For four years, Ernscie Augustin missed holidays with her family. She missed 80-degree winter days in Southwest Florida. And she missed her hometown of Immokalee.
But Augustin said what she couldn't afford to miss was her "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."
Every year, Immokalee High School students leave their homes and venture north to attend Michigan State University to take part in the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which accepts 70 students annually and grants migrant students in-state status for their entire enrollment.
Augustin, a first-generation American whose family emigrated from Haiti, took the odyssey from Immokalee to East Lansing in 2008. On Friday, she became the first person in her family to graduate from college.
"As a Haitian in Immokalee you don't really think about college," Augustin said. "You think about taking care of your family, and the most efficient way to do that is working in the fields. That's what my parents did. My family worked so hard every day, and that's what motivated me to make a better life."
Augustin is the 13th student from Immokalee to graduate from the program at MSU. Rudy Ramos, the associate director of CAMP, said the program has enrolled more than 600 students since its inception in 2000 and boasts a 72 percent graduation rate.
"Tuition for out-of-state students is double what it is for in-state students on a yearly basis," Ramos said.
"The trustees of MSU realized the impact that the migrant population was having here in Michigan and made it possible for those students to come here. They made the admission criteria more flexible and opened opportunities for underrepresented students."
Ramos said the mission of CAMP, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is to assist migrant and seasonal farmworker students in their transition to university life. Students who are accepted into the program receive financial support in various ways throughout their enrollment.
"Our students receive job offers from all over the country and from right here in Michigan," Ramos said. "They may or may not return to Florida, but by the time they complete their education they are highly qualified professionals and they are bilingual. That makes them attractive to many businesses."
Along with Augustin, Greta Dominguez and eight other Immokalee students joined CAMP in 2008.
"They helped me out with everything: books, tutoring, counselors, and room and board," Dominguez said. "I couldn't have come here without their help."
Michigan State representatives travel to Immokalee each fall to talk to migrant students about the program. Rishay Ackley is the migrant counselor at Immokalee High School, and said another 11 students have expressed interest and are eligible to join the program this year.
"I feel like the interest is growing," Ackley said. "It's so important because most of our students are first-generation college students and they often don't have anyone to guide them. It's an opportunity that they wouldn't have otherwise had."
To apply for the program, students have to fill out an application and write an essay to CAMP. Ramos said the only other requirement is that the students provided verification that their parents have been migrant workers.
"An admission specialist from MSU actually comes down and does on-site admissions," Ackley said. "Now, that is an unique situation. Without it, students have to wait two, three or four months. It's great to see the smiles on their faces when they are told they've been accepted that day."
According to Ramos, CAMP was created in part because 40,000 migrants come to Michigan each year for seasonal work on farms and cultivate grapes, apples and other fruit.
"Our two main receiving states are Texas and Florida. Families have been coming here for generations," Ramos said. "Being that Michigan State is a land-grant university, it opens opportunities for our students."
President Abraham Lincoln signed the Morrill Act into law in 1862, which allowed for the creation of land-grant colleges in every state "to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts." Michigan State, founded in 1855, provided a model for the Morrill Act and is considered the pioneer land-grant institution.
Many of the students pursue farming-related careers after graduation, but some change paths. Dominguez is now attending Lansing Community College and has switched her major. She plans to start her own day-care business in Florida after graduation.
"I used to go with my father out into the fields, and I knew that wasn't something I wanted to go through," Dominguez said. "But doors opened for me when I came here. They really helped me. I changed my major, but I plan on getting my degree at MSU."
Augustin said her education through CAMP has led to internships with the mayor's office in Lansing and the Women's Center of Greater Lansing. She is currently working for the university and plans on pursuing a career in immigration or family law.
"Because of this (CAMP), I have already had more opportunities than my parents and my grandparents," Augustin said. "There were many times I didn't think I would get to graduation, but I grew up a whole lot. I feel like now I can go anywhere in the country and make it."