continually operating federally funded program of its kind.

“Your staff’s dedication, the strong support of the larger university and the leadership of WSU all have markedly improved the lives of many, many HEP students in Washington during the last 40 years,”  Ramirez wrote in a letter of congratulations.

WSU’s program, one of 61 HEPs in the country, is based in the College of Education. It provides education majors the opportunity to get experience with bilingual tutoring, said Dennis Warner, the former associate dean who directs the program.

Warner estimates that 3,500 students have gone through program over the years and 2,800 of those passed their GED, or General Educational Development tests, which certify that they have high-school level academic skills.

There are four eight-week sessions every year.  The students attend in groups of up to 25. Some have been in legal trouble, and are referred to the program by judges. Sometimes, their parents enroll them. Others learn about HEP from mentors who see their potential.

 “I wasn’t going to school, but my high school counselor, Mrs. Matson, never quit on me,” said Chiprez, an 18-year-old from Pasco who started HEP in January. “She told me about the program and now I’m here, getting a second chance.”

Some second chances come later in life.  One of Chiprez’s classmates is 32; another is 56. HEP requirements relate not to age, but occupation. Students must come from the families of migrant or seasonal workers in the farming, fishing or timber industries.

The GED tests can be taken in either Spanish or English.  The preparation classes at Cleveland Hall are taught in both languages.

While the program is test-driven, it offers students a lot outside the classroom.  For many, it is their first exposure to higher education.  They live in Rogers Hall, and often get involved in the campus Multicultural Center. Alejandro Vergara, who was a high school dropout when he entered the program in 1989, recalled that being at WSU made a big impression on him.

“We were given the opportunity to join activity groups, to go to the gym and work out,” he said. “That in itself sent a message to me that I could not only be a HEP student, but I could also go to college.”

He got another strong message when HEP staff member Ron Rosebrook gave a presentation correlating levels of education to levels of income. “I clearly saw from that graph that education equals money and opportunity, and I said ‘I want some of that.’”

Alejandro, who once aspired to be a “field man,” left agriculture behind. He attended Wenatchee Valley College and WSU, where he earned an education degree in 1995.  He taught for eight years, then was hired by the North Central Educational District in Wenatchee.  As a migrant curriculum specialist there, he refers students to HEP every chance he gets.

“Without HEP,” he said, “I wouldn’t be where I am today.” 

For more information, visit http://education.wsu.edu/hep/ or contact Dennis Warner (509) 335-5256 or hep@wsu.edu.

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