The value of a liberal arts education has come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. One reason may be that it’s not always easy to make a direct connection between what happens in the classroom and what happens in the “real world.” But spend some time with GMC sophomore Luz Guel, and you’ll discover her learning at Green Mountain College could not have had a bigger impact on her personal circumstances. Luz is certain the lessons she learned in prof. Sam Edwards’ International Negotiation and the Environment class last semester prevented her family from losing their home.
Luz was five when her family moved from Mexico to Yuma, Ariz. Her parents are agricultural workers who pick lettuce six days a week for minimum wage, and aren’t fluent in English. Luz, who has three younger siblings, is the first person in her family to go to college. She’s grateful for the opportunity.
“I’m so humbled by what my parents did for me,” Luz says. “By coming to the United States I know they were trying to make a better life for me and my whole family.” Moving to the U.S. was a wrenching personal and financial sacrifice. The family needed to come up with the equivalent of $3000 in American dollars to pay for legal immigration to the U.S., a monumental sum in a country where the average worker makes $50 a week.
Under current immigration laws, Luz and her family members are considered permanent residents, but don’t have full citizenship. She and her parents can’t vote or hold public office. But they can work to achieve the American dream of owning their own home. Luz’s family took advantage of Housing America, a program that helps first-time homebuyers trade sweat equity in return for lower construction costs. Each member of the program is placed in a group of 10 to 12 participants who work together to build each other's houses.
The Guel family had secured a home, but they still had difficulty paying the bills. When they began to fall behind on their payments, Luz’s parents didn’t want to worry their oldest daughter who was working toward a double major at GMC in natural resource management and environmental studies. One day in December, when Luz was in Yuma looking after her younger sister while her parents were at work, she heard a knock on the door. She had a premonition that it wasn’t good news.
“There was a paper stuck in the door addressed to my parents, telling them that the bank was repossessing our home,” Luz said. “I wasn’t able to tell my mom until she got home from work early the next morning.”
The notice gave the Guel family just a few weeks, until the end of January, to vacate the property.
Luz returned to campus shortly after New Year’s Day to resume her studies at GMC, bearing an extra assignment that was much more than an academic exercise—finding a way for her family to keep their home.
With characteristic persistence, Luz started reading everything she could find about avoiding foreclosure. She came across a new national program Making Housing Affordable, instituted by the Obama administration to help families stay in their homes. There was lots of paperwork involved and Luz was stumped at times by the legal fine print she had to navigate.
“Sam always emphasized you need to be up on your facts and learn everything you can about the subject when you are advocating for something,” Luz said. “We also talked a lot in class about the importance of developing a personal rapport with your adversary—to be empathetic.”
Luz estimates she had to make at least a dozen calls, but she eventually got through to a bank officer who recognized Luz’s maturity and sincerity. The bank also had a hard time arguing with the case Luz assembled. She pointed out that 25% of the homes in her neighborhood had been repossessed, and records showed the banks were still stuck with most of the properties.
“In Sam’s class we practiced finding a common interest with the person we were negotiating with,” Luz said. “I really concentrated on keeping everything about the facts and not making it personal.”
Eventually the bank agreed to reduce the Guel’s mortgage by 40%. The family’s finances are still tight, but the lower monthly payments will provide money for other basic necessities.
Luz isn’t content to rest on her laurels. Some 182 Vermont dairy farms employ Latino workers regardless of their citizenship status, and she’s working with the non-profit organization Migrant Justice to issue them driver’s licenses so they can shop for groceries and make important appointments like doctors visits.
“I have a great admiration for what these workers do—they feed America. But there are a lot of barriers for them,” Luz says.
Eventually she’d like to go into environmental law to advocate for agricultural workers who can be regularly exposed to chemicals. She believes her mother, who is 41, may already be suffering from symptoms of exposure to pesticides.
“What I got from this whole experience was confidence—knowing that if you do your homework and be persistent, you can make positive change,” Luz said. “If it weren’t for Sam’s class, I don’t think I would have gotten there.”
By Kevin Coburn