Welcome to Mile Markers, a bimonthly newsletter about rural higher education. I’m Nick Fouriezos, an Open Campus national reporter who grew up at the crossroads of suburban Atlanta and the foothills of Appalachia.

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A biweekly newsletter about higher education and rural America. By Nick Fouriezos.

Today’s Roadmap

01: Postcards: One day in the life of a Latina senior.
02: Roadside Attractions: USDA’s rural college risk.
03: In the Sticks: Family ties and the college divide.

01: Postcards

The warning bell goes off at 7:45 a.m., the first of many for Kaitlin Saldaña, who has already been up for hours.

By noon, the senior has finished all her classes at her high school in Garden City, a majority-Hispanic town of nearly 30,000.

That’s when her day really gets started.

Her mom’s car is broken down, so she plays chauffeur, dropping her cousin off, picking up her pre-K sister from the elementary school.

She takes a brief pit stop at home to make them lunch, before she drops her sister off with her abuela … and then, she starts her first job of the day, as a paraprofessional teacher’s aide at the local elementary school.

Two hours later, she picks up her mom from her job driving a forklift at the International Paper factory. Three hours later, she fetches her brother from middle school, takes him home.

The day’s not over yet. Next she starts her evening shift at Ross Dress for Less at 5 p.m.

It’s long been dark by the time she gets home around 10 p.m. She rarely sees her dad these days, since he works the day shift as a maintenance worker.

The few hours she gets at home are spent catching up on homework. She dreams of being the first in her family to attend college, but those dreams will require her putting off sleep for just a bit longer.

Sometimes, she and her classmate, Ashlee Villarreal, will text each other in the early hours of the all-nighters that have become all too common.

“You still up?” Yep. “You done with the essay?” No.

This time, though, Kaitlin accidentally falls asleep. She wakes up at 5 a.m. in a panic.

Rushing to finish her homework, before the warning bell begins again.

Garden City High School (Photo: Nick Fouriezos)

02: Roadside Attractions

  • Are Ag Department’s college bets too risky? In a recent Hechinger Report piece, Jon Marcus notes how the USDA has loaned tens of millions to rural universities that couldn’t get financing elsewhere. That decision underscores “how important local universities and colleges are to those communities — and the vulnerability of a growing number of them,” as Marcus writes.
  • Rural fire degree sparks debate. In California, the decision by 1,300-student Feather River College to add an applied fire management degree has led to a political tempest between the state’s community college and four-year university systems, with legislators recently stepping in to dampen passions with a strongly worded letter.
  • Case studies for rural education. The AASCU Stewards of Place task force released a new guide for regional universities to support their local communities, from encouraging upward mobility, regional prosperity, and civic health, to building out resources and resilience.
Evelyn Irigoyen-Aguierre works with Garden City students as they make their college plans. (Photo: Courtesy GCHS)

03: In the Sticks

For many rural Latino teenagers, a school day like Kaitlin’s isn’t surprising — it’s the norm. Many here in Garden City have days that consist of driving around siblings, and taking care of parents, or working at the meatpacking plants and oil refineries that dot the West Kansas plains.

Evelyn Irigoyen-Aguierre knows that more than most. The 25-year-old daughter of Mexican immigrants graduated from Garden City High, and is now an adviser there through the Kansas State College Advising Corps, which works to help students across the state navigate the college application landscape.

Evelyn’s parents, like many immigrant parents here, encouraged her to pursue a college degree but didn’t know how to navigate the process themselves.

“From my family, friendships, my relationships, the support wasn’t there,” Evelyn says. ““They knew I wanted to go to school. But they didn’t understand how much time I needed to study.”

As a first-generation student, she juggled cultural expectations and familial obligations while also having to navigate a sometimes complex admissions process.

Those challenges continued when she entered the local community college, as those around her expected that family and work should come before her education.

At times, it feels like familial ties can confine them.

“They want us to get the education we need, they will not hold us back, they will inspire us, they will tell us to pursue what we need to,” Ashlee says.

“But deep down they’re like “Oooh my kid is leaving.’ They get homesick for us, and we get homesick too, because we can’t see them every day”

Some parents disparage what they call “The American Way,” in which, in their view, non-Hispanic parents prematurely kick their kids out at 18. “They’re like, “No, I would never kick you out, you can live here until you’re 30,” Kaitlin says.

Parents here expect (or at the very least, strongly hope) their kids will return home after earning their degree … a feeling that’s especially prevalent in both immigrant families and rural communities.

Evelyn ended up getting her bachelor’s degree from Fort Hays State University more than two hours away, and her experience has been an inspiration to the students she mentors, including Kaitlin and Ashlee.

“My mom would ask: Is there anyone to help you apply to this scholarship, or this grant? And I would always think of Evelyn,” Kaitlin says. “As a Latina herself, it’s kind of comforting, seeing someone like her who succeeded, and went to college, and got her degree.

But even Evelyn’s relationship with college is complicated. Yes, she was able to get her degree, but it came at a cost, only partly paid for while working multiple jobs throughout her time at community college and university.

She originally pursued a graduate degree, but decided to move back to Garden City before finishing it. Her family needed her, and now her younger sister is home too, taking classes to become a certified nursing assistant despite earning a degree in psychobiology from the University of Nebraska.

However, it was difficult for Evelyn and her sister to find jobs in the fields they had majored in. And while they could move elsewhere, leaving Garden City would mean leaving behind their families, and the many responsibilities they juggle.

“More and more students are seeing they can get their four-year degrees, but most likely they won’t be able to come back to their communities and practice what they went to school for, because we don’t have those jobs available,” Evelyn says.

It’s easy to ask whether she ever wishes things were different for her, for her students, for Garden City. But Evelyn says she wouldn’t have it any other way, as she paces the hallways of the high school she herself graduated from six years ago.

As an adviser, Evelyn organizes financial aid workshops and other educational events while meeting with students to help them reach their postsecondary goals — whether they want to go straight into the workforce, apply for college, or join the military.

Evelyn has seen many parents in Garden City who sent their first child to college, and regretted it.

Some see their kids return without finishing. Others may graduate, like her sister did, but don’t get better opportunities because of it, and now carry the additional burden of paying back thousands in student loans.

“The parents fear it happening again with the rest of their kids,” Evelyn says. “It’s harder to encourage them to have their younger ones go to college.”

Kaitlin remains hopeful, though. She wants to attend university to become an orthodontist — and to break generational patterns, after watching many of her cousins get pregnant young and her relatives end their education at high school graduation.

“My mom always encouraged me. She said, ‘You don’t look at the other people. You look at yourself, and where you want to go, and you go straight on that path.”

Editor’s note: This newsletter was updated to more accurately reflect Saldaña’s experience in Garden City.

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Open Campus national reporter covering the role of college in rural America.