Mother-daughter duo overcomes obstacles to pursue education

As a young mother, Blanca de Jesus Ruiz Lopez wanted a better life for her and her 3-year-old daughter, Astrid Torres. At 23, she scooped up her child and walked out of her home in Honduras and headed for the U.S.“It took us 23 days,” Ruiz said. “We walked. And we took buses. We came through Guatemala and Mexico to the United States. I wanted the opportunities here for her and me.”

One of those opportunities included the Gainesville, Georgia, woman, now 38, earning her General Educational Development (GED) certificate earlier this year through the High School Equivalency Program (HEP) at UNG.

HEP is a federally-funded grant program that helps migratory and seasonal farm workers and members of their immediate family obtain a GED. The program provides textbooks and materials, GED testing, career readiness workshops, financial assistance, and flexible class schedules.

Eligible participants also must be at least 16 years old, not have a high school diploma or its equivalent, are not enrolled in school, demonstrate adequate levels of lecture and comprehension in English or Spanish, and demonstrate financial and academic need.Ruiz qualified for HEP because she was a seasonal worker in the agricultural industry in the past two years.

“I wanted to set a good example for my kids and be a good role model for them,” Ruiz said. “And I wanted to be something else, because without an education you don’t get good jobs. Most companies ask if you have a GED. If you don’t have it, you don’t get a job.”

“HEP students receive help in getting another job, enlisting in the U.S. armed forces or continuing at a post-secondary institution,” said Christian Bello Escobar, director of Migrant Programs and Services at UNG.

College Assistance Migrant Program is a federally-funded initiative to increase college attendance and graduation among the nation’s migrant youth. It is a first-year scholarship program that provides students with academic, social, and financial support.
This past summer, Ruiz’s accomplishment was recognized as she and three others participated in the GED graduation ceremony at UNG’s Gainesville Campus.“We have officially served 32 participants in HEP this year and have four GED graduates to date,” Bello Escobar said. “We’re expecting this number to increase as the year progresses. All of our graduates have gotten better jobs thus far.”

While Ruiz wants to continue her education and earn an associate degree at UNG, she is putting her daughter’s college education first.

Torres plans to enroll at UNG in spring 2018 through the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federally-funded initiative to increase college attendance and graduation among the nation’s migrant youth. It is a first-year scholarship program that provides students with academic, social and financial support enabling them to complete their first year of college and beyond.

CAMP provides benefits such as supplemental financial aid assistance, one-on-one academic advisement, a textbook stipend, tutoring and mentoring, workshops focused on improving and developing students’ skills, and cultural events/service learning opportunities. In addition, a stipend is awarded during the first academic year to students who actively participate in the program.

Bello Escobar said 35 students completed CAMP in spring 2017 with 29 continuing their education at UNG. Two others have transferred.

“That makes our retention rate 83 percent,” he said. “All of our CAMP students have career and internship opportunities while they’re in CAMP and any time before they graduate with their undergraduate career.”Torres said she believes CAMP will help her transition to college life, especially managing the heavy course load. But Torres has already faced a heavy obstacle in her life. She was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy at age 9. In cardiomyopathy, the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick or rigid.

Astrid received her first life-saving operation in 2011 to repair the valve in her heart. She spent one week in the hospital and another one at home before asking her mother to return to school.

“She went back,” Ruiz said. “I was very impressed.”

On graduation day, it was Torres’ turn to be impressed with her mother, the GED graduate. She said she was excited to see her mom in a cap and gown this summer at the GED ceremony.

“I got to feel what she felt when she saw me in my cap and gown,” Torres said.

Bello Escobar said Ruiz and Torres were the first family couple to enroll in the HEP and CAMP programs at UNG but are not the last.

“We’re beginning to see more families coming in,” he said. “I know we currently have a son in CAMP and his dad is in HEP at the same time! We also have cousins and siblings of previous students.”