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Pop is Proud of Kekchi Heritage

Pop is Proud of Kekchi Heritage

Only about 500,000 people in the world speak the Mayan language called Kekchi and University of the Ozarks junior Marcelina Pop of Belize is proud to be one of those native speakers. This past summer she was able to put those skills to use as an interpreter in an immigration case.

Pop, an English and psychology major, is from the southern Belize community of San Pedro Columbia, a village of about 1,200 people and the country's largest settlement of Kekchi. The community is known for its hand-woven embroidery that dates back to the peak of the Mayan civilization in 900 A.D. Most of the population of San Pedro Columbia came to Belize from the Petén region of Guatemala in the late 19th century.

“I grew up in a small, rural Kekchi village with chickens in the yard, cacao drink in the making and women slapping clothes on slabs of rock by the river banks,” Pop said. “The elders emphasize speaking Kekchi more than the younger people in the community. My parents are very traditional in the sense that they always, always speak in Kekchi at home. Almost everyone you meet in my village either speaks Kekchi or, at the very least, understands Kekchi.”

Pop was asked to interpret this summer by an attorney in Northwest Arkansas for an immigration case on the Mexican border involving a child separation of a family from Guatemala that only spoke Kekchi. The attorney found Pop through U of O Spanish Professor Dr. William Clary's connection with the court interpretation network in Arkansas.

Pop was able to assist the family through several phone conferences during the summer and was paid for her interpretation services.

“When Dr. Clary asked me if I would be willing to assist on the case, I was surprised,” Pop said. “It was wholly unexpected since Kekchi is a native language and very few people speak it outside where I’m from. I knew from the moment Dr. Clary asked that I would do it because it isn’t every day that I can use my language to provide assistance. It was a privilege to serve as an interpreter, even though it was a difficult situation for the family. I only wish that the circumstances would have been different.”

Pop said that growing up in San Pedro Columbia, she spoke Kekchi at home and learned English in school. She rarely gets to speak Kekchi when she's at the University.

“I only speak Kekchi when I call my parents back home and sometimes when my friends would ask me to say something,” Pop said. “I have had a couple friends who wanted to learn some words in Kekchi, but they quickly gave up since, according to them, it was such a throaty language.”

Pop said she chose her double major in English and psychology because she “wanted a balance between what I’m passionate about and what would challenge me. English is more of a hobby and psychology is a challenging interest." She plans to pursue a career in educational or social psychology.

Whatever career she chooses, Pop said her Kekchi heritage will always be a big part of her life.

“My culture instills core values of humility and industriousness, which speaks volumes in how we treat people,” she said. “If you were ever to visit any Kekchi house, you would surely be offered a hot cup of cacao drink and our famous dish, Caldo with poch. I'm just very grateful for and proud of my Kekchi heritage.”

In an informal survey conduct by Clary, he found approximately 30 native languages spoken on the U of O campus by students, faculty and staff. Those languages include Moroccan Arabic (Darija), Indonesian, Malay, French, Karen, Javanese, Swahili, Georgian, Lingala, Kikuyu, Kinyarwanda

Mashi, Jamaican Patois, Azerbaijani, Shona, Kaqchikel Maya, Haitian Creole, Portuguese, Japanese and Uzbek.

"That's quite an amazing aggregation of languages for a school of around 850 students," Clary said.

Though they’re doing it in markedly different ways, 2016 graduates Liliam López and Debora Castro are each using their University of the Ozarks business degrees to make a positive impact in their respective Central America countries.

The two former Walton International Scholars visited campus recently and talked about their professional careers.

López, (pictured, left) a marketing and management/business administration major living in Choluteca, Honduras, is an analyst coordinator for the Agrolibano Group, one of the top cantaloupe-producing companies in the Americas.  Castro, an international business and management major living in San Salvador, El Salvador,  is a partnership/advocacy technical assistant for a USAID project called Bridges to Employment, which helps at-risk youth in the country gain training and find employment.

