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High School Equivalency Program director gives back for services that ‘changed my life’ 25 years ago

High School Equivalency Program (HEP) graduates are seen during the Sac State HEP graduation ceremony in 2018. HEP graduates continue with their education at community colleges before transferring to Sacramento State. The Sac State HEP program recently received a new $2.4 million grant to continue its work helping migrant and seasonal farmworkers obtain their high school equivalency certificate. (Sacramento State/Erica Perez)

Andrés Enriquez had a ninth-grade education and no English skills when he left Mexico at 16 in search of a better life in America.

For eight years, he planted harvested, and pruned in the fruit and vegetable fields of Washington state. Agricultural work was grueling, without medical benefits or hope for the future.

Then, at a local library, Enriquez had a chance meeting with a recruiter from the federal High School Equivalency Program, or HEP. The recruiter said the program could help Enriquez earn his high school equivalency certificate, go to college, and get a better job.

“It changed my life,” he said.

Andres Enriquez portrait
Andrés Enriquez earned his high school equivalency certificate via a High School Equivalency Program in Washington state, before going on to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees. Today, he is at Sacramento State, where he directs one of the nation's most successful HEP programs. (Sacramento State/Erica Perez)

Now, he is working to do the same for others. After earning his high school equivalency certificate, sharpening his English skills, and attaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees, Enriquez made his way to Sacramento State, where he directs one of the nation’s most successful HEP programs.

In May, Sac State learned that it received a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Migrant Education to continue HEP for another five years.

“We’re very pleased with where we are and what we have been able to accomplish,” said Viridiana Diaz, associate vice president for Strategic Student Support Programs at the University. “We continue to have a real impact in the communities that we serve.”

Sac State’s HEP program helps migrant and seasonal farmworkers obtain their high school certificates from the state of California, then get jobs in their chosen professions or enroll in college classes. Many of the students are parents who work full time in orchards, vegetable fields and canneries during the day, then come to the classroom at night to study.

The University recruits its HEP students by visiting agricultural fields, churches, community groups, and events throughout Northern California, an approach that makes the program unique, Diaz said.

“We go out to serve our students where they are,” in cities and towns from Galt to Courtland, Diaz said.

The University provides instructors, tutors, study materials and testing fees for HEP students. Students have up to a year to complete classes and pass tests in English, math, science, social studies, and reading and writing.

In August, 150 students will graduate from Sac State HEP, Diaz said. About 90% of the University’s HEP students subsequently attend college, enter job training programs, attain better employment, or join the military.

“Our program helps families to break the cycle” of poverty and lack of education, Diaz said. “It allows them to create a new path for generations in the future. HEP has created a legacy of success.”

Opportunity arrived unexpectedly about 25 years ago for Enriquez, while he was visiting a library near Yakima on a rare day off from field work. A HEP recruiter from Washington State University approached him while he was inquiring about books written in Spanish.

“She told me, ‘I can help you get your GED, learn English, go to college, get a better job,’ ” he said. “I had always wanted that, but I didn’t know where to start. I said, ‘Where do I sign up?’ ”

He soon passed the required exams and began taking English classes at a nearby community college. In 2001, he received his bachelor’s degree in Information Systems from Washington State. After five years in that field, he decided he wanted to “give back” to the HEP program. He worked for HEP in Washington and Louisiana, where he earned his master’s in Curriculum and Instruction from University of Louisiana - Monroe, before assuming leadership of Sac State’s HEP in 2017.

Frustrated students working toward earning their certificates sometimes tell Enriquez, “You don’t know how hard it is.”

“But I do know, and I tell them to keep going,” said Enriquez. “If not for HEP, I might still be in the fields, laboring in the heat and the cold. Now I am giving back. For me, things have come full circle.”

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About Cynthia Hubert

Cynthia Hubert came to Sacramento State in November 2018 after an award-winning career writing for the Sacramento Bee. Cynthia believes everyone has a good story. She lives in East Sacramento with her two cats, who enjoy bird-watching from their perch next to the living-room window.

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