It’s graduation season. For high school students it’s the beginning of a new chapter in their young adult life. For migrant students, graduation marks a special milestone.
Rosa Mendoza, 17, and Floresita Gomez-Guzman 19, were standing outside the gym, on the quad, at Mount Vernon High School. They were among the seniors waiting for the commencement ceremony to start. Many fidgeted with their gowns or took photos with friends and family.
“We’re ready to graduate,” said Mendoza.
“I’m excited,” said Gomez-Guzman. “I feel like I waited for this my whole life.”
Their parents work in farms in Washington, sometimes driving an hour or more to get to jobs in the field. Often, the children work alongside them. Gomez-Guzman said they’re constantly juggling school and work.
"We would work every summer,” she said. “We would go like different places and camps to stay there for the summer and when that’s over, my parents are usually the ones that continue to work in the field.”
Mendoza added, “When school starts there are berries that haven’t been finished so I go after school and work … And during winter break I work.”
Mendoza said it’s not unusual for her to do homework late at night, often finishing at 1 a.m.
She reflects the growing and diverse student population of Mount Vernon School District. The district has 762 migrant students. Statewide, there are more than 31,000 migrant students under age 21.
The students filed into the gym. The graduation ceremony opened with the national anthem performed by the school’s mariachi band. The program was printed in English and Spanish. A student provided Spanish translation during parts of the ceremony.
Migrant students have complex needs. Families struggle with poverty and language issues. Mendoza and Gomez-Guzman got support from the Migrant Leaders Club. The after-school program helps migrant students stay engaged and helps them understand their background. They go out to the community and share stories of migrant life.
Mendoza said the program taught her how to speak in public and opened the door to scholarships. Most of all, it taught her to embrace who she is.
“It’s not something to be ashamed, but something to be proud of, because we put food for people," said Mendoza. “We wanted to understand how hard it is to balance everything, to be a student and also a migrant worker.”
For the students, years of hard work have finally paid off. The big moment arrived. As their names were called, students walked up to the stage to receive their diploma and soak in the attention.
Gomez-Guzman and Mendoza are looking to the future. Both are starting college; the first in their families to go to university. “Yeah, we’re both going to the University of Washington,” said Mendoza. Gomez-Guzman added, “We’re going to be roommates.”
Gomez-Guzman and Mendoza are grateful for the opportunities ahead. One of their goals is to give back to their parents who gave so much so they can pursue their dreams.