The Agrolibano Group exports more than 4,000 large shipping containers of melons each growing season, which runs from December to May. While the fruit is shipped around the world, about 50 percent of the melons head to either the United States or Europe. López is the coordinator of the Great Britain account, handling financial reports, quality control and customer service.

López, who has worked for the company for almost three years, said it is especially satisfying to know that she is helping to promote and advance Honduras through her work.

“I’m really proud when I hear about melons from Honduras that are eaten around the world,” she said. “People will send me pictures of the stickers and it’s really neat to see. I know the passion that the growers in Honduras have for their melons and I know the work that is done to produce them, so I’m especially proud to play a small role in producing something that is in demand all over the world.”

López credited Ozarks’ diverse student population for helping her prepare to work for a global company.

“At Ozarks, you learn to get along and interact with so many different cultures and that’s been very beneficial to me,” she said. “I work with clients from all over the world and I strongly believe that my time at Ozarks has helped me in my daily interactions with my clients. Ozarks helped instill in me a cultural sensitivity and openness to others.”

Castro has worked for almost three years for the non-profit Bridges to Employment project, which is funded by USAID and implemented by DAI Global, LLC.  The program works with at-risk and vulnerable youth between the ages of 16-29 in El Salvador to “successfully integrate them into the workforce as fully qualified and productive citizens to help boost the economy, lower crime, and reduce illegal immigration.”

Castro said the type of work she is doing is what she envisioned when she first came to Ozarks as a Walton Scholar.

“When I was selected as a Walton Scholar, I had dreams of going back home and helping my country, but I didn’t know exactly what that would look like or how I could do that,” Castro said, “Now I’m working with a program which uses national and international cooperation that, working together, we actually change things for the better. It’s very fulfilling, professionally, for me because I’m contributing to the development of my country and actually making an impact. That’s exactly what I wanted to do.”

Castro said her time at Ozarks and her involvement in service-oriented organizations like Enactus, PBL and Alpha & Omega helped her understand and appreciate the importance of giving back.

“The volunteering and service opportunities I had at Ozarks really opened my eyes to the impact that we all can have on others,” Castro said. “My desire to help others was definitely boosted at Ozarks and now that’s what I do for a living. My education and experiences at Ozarks prepared me perfectly for this.”

Nicole Justice, a 2018 graduate of University of the Ozarks, has joined the University’s Office of Admission as the international program and global outreach manager, effective July 15.

Justice will manage all international programs and activities, including study abroad programs. Also, in collaboration with the director of the Walton International Scholarship Program, she will lead and support other global outreach initiatives on campus.

“I am very excited and happy to return to Ozarks,” Justice said. “During my undergraduate studies Ozarks became my second home. The community, values and experiences at Ozarks are unique and special. I am excited to promote, engage and explore new global opportunities for students. Overall, I am truly grateful and honored to return and serve as the international student liaison on campus.”

A native of Panama, Justice graduated from Ozarks with majors in political science and international business with Summa Cum Laude honors. She is completing a master’s degree in international relations from the University of London Institute in Paris, France.

“I strongly believe in the importance of international education, global diversity and the life-changing impact it has on international students as well as on the campus community,” she said. “If an international student has passion, dedication and a commitment to their education, I want to provide them with an inclusive environment where they can foster their personal development and succeed globally.”

As a student at Ozarks, Justice worked in the Office of Student Affairs, the International Office and the Jones Learning Center. She also previously worked as an independent contractor for the Forrester-Davis Development Center as a grant writer and administrative assistant.

Several members of Nicole’s family are also U of O graduates, including her father, Tom Justice ’89; her mother, Lilia Carrion ’90; and her brother, Michael Justice ’17. Also, her fiancé, Aaron England ’16, is an Ozarks graduate.

Outside of work, Justice enjoys hiking, exploring the outdoors, traveling and learning about different cultures.

Denise Duarte is on a mission to help as many entrepreneurs in her home country of Nicaragua as she possibly can. After graduating from University of the Ozarks in 2008 with a perfect 4.0 GPA and with a triple major in accounting, marketing, and management, Duarte returned to Nicaragua to work as a financial auditor for a major company, while earning an MBA. But Duarte knew she wanted to use her skills and knowledge to uplift women in her country, so she began looking for a position that would allow her to do just that.

