The Heart Beats On

Some of the students in the following pages passed the university daily as they travelled on Grand or Waldron Streets. One crossed oceans to discover the university. For each student, it has been a place to grow, to discover new dreams or to achieve ones held since young. They speak of professors impacting and changing their lives. Alumni speak of the same. It doesn’t matter if they attended Fort Smith Junior College, Westark College or the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. It would seem the heartbeat of the university remains the same.

Finding Her Voice

After a semester at UAFS, Mayra Esquivel registered for only one class in the spring. When her concerned adviser asked why, she refused to answer.Mayra Esquivel



“I didn’t want to be termed a criminal,” said the pre-med major.


Fear kept her in the shadows, bound by secrecy. At 3 years old, Esquivel’s mother brought her north from Mexico to join her father, who had taken the same trip to find work to care for his family. She grew up celebrating the Fourth of July, studying U.S. history and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, dreaming of a bright tomorrow. She earned straight A’s, joined clubs and made the honor society.


But a dark cloud shadowed her future.


“I needed that magic nine-digit number to go to college,” she said.


Even without a Social Security number, Esquivel’s faith kept her believing that she would go to college. She applied to UAFS. While she had good grades, her lack of citizenship made her ineligible to receive scholarships. It also meant she must dig deeper into her pockets to pay out-of-state tuition. Her parents’ savings paid for her first semester, but she could only afford one class in future semesters. Each semester she kept her secret wrapped close.


Then came 2012. She stepped out of the shadows and shared her story at the Catholic Campus Ministry.


“I realized it’s not my fault. It’s nothing bad that I did,” she said.


In telling her story, she found others hiding in the shadows too. They, too, were caught in a bureaucratic immigration net, unable to get visas or green cards or to apply for citizenship because of their immigration status. In August 2012, she journeyed to the White House with other Arkansans to speak to President Barack Obama’s administration about changes to immigration law. That fall she led a vigil at the UAFS bell tower.


“When your life’s at stake, your family’s at stake, you come out fighting,” she said.


Also in 2012, Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals allowing people in Esquivel’s position to work. Esquivel found a job to help pay for her schooling.


Through speaking out, she met people she refers to as “my angels” who volunteered to help pay her tuition. Esquivel plans to continue her studies to become a neuropsychology researcher.

She also will continue her fight for immigration changes. She comments simply: “We’re Americans.”

Mother Knows Best

Photo by Zack Thomas


Rasila SoumanaIt wasn’t Rasila Soumana’s idea. But mother knows best in Niamey, Niger, just as she does in Fort Smith, Arkansas.


After finishing high school, Soumana listened in disbelief as her mother said she would move to the United States to learn English to succeed in the global world.


“She wanted something better for me,” said the senior biology major.


Forty-eight hours and a flood of tears after Soumana bid adieu to her family, she arrived in Fort Smith and met other international students, who also felt the shock of separation from home. She learned that others would be walking the same journey.


Soumana knows she has become more independent, more outgoing, and more adventurous. In Niger, Soumana avoided rollercoasters. But after friends coaxed her onto one, she now enjoys the steep climbs and curving drops. Now, she plans to go skydiving.


“You have to let go, be open and try new things,” she said.


But all the new plans and daring coupled with her education will lead her home, she hopes, as a gynecologist.


“There is no plan B,” she said.


Her dry sub-Saharan country has 0.02 physicians per 1,000 people, according to the CIA’s World Fact Book. The United States averages 2.42 doctors per 1,000 people. The doctor shortage translates into suffering and death due to lack of care for many people. In world statistics, Niger ranks 14th in maternal mortality rates. It ranks seventh in infant mortalities. Soumana works at her studies to change those numbers.


“They need me back home,” she said.


So she studies at UAFS preparing for that day, aided by faculty at a university where she feels at home.


“My teachers want the best for me so I can get my education and move on,” she said.


And Soumana knows now that her mother knew best in sending her to the United States.


“If I had to do it all over again, I would in a heartbeat.”

Learning to Serve


By any definition, Tony Jones had an adventurous summer.Tony Jones


In May, the junior traveled to Spain as part of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council Scholarship class. Then one day after he returned to Fort Smith, he again boarded a plane. This time he was bound for Washington, D.C., and an internship in the office of Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark.


From studying Spanish and living with a host family in Salamanca, Spain, to getting a glimpse of how the Senate operates, Jones found himself exploring new worlds.


“Through these opportunities I came to realize that a key to living a fulfilled life is being able to step out of your comfort zone and reach for what’s out there,” he said.


In addition to his studies, Jones explored the Spanish cities of Madrid, Segovia and Castile and Leon. He found himself seeing the world anew.


“The world is an immensely diverse place and this trip helped open my eyes to that,” he said.


In the U.S. capitol, Jones worked on administrative tasks, helped in the press office and assisted Pryor’s constituents.


“One of the most important things I learned is that while the government may appear dysfunctional, and at time it is, that there are great people working hard to move the nation forward on both sides of the aisle in D.C.,” he said.


Jones, of Fort Smith, Arkansas, knows that UAFS is helping him build a strong foundation for a planned purpose-driven life of helping others.


“It’s a great atmosphere to learn who you are and the person that you’re meant to be,” he said.


