Feb. 23, 2010

Students help to give immigrant farmworkers a voice

While thousands of young adults in the Ithaca area pursue a college education, others toil on farms with minimal English skills and very little interaction with people off the farms. They are immigrant farmworkers from Latin America.

But twice a week, Cornell students affiliated with the Immigrant Farmworker Initiative (IFI) visit four farms to teach these workers English and work to raise awareness about farmworker issues.

"We equip them with the English skills they need, and they equip us with that 'other side perspective' to take back to our classes and our lives," said IFI President Gonzalo Martínez de Vedia '10, a government and comparative literature major.

The IFI has about 50 members from all four classes. Many students joined because they wanted to teach English as a second language.

"You don't realize how difficult it is to teach your own language," said Stephanie Zimmerman '12, a biology major.

"It's a learning experience" for the tutors, not just the farmworkers, added Pat Farnach '10, who majors in development sociology.

Added Marisa Smith '13, a student in the College of Arts and Sciences: "I'm from Ohio, and I didn't realize there were immigrant farmworkers in New York."

Some members also learned about IFI though the Cornell Farmworker Program (CFP), which Mary Jo Dudley, the group's faculty adviser, directs. Through research and outreach efforts, the CFP's mission works "to improve the living and working conditions of farmworkers and their families in New York state," said Dudley, and its vision is to seek recognition for farmworkers' contributions to society and their acceptance and full participation in local communities. Over the past four years, the CFP has sponsored a summer internship program through which 50 students have provided direct support to farmworkers and their families. Many of those former interns are active in IFI.

Martínez de Vedia and treasurer and ILR School student Ryan Holy '10 said they are also trying to expand the group so tutors can visit 10 or more farms by the end of the school year.

Also, "We want to get into the politics of farmworkers," Martínez de Vedia said. New York farmworkers face "very difficult" circumstances, he said. They are an important part of American life, yet more than half of them are not allowed to become legal residents, he added.

To raise awareness of immigrant farmworker issues on campus, IFI is planning a Feb. 25 panel discussion at 5 p.m. in Kaufmann Auditorium, Goldwin Smith Hall, with speakers from Justice for Farmworkers and the Rural and Migrant Ministry, a multifaith organization that serves rural and migrant people in New York. It is also planning an event for International Workers' Day, May 1.

It is important to take advantage of the fact that Cornell is situated near rural communities, said Holy. Immigrant farmworkers are a "relevant issue" in this area, and the IFI gives students the chance to "think outside just the campus bubble," he said.

The group, which welcomes more students, meets Thursdays at 4:30 p.m. in 115 Rockefeller Hall. Prospective summer interns can apply through the CFP Web site.

Hanna Roos '10 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.