From the Fields to the College Classroom

From the Fields to the College Classroom

Editors choice


It was a typical day picking strawberries in the fields of Michigan in 1970 when Juan Zamudio, a native of Corpus Christi, Texas, heard the news that would dramatically change his future. United Migrants for Opportunity Inc. was interested in giving him, and other migrant farm workers with a high school diploma, a chance he didn’t think possible — a scholarship to earn a degree from Central Michigan University.

Attending college was not an option for most children in the thousands of migratory families working in Michigan each year in the mid- to late- 1900s. Nearly all would have been the first in their family to navigate the college admissions process. Financing college also was out of reach. CMU’s partnership with UMOI — the first of its kind in Michigan — changed this.

“It allowed me to break the cycle,” Zamudio said. “You have to give credit to the leadership of CMU who were willing to listen to an idea and open the door.”

More than 45 years later, Zamudio and fellow scholarship recipients will have the chance to gather for the first-ever reunion on the campus of CMU this July.


It began with one farm worker, Lupe Castro. While working in the fields, Castro expressed her interest in attending college to UMOI Deputy Director George Johnson. She began her studies at CMU in 1969. Her success at Central — along with conversations between key university leaders and Johnson — led to the birth of a program that paved a path to college for other migrant farm workers.

“This wouldn’t have happened without a university president who caught the vision of what this could become,” said Marissa Zamudio, Juan’s wife and fellow CMU graduate.

Under the leadership of CMU’s seventh President William B. Boyd, Vice Provost James Hayes and Johnson worked together to launch a scholarship application process and admit a select number of qualified U.S. migrant workers with high school diplomas. Their passion for giving migrant workers better access to higher education would transform lives and opportunities of not only those they admitted, but of generations.

“My life changed, but the impact wasn’t just on my life. It was generations. It was families,” Marissa said.

Juan and Marissa, who met and married as students at CMU, were two of 13 scholarship recipients who followed Castro and enrolled in the fall of 1970. In addition to forming bonds with roommates of different cultures, the small group of scholars became a family. Each one, in addition to CMU staff, served as part of a support system for one another and the students who would follow. In addition to the university and fellow students, someone who clearly made a lasting impact on each incoming student was George Johnson from UMOI.


After their first year at CMU, some of the initial 13 students were hired by UMOI to help recruit the next group of incoming students. They returned to the fields they had worked with their families to give back and ensure others like them had the same access to higher education. They shared their experiences and addressed challenges and questions of migrant families sending their children to college for the first time. The result was a ripple effect that grew the program to 25 admitted students in the second year.

The first group of students graduated, eventually producing an attorney, several teachers and social workers, and an education administrator. The Zamudios, who between them have earned a total of five degrees from CMU, now have two adult daughters who also have earned advanced degrees.

Juan worked in the Registrar’s Office at CMU during his career. Marissa, who pursued social work, said that even though she was an honor student at her local high school, she likely would not have found her way to college without the help of UMOI.

“We were contributing to the economy before, but with a college education it gave us all the chance to contribute to a greater extent and in new ways,” said Marissa, who graduated from high school in McAllen, Texas.


As word of the program and scholarship recipients spread, it was clear that it was changing the way young migrant workers thought about their future.

migrantscholar1Julian Vasquez said it took his brother, one of the inaugural scholarship recipients, a while to act on the scholarship after he was given the information because it was so far from the reality they knew. However, when the time rolled around for Julian to determine his post-high school plans, he already knew college was one option thanks his brother’s UMOI scholarship.

“At first, it was too big to believe,” Vasquez said. “To think that my brother was going to go to college was pretty amazing. After that, the idea that I might go became real.”

Vasquez, who had been a strong student in his high school and active in extracurricular activities, became a member of the CMU cheerleading and gymnastics teams. He excelled in academics and was named top cheerleader in the nation during his junior year. Vasquez graduated and, for a time, served as assistant director in CMU’s Admissions Office.

“Even though most of my friends were going to college, I doubt I would have gone. If I had, it probably would have looked different had it not been for the CMU scholarship,” said Vasquez, who went on to earn a Master of Science in Administration from CMU. His son also chose to study at Central after high school.

More than 40 people were part of the scholar program that began in 1970 and helped students for nearly a decade.

“CMU is uniquely special; they piloted this program. I remember thinking nobody else did, but this school up in the middle of Michigan did it,” Vasquez said. “What an amazing thing to do for so many who would not have been able to consider college.”


Next month, CMU leaders, alumni, scholarship recipients and friends will gather for a the first-ever UMOI reunion. The event will be a time for all to share stories of the program and the lives touched by it. The event will begin at 10 a.m. July 11 in the Bovee University Center, followed by tours of campus. Attendees also will receive a meal ticket redeemable for lunch at one of the residence hall restaurants. Tickets are $10. For more information and to register for the reunion online, visit the CMU Alumni events calendar.


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