Partnering passion and purpose

That’s when she found the non-profit agency Agora Partnerships in Nicaragua, an organization whose mission is to strengthen entrepreneurs’ business models and prepare them to access the impact investment market through custom business services, world-class consultants, and global network access. She started as a consultant and quickly worked her way up to development manager and then to country director for all of Nicaragua. The former U of O Walton Scholar works primarily to empower women entrepreneurs to succeed and thrive. “I feel like I’ve found where I’m supposed to be,” said Duarte. “We provide resources ranging from human capital and financing to networking for entrepreneurs who are committed to solving the most pressing social and environmental problems in Latin America. This position became the perfect way to put into practice what I had learned in business school while making an impact in my country.” Her role with Agora includes leading a team of consultants in helping prospective business owners secure the financing to follow their dreams. She finds its particularly fulfilling to work with women entrepreneurs on such things as soft skills. “We work with women in areas like communications and negotiation, which are traditionally not taught in countries such as Nicaragua,” she said. “These are types of skills that can empower women and make a difference on whether their business succeeds or fails.” Duarte, who is married and has a 2-year-old son, is excited about making a difference in her country. “I remember hearing numerous times that one of the purposes of becoming a Walton Scholar was understanding the importance of free enterprise and being able to apply what I learn in my country,” she said. “I actually earn a living doing just that. I work helping entrepreneurs, not only in Nicaragua but across Latin America, get investments and resources to grow their business and expand their impact. And, I don't support just any type of business; I work with those that have at its core the mission of creating better and more inclusive communities.”

Rebuilding process

Duarte said the recent political turmoil in Nicaragua makes work like hers even more important. “Especially now, I feel even more committed to supporting entrepreneurs since it will be them that will allow us to be reborn,” she said. “It is a challenging time and we are definitely having to reinvent ourselves, but we have done it in the past and I am convinced that we will do it in the future and that I will be able to contribute to that rebuilding process.”

Ozarks impact

Being a Walton Scholar at U of O made her a more “well-rounded and sensitive” person, Duarte said. “I was definitely challenged to exceed academically, but more so to be a better person not only to those that I had to engage with on a daily basis but also to those who I hadn't met and sooner or later would be impacted by my actions,” she said. “I still remember one of my professor’s words in one of his classes. He emphasized that we were not citizens of X or Y country, but that we are all citizens of the world. My experience at Ozarks shaped me at the personal and professional level and above all instilled in me values that I have been able to apply in all aspects of my life, including those of perseverance, hard work, teamwork, honesty, and fairness.”

International students at University of the Ozarks now have another opportunity for graduate study, thanks to a new academic collaboration with Arkansas Tech University.

U of O President Richard L. Dunsworth and ATU President Dr. Robin E. Bowen recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that will allow eligible U of O international students to be conditionally admitted into the Arkansas Tech master of arts degree program in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL).

The agreement was formalized during a meeting at Chambers Cafeteria in Russellville on Thursday, Aug. 25.


U of O President Richard L. Dunsworth and Arkansas Tech University President Dr. Robin E. Bowen signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the two universities on Aug. 25.

U of O international students with a minimum cumulative grade point average of 3.0 may apply for conditional graduate admission at Arkansas Tech during their final semester of undergraduate coursework. Conditional acceptance may be granted in earlier semesters per approval from the head of the Arkansas Tech Department of English and World Languages and the dean of the Arkansas Tech Graduate College.

The MOU states that U of O students admitted to the Arkansas Tech master of arts in TESOL program will have the opportunity to complete the 30 graduate credits required for the degree in one calendar year.       

Dunsworth said he believes agreements like this will aid Ozarks in international recruiting.

"We're constantly looking for new ways and opportunities to help our students gain the most out of their academic experience and the master's degree in TESOL can open many doors for our international students," Dunsworth said. "Being able to earn both a bachelor's degree and master's degree from two U.S. universities in just five years is a real advantage for our international students.  By providing these types of opportunities, we are following our mission of preparing students to live a full life."

