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Mexican girl's college dream in danger of being undermined

Sayuri Gutierrez 17, and family hang out in their St.Catharines apartment on the afternoon of May 8, 2012. Sayuri is the first recipient of an award that Brock University, Niagara College and other partners have created for the children of migrant workers. The award covers the student,ÄöaÑa¥s tuition and all other costs.

Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail/Glenn Lowson/The Globe and Mail

When Sayuri Gutierrez's grandmother died in Mexico two years ago, her thoughts turned to a promise she'd made to her elder. No one in their family had ever got past high school, but her grandmother believed she could be the first. Ms. Gutierrez vowed she would be.

"She always was mentioning to me you have to keep studying. You have to be somebody," Ms. Gutierrez recalled. "It was very important to her."

Ms. Gutierrez, a high-school student in St. Catharines, Ont., could get a chance to fulfill that promise this fall. She is the first recipient of a lucrative scholarship established for the children of migrant workers in the Niagara region. The educational award, created through a collaboration that included Brock University, Niagara College, municipal leaders and migrant workers, will cover the entire cost of schooling, transportation, accommodation and living expenses.

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It is by far the most substantial scholarship of its kind in Canada, and one that Ms. Gutierrez's intends to use to study psychology at Brock – unless she and her family are deported this summer.

Organizers of the scholarship hope their model will be replicated in other parts of the country with large groups of migrant labourers, many of whom return to Canada year after year to toil in the country's vast farm fields. The only other award program for migrant workers' children is through the United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, but it offers a modest $500.

"A great deal of prosperity occurs because of the labour of this community," said Richard Mitchell, an associate professor of child and youth studies at Brock in St. Catharines. "We felt that it was important to give back a little bit."

With a shortage of labourers in some sectors of the economy, temporary foreign workers have become a mainstay of the country's work force. More than 300,000 are here, triple the number a decade ago.

The agriculture industry remains a prime employer of temporary and seasonal foreign labourers. In Ontario's Niagara region alone, there are about 3,000 migrant farm workers, many toiling in the area's renowned wine industry. Some estimates put the tally even higher.

A feeling of isolation often accompanies the work. A recent study by the Institute for Research on Public Policy found most migrant farm workers don't feel connected to their Canadian communities, even after several years. They also experience the strain of long separations from their families.

These realities drove a migrants advocacy group, Dignidad Obrera Agrícola Migrante, to pitch the scholarship idea to Prof. Mitchell and another Brock professor in 2010. The teachers enlisted the help of St. Catharines Mayor Brian McMullan, and support for the initiative quickly grew.

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"If we solve the education problem for the workers' [children] we will improve the living conditions of this community," said Rangel Ramos, co-founder of the migrants advocacy group.

Organizers of the Migrant Children's Education Award hope to eventually offer two scholarships a year, giving recipients the option to study at Brock University or Niagara College. While the schools have agreed to pay tuition fees, organizers plan to soon launch a campaign to raise $2-million to cover other costs.

For Ms. Gutierrez, the award's first recipient, the opportunity to study at Brock is life-changing. But it could also fail to come to pass.

She and her family face deportation. Her father, Hermelindo Gutierrez, had been working at a flower farm in St. Catharines eight months a year for several years when his kidney failed in 2005. He and his family have applied to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.

Mexico has a multitiered health system. Because Mr. Gutierrez spent so much time working in Canada, he only qualifies for the lowest level of care, lawyer Jonathon Jurmain said. If he's sent back, Mr. Gutierrez is worried he won't be able to access the dialysis treatment he needs to stay alive.

A removal date has been tentatively set for June. A decision on the family's humanitarian and compassionate grounds application may not be made before then. If they're deported, it's highly unlikely Ms. Gutierrez could attend Brock, Mr. Jurmain said.

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If that's the case, a new scholarship recipient will be chosen, Prof. Mitchell said, but the student would likely not start classes until the fall of 2013.

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