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Walton Scholarships Spread Education Through South America

For Emilia Faraj, a Honduran senior electrical engineering student at Harding University, the Walton International Scholarship Program was “the best thing ever.”

It’s an Arkansas-specific program available to South American students. Participants get a full ride, paid for entirely by the program, to either Harding in Searcy, John Brown University in Siloam Springs or the University of the Ozarks in Clarksville. Sam Walton himself started it 26 years ago.

“Mr. Walton wanted this to help their countries,” said Nicky Boyd, director of the program at Harding.

Specifically, Walton wanted to give the students an alternative to a communist education. According to the program website, Walton had observed the smartest South American students getting their degrees from Moscow or Cuba, a far cry from Walton’s values of democracy and free enterprise.

Walton picked the three small faith-based universities so the students would receive more attention from professors and the student body.

But he didn’t want to create a “brain drain,” Boyd said.

“The whole point of it is, they must return home,” he said. “They can’t stay in the U.S.”

Each year, a school may accept up to 60 Walton Scholars from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. Among the three universities, more than 1,000 students have received degrees through the Walton program.

Getting the scholarship is no small achievement. It’s a full ride, plus more:

“It pays them a monthly living allowance,” Boyd said. “It provides insurance; it provides airfare to and from their home country each year. It’s a pretty big deal.”

At Harding, it’s a deal worth $28,000 per year, and at any of the schools the whole thing is usually valued at more than $100,000.

To choose the 60 students, the universities look at several factors, foremost being grades and character.

“We need people of high character that will keep their word and go back home,” Boyd said. “We look at grades; this is an academic scholarship. It’s also pretty important that their English is decent.”

The factors may seem to preclude a student of a lower socio-economic stature, but Boyd said the review teams try to visit families of lower to middle incomes, especially ones that couldn’t otherwise afford to send a student abroad.

One scholar, Boyd said, was a shoe seller in a market in El Salvador. When his family couldn’t afford local English classes, he sat outside the classroom and listened to the lectures. After graduating from college, he was immediately hired by Empresas Adoc, a large shoe manufacturer. Boyd said he was now an executive with Wal-Mart in El Salvador.

At Harding, the scholars form a small community.

“We tend to get together and meet,” Faraj said. “Even though we’re all from [different] countries, we are kind of the same. The guys get together and play soccer.”

Gary Torres, a junior computer science major from El Salvador, said he never thought he could actually qualify for the scholarship. “It was just a dream.”

Torres wants to start his own business in El Salvador, perhaps developing mobile apps. There aren’t many software developers back home, he said.

“Right now, I only know that Costa Rica has a lot, but a lot of other countries don’t,” he said.

Education in America has changed the way he looks at his country, Torres said. For one thing, he said, the professors in El Salvador tend to go on strike and call off classes. That doesn’t happen in Searcy.

“The teachers here try to help you a lot,” he said. “They’re in contact with you. They’re very close.”

Torres also feels the style of education he’s receiving at Harding will help him when he returns.

“I realize that there are so many resources we can use,” he said. “We know that there are needs there, but we don’t know how to tackle them. Now that I’m here, I have some ideas that can be put into practice.”

Rickey Casey, director of the program at the University of the Ozarks, said that in the 25 years he’s worked with Walton scholars he’s never seen anything like it.

“It’s been amazing,” he said. “The kids understand the importance. They make the most of their time to take the education home and make a difference in their home countries. I could not imagine University of the Ozarks without those students on campus.”