Dunsworth added, "this MOU is the first step to a stronger collaboration between Ozarks and Arkansas Tech to develop programs and projects that will benefit students on both campuses."

"Is ? mo bhaile Ozarks" is Irish Gaelic for "Ozarks is my home." One student here who appreciates that sentiment in her own language is S?anan Heaney, a sophomore marketing and political science major from Derry in Northern Island.


"After high school I did two years of school studying law at the Queen's University in Belfast," says Heaney, who came to Ozarks in 2010. "The British consul offers a program for students who are doing their final year which allows them to take a year abroad in America on a full business scholarship. Ozarks is part of the program they run, so I applied and came over. When it came time to finish my final year I liked it here so much more that I transferred to U of O."

Heaney, the oldest of six children whose businessman father and stay-home mom both run in marathons, said she appreciates the differences between the American and Irish educational systems. "The college systems are really different in Ireland compared to here," she said. "The whole process of getting to college is even different. We do seven years of high school, and the last two years you focus your subjects based on what you want to go to college for. So by the time you're 16 years old you kind of have to know what you want to do. If you don't know, you have to pick general subjects, so since I was undeclared I did biology, religion, geography, and P.E."

She said another difference is that in the Irish system, rather than applying to and being accepted by a university, the student applies to specific programs within the school and is accepted only in the specific program. "Once we get to the university, all you study is the degree-specific courses, rather than the core general education courses as you do in the beginning in American university," she said. "I liked it because some people are better at certain subjects, and sometimes it seems a waste of time to take subjects you know you aren't going to need, and it can bring your GPA down. I thought that was nice."

On that other hand, she said, Irish universities are enormous - there were 25,000 students at Queens, where she attended law school - and her lecture courses often had 300 people in them. "I like that it's small here at Ozarks," she said. "I like it that everyone knows each other, and that they look out for you. When I first came, I didn't know what to expect, but everyone was really nice to me, and the fact I was from another country wasn't a problem at all. I think some people felt I might not like being asked questions about where I was from or whatever, but I enjoy it. I have had questions like 'Do you have internet over there?' or 'Do you have McDonalds?' A lot of people genuinely don't know, so I like being able to tell them. I like it when people take interest in the history of Ireland, though, for example, they often don't get the whole history of the troubles between Northern and Southern Ireland and issues of that type."

She said although the conflict between the Irish Republican Army and British rule has largely abated in recent years, her childhood memories were full of frequent bomb scares.

One thing Heaney enjoys about Ozarks is its athletic opportunities "I think that is one of the main reasons I decided to remain here," she said. "I like the physical lifestyle very much. I play on the soccer team here. Back home I played Gaelic football and I ran track, but here it seems there's so much more opportunity for athletics. I think the weather helps! It rains all the time there, and so you just don't always want to go outside. A lot of my friends there don't keep up with physical activity."

Another factor for her has been the relative lack of a student "partying" culture here. "There is a big party lifestyle back home," she said. "Monday through Thursday are 'student nights,' with free entry to night clubs and half price drinks. You only have to be 18 to drink there, so from high school on it's a big part of student life. I think every single student union in the United Kingdom and Ireland has its own pub or night club. By contrast, here we have the Eagle's Nest. When I came here at first it was hard due to that aspect of student life. But I find now that when I'm back home and you don't go out and party, there's nothing else to do, whereas here you go play a game of basketball in the gym, or you find something else fun to do with your friends. There's so much more creativity involved in what you do for fun here. So that's why I like this a lot better. And my parents like that I like this lifestyle as well."

Although she comes from a country where English is an official language along with Irish Gaelic, occasionally Heaney says the differences between Irish English and American English have created confusion. "I've been to parts of Europe where there was the language barrier, which isn't the case here, but still at times it's confusing," she said. "I've had to refine my English here. I took a friend home to visit and said I spoke so differently when I was with my friends and family! One example would be the Irish Gaelic word 'craic,' which is pronounced 'crack.' To us it means 'banter, fun,' but of course it has a different meaning in American English: Drugs! So I might say, 'Let's have a bit of craic,' and it can cause confusion, needless to say. It's such an everyday word it took some getting used to."

