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The CAMP Family Gives Back

The spring of his senior year at Burley High School, Jesse Martinez nodded his head and said yes to something his family had never discussed and he didn’t know was possible for the son of seasonal farmworkers — college.

“After seven years in the sugar beet fields, I figured this was a short-term plan,” he said. “But then I started buying into this idea that maybe I could do this.”

Later that spring Martinez hitched a ride to Moscow. For two nights he experienced life at the University of Idaho, connected with other Latino students, learned about the College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) and found a family.

“Driving home all I could think was ‘how am I going to have this conversation with Mom?’”

For the next 20 years, CAMP opened doors for Martinez — it is where he met his wife, built a career and had incredible experiences he didn’t know existed when he first sat with the recruiter.

CAMP provides financial and academic support to students with qualifying migrant or seasonal farm work backgrounds. The program's success is a result of meeting students where they are. Recruiting students is challenging enough — recruiting first-generation students whose parents often don’t speak English and have no means or knowledge to send students to college should be nearly impossible.

Norma Valdivia, Christina Vazquez-Ayala, Yolanda Bisbee (Big Mama), Evelina Arevalos-Martinez (on stairs), Nalley Prado-Vega and Jesse Martinez
Left to right: Norma Valdivia, Christina Vazquez-Ayala, Yolanda Bisbee (Big Mama), Evelina Arevalos-Martinez (on stairs), Nalley Prado-Vega and Jesse Martinez

The Rise of Big Mama

When the phone rang at Yolanda Bisbee’s office in the spring of 1999, she was comfortably settled into a position as a recruiter for U of I’s Upward Bound — a TRIO program providing college preparatory support and guidance to underrepresented students.

“I couldn’t figure out why the Department of Education was calling me,” she said.

In the flurry of grant writing she and her boss were doing, they had applied for a CAMP grant and identified Bisbee as director should the grant be successful, which it was.

“It was a real panic time,” she said. “I was good at recruiting, but I wasn’t good at recruiting bilingually.”

She hired a recent Spanish-speaking Vandal alumna from Ecuador, Elsa Castillo, and hit the ground running — with six weeks to fill as many of the 40 allotted seats as possible.

Driving through southern Idaho, the duo would stop to talk about college opportunities to anyone who would listen.

“We would drive through a migrant camp and see a kid out mowing the lawn and Elsa would say ‘let’s stop. He might want to go to college,’” Bisbee said.

But the conversations didn’t end with the students. Bisbee and Castillo were invited to dinner, family gatherings and school functions. Big Mama, the name bestowed on Bisbee, brought compassion and empathy as well as the motherly approach to building the CAMP family. Being culturally responsive has led to 20 years of success.

Victor Canales shares how college became a reality for him through the College Assistance Migrant Program.

Martinez Gives Back

Christina Vazquez-Ayala spent summers hoeing mint and beets in the southern Idaho sun. She played every sport and participated in every activity at Glenns Ferry High School to avoid working in the fields. Despite her ambition to get out, she had never been on a college campus.

“My parents always told me the only way out of the fields was through education,” she said.

But she had no help. No role models. No one to show her the way.

Enter Martinez, who had moved from student to a recruiter for CAMP. He visited her school not just once, but returned again and again. He answered Vazquez-Ayala’s questions. He followed Bisbee’s model and engaged with her parents to answer their questions. In April of her senior year, she traveled north to visit campus. That’s when she and her parents met Big Mama.

“My parents started feeling better knowing there were people here to watch out for me,” she said.

When that first tuition bill came, Vazquez-Ayala’s dream dimmed. But Bisbee sat at the computer with her and walked through acceptance of her scholarships. She saw the doors reopen.

Going back to work in the fields after her freshman year was the final bit of inspiration she needed.

“It was a really good reminder to stay in school,” she said.

She participated in an internship the next summer in North Carolina with Student Action with Farmworkers, a nonprofit farmworker advocacy organization, which led to other opportunities including her current position as a CAMP advisor where she helps other Latinx students navigate the collegiate world.

“I want the students to learn about their histories,” she said. “They need to remember where they are from and the strengths they bring. CAMP staff will be there during hard times or to cheer them on.”

Breaking Out

Victor Canales’ dad couldn’t have been prouder watching his son’s celebration of a successful freshman year of college. The elder Canales had dropped out of elementary school to work in the fields. When Victor climbed on the CAMP-sponsored bus to visit U of I’s Moscow campus, his dad was busy in those fields. That was also the case in the fall of 2008 when the younger Canales arrived on campus to start his college career. The end-of-year CAMP celebration was the elder Canales’ first time on campus — a route he would retrace five years later for Victor's graduation. It’s all part of the CAMP model to recruit the entire family.

“You need to involve the parents. If families are involved, success is higher,” Canales said.

Born in Mexico, Canales joined his brothers and dad in the U.S. at age 8 and started working in the corn fields.

“I didn’t have resources or knowledge about college,” he said.

But in the winter of his senior year, after Martinez helped knock down barriers, Canales found himself walking regularly to Paul’s Grocery in Mountain Home to fax admission paperwork to U of I.

“Jesse painted a picture,” he said. “Before that, I had no information. Without information you don’t have the same opportunities.”

Article by Jodi Walker, University Communications and Marketing.

Published in the Spring 2019 issue of Here We Have Idaho.


University Communications and Marketing

Fax: 208-885-5841


Web: Communications and Marketing

U of I Media Contacts