When Lennard senior Isabel Hernandez Valdez was a young child, her papa, a migrant farm worker in Wimauma, sat patiently at their kitchen table after long days in the fields and taught her to add, subtract, multiply and divide using dried beans and grains of rice.
“No matter what time he finished working in the field he always had time for me,” she said. “He played a big part in my educational journey.”
Valdez and her family celebrated an important milestone in that journey at the Migrant Student Senior Banquet, sponsored by the SouthShore Chamber of Commerce and local businesses.
Thirty-seven high school students were recognized for their achievements; 30 from Lennard for earning their high school diploma and seven students for earning a GED through the High School Equivalency Program at the University of South Florida.
Speakers at the ceremony included Lennard High Migrant Advocate Olga Perez and the legislative aide to County Commissioner Sandra Murman, Jeffrey Huggins.
The banquet was Perez’s vision and included a buffet of chicken and rice, salad and sodas, a photo booth and giveaways.
“This celebration has grown into this wonderful event that recognizes the hard work and dedication of these students,” said Perez.
Migrant students face obstacles that make graduating from high school a more difficult task. Some families travel throughout the country in the summer months, when Florida’s growing season has ended, to find work in states like Texas, Michigan and Georgia, where there are fields that need harvesting.
“We help students catch up and make sure that they have all the requirements necessary for graduation,” said USF Center for Migrant Education Recruiter Rosie Mendez.
For students who have fallen behind in their academics or who need to finish school quickly to help provide for their families, the University of South Florida’s High School Equivalency Program offers migrant students a path to earning a GED in as little as two or up to eight weeks.
“These students get to stay on USF’s campus and complete a rigorous program aimed at teaching them the material necessary to pass the GED tests,” said Mendez.
Valdez, who is the first in her family to graduate from high school, appreciates the recognition for her hard work.
“This is very special to me,” she said. “It means so much to be able to celebrate this achievement with my family members.”
Valdez plans to attend Hillsborough Community College in the fall. Her mama, Silvia Valdez, is proud of her accomplishments so far and hopes for a better future for her daughter.
“I don’t want her out working in the fields like us,” she said.