Heaney's advice to incoming international students is to be themselves. "It's funny you should ask," she said, "because there's another Irish girl coming here in August on the same program I was on, and she's been contacting me the past few weeks. At the start I was unsure how I felt about that because I've always been the one Irish girl here, and here comes someone new! A bit of jealousy on my part, I think! But I told her from the start to just be herself. I think Americans take that better rather than trying to imitate them. You are different, and that's what people here like. It's an international campus."

As for future plans, she is definite about wanting to stay in America. "I'm going to try my best to," she said. "I want to try to get a job. I've made a few contacts with coaches, especially one in north Texas about finding work. After graduating I would like to take up coaching for awhile and get sorted with a stable job; something that will allow me to get a visa to stay in the country. I like it here."

When Chuong Do, a junior political science major from Vietnam, went to Washington D.C. over the summer, he didn't know what he was in for. "It was awesome," says Do. "I have visited only a few major American cities - Las Vegas and New York. Washington is very different, to say the least. And there was nothing comparable in my background. Washington is a vibrant place. The students I met were very serious people who have clear ambitions and are moving toward accomplishing them."


Chuong Do, a junior political science major from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, spent part of the summer at Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C.

Do attended Georgetown University to take courses and intern through the Engalitcheff Institute on Comparative Political and Economic Systems, one of Washington's top academic and internship programs. He received funding for his studies through the Clayton G. Russell Memorial Endowment for Political Science and the Academic Enrichment Fund. The Clayton Fund was established in 2000 by the Mary I. Rogers to broaden the scope of the political science program. The Academic Enrichment Fund was established in 2003 by the university's Board of Trustees to offer competitive grants to students in support of their research or creative projects, professional preparation through internships, and study abroad.

Do took two courses during his time at Georgetown, "Comparative Economic Systems" and "The Transformation of American Politics." He said the course on politics was the more challenging of the two. "I'm less acquainted with the history of American politics than I might be," he said.

In addition to his class work, Do interned with the Jump$tart Coalition. Jump$tart is a national coalition of organizations dedicated to improving the financial literacy of pre-kindergarten through college-age youth by providing advocacy, research, standards and educational resources. Jump$tart strives to prepare youth for life-long successful financial decision-making.

"They work with people's personal finances," he said. "They help even in basic ways, like how to balance your budget, how to use money wisely. They actually target all sorts of people - professionals, teachers, and students. But what I worked on had more of a focus on teachers, providing them with syllabi and other study materials for teaching that subject matter. I put together a lot of packets to send out."

Do said the most personally helpful aspect of his summer was learning to manage his way around the city. "I have never lived alone to that extent," he said. "I find my way around here okay, but I also have my sister here as a support system."

His brother Huy graduated from Ozarks in 2009, and his sister Phuong is currently a senior majoring in Management/Administration.

Do also enjoyed his summer when he wasn't interning or going to class. "As I mentioned, Washington is a vibrant place," he said. "I wouldn't want to drive there, but the subways are cool. I hung out with a lot of people I met there. Here I live off campus and don't get the same social interaction as on-campus students. I went to museums a lot while I was in Washington. I had not thought I was so interested in art or history, but the museums were fascinating to me."

He said his plans for his future have continued to change at Ozarks and during his summer in Washington. "Originally I majored in the pre-law track of political science because I had thought about going to law school," he said, "but it turns out that a law degree from the United States isn't recognized in my own country. So now I'm in the political economy track, working through those courses. I honestly don't know what I'm going to do when I'm done! I think I had a clearer goal when I got here than I do now after these years. Things have really opened up, you could say. So many possibilities. My short term goal, though, is to apply for graduate school, to get some advanced study."

Did his summer change his view of himself any? "Yes," he says. "You have heard of someone who is a big fish in a small pond? Having met the people I met this summer and gone through those experiences, now I want to be a big fish in a big pond!"