Juan Carlos Valle can still feel the cold. The hard stone slab of the Mexico City park bench against his seven-year-old body was never comfortable. The empty cars and dimly lit street corners weren’t a very good tradeoff either. As an off-and-on homeless youth, Valle spent much of his childhood on the streets, unable to live in the abusive household with nine brothers and sisters who rarely received the necessities to meet basic living conditions.
Relaxed and full, Valle now sits comfortably in front of a half-finished breakfast plate at Brails Restaurant in Eugene, Oregon. His smartphone buzzes to the left of his plate. Dressed in professional attire on this Saturday afternoon, he prepares for the appointments, meetings, and conferences still on his agenda for the day.
Valle is a busy man. He sits as the board president of the non-profit management organization Centro Latino Americano; acts as the president of his company, Valle Consulting; sits on the budget committee for the
Lane Regional Air Protection Agency; is employed with the U.S. Social Security Administration; and is the vice-chair of the Eugene Police Commission.
It’s hard to believe that Valle slept under bridges and atop park benches until he was twenty-one. After leaving Mexico City at seventeen for the United States, Valle struggled for five years making $1.50 an hour. Without knowledge of the English language or American culture, and lacking a formal education, Valle’s only option in the U.S. was plucking pears and planting seeds as a seasonal migrant worker. Sending almost everything he earned back to his brothers and sisters in Mexico City, Valle found himself in a constant state of uncertainty.
“To me it was like ‘am I going to be alive this day?’ Today, I’m thinking ‘what I’m going to be doing in ten years,’” says Valle, who now has the ability to provide food and shelter for not only himself, but his wife and children.
What propelled Valle from an unsettled lifestyle to an overwhelming success was the ten-week period he spent during the fall of 1989 enrolled in the High School Equivalency Program (HEP). Located at the University of Oregon, HEP is a program designed to help seasonal migrant workers get their GEDs. Valle’s eventual accomplishments were products of a program that has been educating and improving the lives of the impoverished class in the U.S. for more than four decades.
Originally established in 1967 under an educational mandate by the Lyndon B. Johnson administration to improve the lives of undereducated and disadvantaged migrant workers, HEP was implemented to help its enrollees pass the GED test. The original founder of HEP acknowledged an emerging cycle of seasonal migrant workers’ children following the same path as their uneducated parents. As a way to offset this pattern, HEP has worked as a second option for migrant workers and their children above the age of sixteen who were unable to complete high school.
The program focuses on the educational cornerstones of math, science, social studies, literacy, and grammar, prepping its students for success on the GED exam. Beyond educational basics, HEP has an embedded curriculum designed to show students the opportunities that exist in both vocational and higher education after completing the program.
It’s an aspect of the program that Valle remembers vividly inspiring him to pursue higher education at Lane Community College after he graduated from HEP. He later transferred to the University of Oregon where he received a bachelor’s degree in Spanish literature and a master’s degree in public administration.
“The whole experience of being in a university setting, it really awakens somebody’s mind to the possibilities,” Valle says, looking back at his experience. “In retrospect, to me, it was only a GED program in the scale of things, but when I was there, I was among University students. I would never have even imagined I was going to have the chance to interact with them.”
Nelson Rosales, an immigrant from El Salvador, found a similar motivation after he was recruited by the program in 1984, while working as a seasonal migrant worker picking mint leaves on a farm in Madras, Oregon.
“I didn’t speak any English and I was just working in the fields as an immigrant. I got involved in the HEP program, which was one of the best things to ever happen in my life. It completely changed my life,” Rosales says.
When Rosales arrived at HEP, he owned only one set of clothes and a pair of worn-down shoes. Now Rosales is the owner of the successful Rodeo Steakhouse and Grill in Junction City, Oregon. He is also responsible for creating and publishing Adelante Latino, a bilingual magazine based in Eugene, as well as the re-launch of Junction City’s newspaper, the Tri-County Tribune.
Without the assistance of HEP, Rosales could still very easily be picking the produce that the restaurant he now owns purchases in bulk each week. He would also lack the educational background to work on and publish journalistic publications.
“We’ve had many different success stories in many different ways,” says Joel Montemayor, the director of HEP. “It really comes down to breaking the cycle. They may be the first person in their family to get a degree.”
In 2005, Dr. Emilio Hernandez, director of HEP from 1994 to 2007, wrote his dissertation on HEP and its model. Randomly sampling two hundred HEP graduates over a twenty-year period with seventy respondents, Hernandez found that only two graduates had not placed in a middle-class income bracket.
“The success rate over that period of time was just incredible,” Hernandez says.
Today, HEP still operates under the same guidelines. The HEP based at the University of Oregon continues to educate roughly one hundred seasonal migrant workers and their families each year. As each graduate leaves with the tools to seek out opportunities they believed never existed, HEP’s staff of teachers and administrators, both past and present, need nothing more than a simple “thank you”. Graduates like Valle, Rosales, and many more are everyday examples of the influence of HEP and the difference it makes.
“If HEP wasn’t there, I would not be here. I would not know the language; I would not be employed by the government; I would not be the president of a big, prominent agency; I would not be involved in public and civic engagement; I would not be chair of this or chair of that. I would not be involved in anything that I am involved in now,” Valle says.
As a reminder, Valle keeps a framed photo of the bench he once slept on as a seven-year-old, surrounded by poverty and a lack of opportunity. The framed photo sits in the house he owns, accompanied by his two college degrees and pictures of his family. The photo is easily overlooked, but to Valle, the photo means everything.