U of A Diversity Initiative Plans to Prepare, Recruit Marshallese Students

Left to right: Zach Iban, JociAnna Chong Gum, Maira Andrew.
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Left to right: Zach Iban, JociAnna Chong Gum, Maira Andrew.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — The University of Arkansas is about 10 miles from Springdale High School, where Maira Andrew graduated last spring. Maira is part of the large Marshallese community in Springdale, some 7,000 people, one of the largest Marshallese populations outside the Marshall Islands.

When Maira arrived at the U of A this fall she was one of only four Marshallese students on campus. That was a huge change for her – but not necessarily the biggest change.

“The school work was so much harder, and there was so much of it,” she said recently. “You have so much more independence, being on campus, even this close to family and friends. There are so many things to do – and I have a part time job at the University Bookstore as well. I really had to learn how to manage my time, to get all my studying done. My first chemistry test – ugh. But that is where my conscience comes in – and I know what I have to do. My second chemistry test was much better.”

In making the transition Maira drew on a favorite Marshallese expression – one she had heard all her life: “kate yuk.”

“It means ‘to work hard’, and I’ve always heard it as encouragement from my grandparents and parents,” she explained. “Kate yuk is a very important part of Marshallese culture.”

Citizens of the Marshall Islands were given the right to live and work in the U.S. in 1986, and the latest census showed that 22,400 have made the move since then, many to Hawaii. But more than half, about 12,000, choose to live in Northwest Arkansas and nearby parts of Oklahoma and Missouri.

The Marshallese came to this area for jobs, often in the poultry industry, for good quality health care and for their children to get an education.

The small number of Marshallese students at the U of A is a sign the education goal is not being met.

“The University of Arkansas is very concerned with helping students from underserved populations get a college education,” said Luis Restrepo, assistant vice chancellor in the Office of Diversity and Community Relations. “We have made great strides in some areas, but here is a community essentially living next door to the university and we clearly need to do more to bring them to campus.”

The Marshallese Education Initiative in Springdale has been working since 2013 to increase college enrollment – and seen enrollment more than double in that time. Restrepo worked with the group’s president, April Brown, and U of A physics professor Salvador Barraza-Lopez, to develop a three-point plan to bring more Marshallese students to the U of A:

  • Holding monthly two-hour advising sessions in math and physics for Marshallese high school students
  • Partnering with the U of A Admissions Office to bring 100 Marshallese high school seniors to campus each year to talk with advisers, get a feel for the campus and admissions process and visit state-of-the art facilities
  • Setting up direct communication with the current and future Marshallese students at the U of A to provide support and information

The plan is trying to address a major problem for many Marshallese students.

“They think the U of A is out of reach for them,” said Zach Iban, a U of A sophomore, and a Marshallese student who also graduated from Springdale High School. “They tell me they’re afraid to talk to school counsellors – afraid they’ll be told they aren’t smart enough. I tell them, ‘Look, I’m not that smart, I just always push myself – you can do it, too. Just figure out what you want to be – and how to get there – and you’ll find it means going to college. If you work hard in school, find and use the resources, you can do it’.’’

Zach said he needed both support and determination to get into the U of A. His parents both went to college in the U.S. and encouraged him to do the same. He took advantage of the U of A’s Upward Bound program in the Springdale schools, worked hard to make good grades and met often with school counselors to find out the courses he should take and to research sources for financial aid. He took advanced placement courses in high school and responded when he was recruited by the University of Arkansas.

Zach is a chemistry/premed major who was born in Missouri and grew up in Springdale, speaking both Marshallese and English. He said that “manit” is an important Marshallese word he has heard all his life. It means “respect where you come from.”

“Kids always hear ‘manit’ from adults. You can take it as trying to hold the young people back, as discouraging them. But I see it as more positive – a way of saying ‘do great things, follow your dreams, but remember to give back to your community, to your people. Never forget where you came from.’ When I’m a doctor I will not forget.”

Maira Andrew has a similar goal. She originally planned to be a math major; now she says she is more interested in going into social work and child welfare, to help her community overcome its problems.

JociAnna Chong Gum, another Marshallese sophomore at the U of A, has her own, related goal: the biology/premed major intends to be the first Marshallese woman medical doctor to graduate in the U.S. Ever.

“I want to help my people,” she said.

She credits her parents and members of her extended family, who encouraged  her, even expected her to go to college. But she agrees that many Marshallese students feel intimidated.

“There hasn’t been much outreach to our population,” she said. “It’s not that we don’t care. Many Marshallese students don’t know that scholarships are available, or what opportunities are out there. I think people need to get to know us, to understand that we want to be part of the American dream.”

JociAnna said there is a Marshallese word that has special meaning for her: the greeting, “iakwe.” It’s similar to the American “hello,” but it translates literally as “You’re a rainbow.” For JociAnna, this simple word expresses an essence of the Marshallese culture. She hopes she and her fellow students will be able to bring more rainbows to the U of A campus.



Luis Restropo, assistant vice chancellor
Office of Diversity and Community Relations
479-575-7580, lrestr@uark.edu

Steve Voorhies, manager, media relations
University Relations
479-575-3583, voorhies@uark.edu


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