Rising from the fields: farmworkers earn diplomas from WSU program

Closeup of Citlali Pulido
Citlali Pulido

Not long ago, Citlali Pulido worked alongside her mother as a farmhand tending crops near Colfax. Now she is in the final stages of earning a General Education Diploma (GED), which she expects will propel her to more lucrative employment and a stable life.

Helping her achieve that dream is Washington State University’s High School Equivalency Program (HEP) on the Pullman campus. HEP is a federally funded program designed to help seasonal migrant farmworkers and their families earn a GED.

Pulido earned a high school diploma when she lived in Mexico, but the United States does not recognize it for employment or higher education applications. For migrant farmworkers like Pulido and her mother Claudia Pulido, who graduated from WSU HEP in February 2024, participating in the program is an opportunity to gain the necessary skills, knowledge, and documentation to advance their educational and career goals.

“It was my mom who inspired me to enroll in HEP,” Pulido said through a Spanish interpreter. “For many of us, the language barrier prevents us from obtaining better employment or seeking education, and watching her succeed in HEP provided me with a lot of motivation to do the same.”

Providing ‘tailored’ instruction

The program serves 40 students a year, and instruction is offered in both English and Spanish in math, science, social studies, and language arts. Even though about half its students arrive without any high school education and they range in age from teens to older adults, the goal of the program is to prepare everyone to pass the GED within one year.

“We determine what their current level of education is and tailor the instruction, so they get exactly what they need to pass the GED,” said HEP Director Michael Heim. “These students come ready to learn and do whatever it takes to reach their goals.”

WSU’s program is one of just a few residential HEP programs in the country where its participants live in a residence hall and eat in the dining centers. Heim said this allows his staff to have more interaction with students, who then become familiar with what it is like to be a college student.

Pulido is struck with the diversity of the WSU community and is considering applying to WSU to study psychology after she graduates from HEP.

While some graduates pursue higher education, others enter the military or seek higher-paying positions in the agricultural industry — or in something completely different.

“Once students earn their GED, our staff works to help them transition into whatever it is they want to do next in their lives,” Heim said.

Invested in agricultural communities

For Elizabeth Mariscal, a former farmworker who is now an instructor in HEP, it is rewarding to help people who have similar backgrounds and stories as her. She knows it is often hard for HEP participants to quit their jobs, put their families on hold, and relocate to Pullman to earn a GED.

“Many are doing this after being out of school for a long time, but they give it all they got,” Mariscal said. “I applaud them and it’s so empowering for me to witness their journeys.”

WSU was one of the first schools in the country to land a HEP program in 1967. Heim said it demonstrates the university’s long and strong connection to agricultural communities in Washington State and aligns perfectly with its land grant mission.

“HEP is a jewel on the crown of WSU and shows the rest of the state that we are still invested in these communities,” Heim said. “I can’t even fathom the ripple effect our graduates have had on the success of their families over the many generations we’ve had the program here.”

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