Jones expects in the future he will move beyond his media communication major and political science minor. He wants to study law to help families and then eventually run for political office.


It’s about following his mother’s example from studying at UAFS to helping others.


“The small acts of service I saw her do instilled in me the need to serve,” he said. 

A Better Life


When Sylvia Nguyen thinks about her future, she also considers her family’s past.


She looks to her parents, who emigrated from Vietnam as teenagers, and wants to make them proud.


 “They want me to have a better life than what they have, like so many other immigrants,” said the junior biology major.


In 1975, Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith, Arkansas, became one of four entry points in the United States for Vietnamese fleeing their homeland after the end of the war. While many of the 50,000 refugees who came through the military base moved to other areas of the United States, some, like Nguyen’s parents, stayed and created a thriving Vietnamese community.


In her senior year at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Nguyen settled on a future career in dentistry. It would allow her to work with her hands, which she enjoys. Plus, she could provide care for children.


“I like that dentists monitor their patients,” she said. “I want to work with children so they learn they can trust me as a dentist.”


When she began looking for a university to help her make her dream a reality, she found one in UAFS. She liked the small classes, low tuition costs, diverse campus and sense of community.


When she begins to doubt herself, she turns to her biology adviser, professor Davis Pritchett. Pritchett said he sees his role as offering encouragement and reassurance when needed.


“Pursuing a pre-professional course of study is very challenging and often frustrating. She has faced those challenges and dealt with the frustration well up to now, and I am sure she will continue to do so,” he said.


Nguyen meets with Pritchett two or three times a semester to regain her confidence in herself.


“My highest obstacle is sometimes self-doubt in my study and I think about switching majors,” she said. “I go visit with Dr. Pritchett and I always leave his office feeling uplifted.”


Sylvia Nguyen and Davis Pritchett  Photo credit Jennifer Sicking

Chasing a Dream

Photo by Kat Wilson


The wheelchair doesn’t define Jesse Watson, ’14.


Mark Horn, retired vice chancellor for university relations, met Watson when she began attending his church, and he admits what he first saw was a young girl in a wheelchair. That faded as he witnessed her courage, sense of purpose, enthusiasm and spirit.


“Frankly, when you come to know Jesse, the wheelchair just doesn’t get noticed,” he said.


The wheelchair just transports her.


But in her dreams, her arthrogryposis multiplex congenita doesn’t keep her in her chair. In her dreams, the disease that didn’t allow her joints to fully form in the womb doesn’t anchor her in place. At night while she sleeps, she dreams, and in her dreams, she walks.Jesse Watson


Awake, she rolls through obstacles.


“I have goals that I want to achieve and I’m not going to let being in a wheelchair stop me,” she said.


Now, she has a new goal that she’s chasing.


For four years, the Greenwood, Arkansas, native studied math education, enrolling in almost every math class offered. But as she faced her last year at the university, a new dream formed. While studying at the university, Watson participated, often holding leadership positions, in 30 organizations on campus. Through those experiences, the 2012 UAFS homecoming queen found her future. She changed her major to organizational leadership.


“Nothing against math, I love it,” Watson said. “I just became passionate for college life.”


By working in the university’s testing center, she observed the departments of student services, student affairs and student activities – how they intertwined to serve students. And in that observation, she found her future career in student life. She’s working toward a master’s degree in educational leadership at Arkansas Tech University.


With a career helping students get involved in their campus organizations, Watson knows how transformational that can be. It’s what she found at UAFS. She knows she has students of the past to thank for that.


“Alumni from Westark and Fort Smith Junior College were building blocks for us,” she said. “I’m a building block for the future.”


Change of Plans


Gage Rice had a plan that ended with his becoming an engineer when he enrolled at UAFS.


Then he took a calculus class.


“I hadn’t planned to fall in love with it like I did,” he said.


A semester into university classes, Rice altered his plans to become a math major. Now, that change has sent the 2014 graduate to Kansas State University to work on his doctorate in mathematics. While there he hopes to continue his research into discrete wavelet transformations after a successful research project using the methodology to detect forgeries.


Gage Rice

“I’ve always kind of seen myself staying in academia,” he said.


The Diamond City, Arkansas, native hopes his planned career in applied mathematics brings him full circle.


“If I was to end up back at UAFS, that’d be great,” he said.


Rice first heard about UAFS while attending classes at North Arkansas College as a student at Lead Hill High School. At the junior college, he listened as his teachers praised UAFS. After a visit to the campus, Rice only applied to attend UAFS, where he received the Chancellor’s Leadership Scholarship.


“It felt like family,” he said of his visit.


Then came calculus. Jill Guerra, mathematics professor, taught Rice in that class and discovered his strong interest in math.


“He asked the most insightful questions during classroom discussions and strove for a deep understanding of the material,” she said.


Guerra became his adviser and then mentored him through his senior project. In that research, Rice used math to detect handwriting forgeries.


Rice gathered numerous handwriting samples from people who wrote the same passage – “The five boxing wizards jump quickly” – and then created forgeries of those writings. He applied discrete wavelet transformation, which uses linear algebra and computer programming, to detect differences between the real samples and the forgeries.


“We were very unsure about it, but it worked,” he said.

Gage Rice   Photo by Jennifer Sicking

Story Credits: 
Jennifer Sicking