KALAMAZOO, Mich.—Spending much of her childhood traveling between Michigan and Florida for seasonal farmwork, Elizbia Capula knows the challenges many migrant families face. It's what's driven her to pursue a career in immigration law.
"I think there are a bunch of families in the United States who have been living in the shadows and helping society both economically and giving culture and richness and flavor," she says. "I think these families deserve a voice and should be told that they do belong and they are seen and valued within our community."
The support and guidance she received at Western Michigan University has empowered her to become that voice. After graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology with a minor in legal studies on Saturday, Dec. 17—which she achieved in just three and a half years—the Lee Honors College student plans to use connections she cultivated on campus to land a job with a nonprofit organization and start studying for the LSAT to prepare for law school.
Walking across the stage at commencement might not have happened if it weren't for a chance meeting with a representative from Western's College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP) during her senior year of high school. CAMP offers holistic support and mentorship to migrant and seasonal farmworkers and their dependents as they transition to college and throughout their first year.
"I was initially going to go to community college; I just wanted to finish my associate's degree because I didn't know what I was going to do yet," says Capula. But a coach urged her to meet with Jose Alexis Mejia, coordinator of services for CAMP, when he visited Eau Claire (Michigan) High School.
"I remember he was packing up when I got to the room; he had already packed up to leave," she says.
Instead of rushing her along, Mejia unpacked everything and sat with her to answer all of her questions and help fill out paperwork.
"I had already applied to MSU, Western and a community college that I was dual enrolled at. I got accepted into all of them. But Western's recruitment, through the CAMP program, offered help every step of the way," says Capula, who will be first in her immediate family to earn a college degree. "They helped me fill out the FAFSA; they helped me if I had questions about moving in; they even helped us all move in (to our residence halls) a week early for our own orientation. Literally anything and everything I ever needed, CAMP was there—before, during and after the application process. To me, that was a game-changer."
The program also connected Capula with an internship at El Concilio, a community-focused nonprofit that helps Latino families in the Kalamazoo area. There she started tutoring local children, and it turned into a paying job her second year at Western.
"It was very helpful because it helped me step away from the fields a little bit, and I really enjoyed spending time with the kids."
On campus Capula got involved with the Latino Student Alliance, where she cultivated friendships and enjoyed celebrating her culture.
"It was a safe space where I could be myself," she says. In addition to finding belonging, she developed important connections and leadership skills while serving on the organization's executive board as volunteer coordinator.
Among the most impactful experiences Capula has had at Western is her time studying abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico. She spent a semester there in a program called Migration, Borders and Transnational Communities and had the opportunity to work on an independent study project focused on what drives people from Central America to immigrate to Mexico. She interviewed two asylum agencies and focused on people who help asylum seekers.
At the end of her program, Capula was also able to explore some other parts of Mexico as well as visit her grandparents, who she hadn't seen for several years. Her family is from Hidalgo, Mexico, and she's only been there a couple of times.
"It really felt like a full-circle moment. I grew up with this idea of Mexico being very criminalized, and I feel like the media speaks very negatively about Mexico. And I think because of that, we don't give it a chance," she says. "We only go to places like Tulum or Cancun, but in reality, all these small towns that we happen to fly over have so much to give. And they're so colorful and so vibrant. It made me see Mexico with a different perspective."
Studying abroad is something Capula knew she wanted to do when she came to Western, and her experience gave her a new sense of purpose and passion for her chosen career path in immigration law.
"I feel very privileged to be in the position I'm in. Growing up, I always encountered people who would come to our residential areas (at farms) and offer us food, clothes, toys, books. … We would have so many resources coming to our residential areas. And I want to be able to give back a little bit more to the community that I'm trying to help now," Capula says. She plans to take the next year to work with an immigration agency in the Kalamazoo area to learn more about the various challenges immigrants have experienced.
"I think for me to give that back to somebody else that would be amazing, because hopefully they do the same thing and it just keeps going and doesn't stop with me."
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