Jacky Flores, 19, attends the University of Southern Florida. A first-generation college student and the daughter of migrant farmworkers, she is one of thousands of college students being impacted by the pandemic.
Three days before spring break, we got the email: Our service trip to North Carolina had been abruptly canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak. It was going to be a fully funded trip through my school’s College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), a federal program that supports first-year students who are the children of farmworkers, like I am. My other friends in CAMP and I were upset. We don’t really get these opportunities. We usually don’t have the money for them.
When I left my school’s palm tree-filled campus in March, I imagined I’d be returning after spring break to finish out my freshman year. As a first-generation college student, my presence on that campus really meant something to me, and to my family — my mother, father and two older sisters. My parents and oldest sister had come to the United States from Mexico in 1995. And now here I was, studying accounting at the University of Southern Florida.
The drive to my parents’ home from school isn’t a long one. They live in Mulberry, Fla., which is about 40 minutes away from campus. Mulberry isn’t what you might imagine Florida to be — no sandy beaches or bustling nightlife. It’s a lot of farmland, stretches of green fields and rolling hills. It’s quiet and peaceful.
When another email arrived over spring break, I was devastated. Schools would be fully remote for the rest of the year.
I hadn’t known anyone going to USF from Mulberry, but now I had my group of friends, had settled into life in college. I got along well with my roommate, even though we are from very different backgrounds. I felt terrible, because this was my first, and probably last, year living on campus. Most people move off campus as sophomores.
There’s no other way to put it: I really liked going to college. It was such a different experience from high school. I used to think, wow, I can’t wait to go to college. A lot of people go to high school because they have to, but in college, people go there because they want to. They actually want to learn. And attending classes in-person was so gratifying. When I was at school, I’d liked all of my professors. They made everything as clear as possible and they were always willing to help. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the switch to remote learning was going to be difficult. At home, there’s more to do. I don’t mind, but I pitch in to help clean and cook. At school, that wasn’t really my responsibility.
Before the pandemic hit, I’d also been working a retail job. I was making minimum wage, working around 30 hours a week, just so I could make enough money to pay for my own gas and living expenses. Thankfully, my freshman year tuition has been fully covered by scholarships and grants. Next year, I’m going to start having to cover that as well.
When the shop closed as Florida went into lockdown, I knew I needed to do something to make some money. Before college, I’d worked in the fields with my mom, who picks strawberries. I’d work by the hour, usually going in around 7:30 a.m. to do odd jobs.
Most of the other workers were single men who’d recently come to the States. My mom would tell me to hide my face, showing only my eyes, and to tie a shirt around my waist to cover up as much as possible.
My parents always put my education first, though. When I was growing up, I knew a lot of parents who would take their kids out of school just so they could help in the fields. My parents never did that, and they’ve continued to encourage me to focus on schoolwork.
Now, during the pandemic, the only real option was to start going back out to the fields with my mom. I had always been nervous about the working conditions for my mother, who’s older. The fields have rows that are only separated by about two feet, so you’re in close proximity to other pickers. Her co-workers continued to drink straight out of the shared water jug, and sneezed without face coverings on. Most importantly, there aren’t any facilities where you can wash your hands frequently, as you’re supposed to. Working out there felt mostly the same as before, full of odd jobs like hauling plastic, but the threat of coronavirus made every day feel tense.
I was grateful when, after six weeks of lockdown, the stores in Florida reopened, and I got my old job back. For the first week, my manager and I were the only ones running the whole store. I worked close to 40 hours that week. At least people respect the rules that have been put into place — you can’t come in without a mask on, for example. It feels safer than being out in the fields.
I also enrolled myself in summer classes at USF — microeconomics and basic marketing — for the simple reason that I need a refund check to save up money for the next school year. That’s my biggest stress right now: being able to afford my sophomore year. But I don’t want to burden my parents with that worry. My mom’s currently out of a job, as the fields closed down around the time my store opened back up. They know they don’t have the opportunity to find another job without a social security number. They can’t work from home. They can’t apply for unemployment despite doing their taxes every year. Thankfully, there are resources to help families like mine, such as the Farmworkers’ Covid-19 Pandemic Relief Fund, which has raised almost $3 million.
The future is scary for all of us. Right now, I just want to focus on studying so I can begin building a career. Hopefully I can start saving more money than I’m spending on school so I can help my parents, too. That’s something I don’t think many people realize about farmworkers. There are a lot of workers whose children go to college, or go into the military, to try to build a future for themselves. They’re trying to do something with their life and repay their parents for their sacrifices coming to the United States.
So for now, I am doing everything in my power to be a good daughter throughout this pandemic, as my parents do their best to keep our family afloat.