From Field to College

news strawberryCalifornia Strawberry Commission helps children of fieldworkers get to college

Jesus Rios has come a long way. The Michoacan-born 25-year-old went from picking strawberries with his parents in the fields of Salinas to working on his master’s in electrical engineering at Fresno State University. And he doesn’t plan on stopping there: Rios plans to pursue a doctorate in engineering after he completes his Master’s.


“I want to work for a company like NASA or Boeing,” says Rios. “I want to work in an industry that’s developing new technology.”

Rios came to the United States with his parents, Javier and Maria Luisa Rios, in 2005. Prior to Rios’ arrival, his parents would come to the United States every summer to work in the Salinas strawberry fields as migrant workers.

“They came over [to the United States] for about 20 years straight,” says Rios. “Then they stayed once they brought me in 2005. Before they brought me, they would go back to Mexico every winter, when there was no field work in Salinas.”

Rios himself worked in the fields beginning in 2006. “I’d go to high school, but I worked in the fields whenever I had time off,” says Rios, whose parents are still fieldworkers. “Even after high school, I worked in the fields before coming to Fresno State.”

Rios says he might not have been able to attend Fresno State were it not for a few well-placed assistance programs. One was the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federally funded program that offers financial assistance for students with migrant and season farm-working backgrounds, in addition to counseling and other forms of academic assistance.

The other integral program was a scholarship provided by the California Strawberry Commission (CSC), which is based in Watsonville. The CSC has been awarding scholarships to the children of Watsonville and Salinas-area fieldworkers for 19 years, and the scholarships have totaled $1.5 million for more than 750 recipients. This year, the CSC awarded 118 scholarships to area youth, including 32 to Watsonville students. Three CSC scholarship recipients attend UC Santa Cruz and Cabrillo College, including Catarina Mendez from Watsonville. Mendez, who is one of 10 children, moved to the United States when she was 14-years-old and now studies human biology at UCSC. 

“The inspiration for the scholarship program has always been about honoring the people who are the foundation of the strawberry community—the farm workers,” says Carolyn O’Donnell, director of communications for the CSC. “Without the dedication and hard work of the employees, we would not be able to do what we do, and provide strawberries to the nation. By giving scholarships to their children, we are supporting the hopes and dreams they hold for their kids and their communities.”

Rios has been receiving aid from the CSC for almost seven years now. He originally found out about the program from an unlikely source. “The owner of the strawberry fields [where my parents and I worked] told me about the scholarship,” says Rios. “I always thought I’d be able to [go to college]. I really wanted to, so I was going to make sure of it.”

The CSC presented this year’s scholarships at an award ceremony on Thursday, May 17 at the Kennedy Youth Center in Watsonville. The event featured a speech by Jose Hernandez, a NASA astronaut and son of Central Valley farm workers.

Rios had the following advice for new recipients: “Always have goals. Work hard and everything is possible. It may take a little longer than for someone else, but we can still make it. That’s how I made it.” 

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