Meet Jesse Core '96
(Note: this is the first in a series of stories on UAFS alumni entrepreneurs. If you are a business owner and a UAFS alumni and would like to have a story written on your business, please contact email@example.com)
Core Endures Challenges to Grow Brewing Company
Core Brewing Company may be headquartered in Springdale, but the company is undoubtedly a Fort Smith business. The qualities that have made its owner, Jesse Core, a successful businessman are the same ones that have defined Fort Smith – tenacity, resiliency, grit and empathy.
Just six years old, the company has experienced meteoric growth since its inception in 2010, becoming one of the largest breweries in the state and expanding into regional markets across the southern United States.
But Core may have never gotten into brewing had it not been for a professor at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, which was still Westark Community College when Core attended in 1992.
As a freshman, he was frequently tardy or absent from his classes, until his microbiology professor pulled him aside one day to admonish him for repeatedly skipping class. As an incentive to increase his attendance, he explained to Core how he could apply the lessons from the class towards something that was becoming increasingly more important to Core: beer.
Core’s father had homebrewed, and Core had been fascinated by the process of brewing, watching his father dump powder into water that produced a frothy head, the transformation from raw material to a finished good.
The idea of turning his passion for good beer into a career resonated with him. Microbiology, a field that already appealed to the “nerd” in him, became even more alluring.
He began attending class regularly, and learned the foundation for homebrewing, which he began doing in his spare time. He did not plan on brewing remaining just a hobby, but the time wasn’t right to capitalize on his ambitions.
“In the mid-‘90s, Arkansas was not ready for craft beer,” Core said. “There was just not much of a market, and frankly, I didn’t know enough to take the leap.”
Still, Core was enthralled by microbiology but disappointed in the lack of career prospects.
“I would’ve continued on with microbiology, but the more I learned about it, the more I saw that those guys just weren’t making a lot of money,” Core said. “They worked really hard and just didn’t have many career options.”
Instead, Core pursued a career in software development, an emerging market that took him away from Fort Smith and to Miami for a year, then Boulder for three years, then San Diego for seven. The latter two cities were undergoing a beer renaissance with the advent of craft beer, and it was while working in Boulder that Core was introduced to “real” beer.
“I went from having very little craft beer knowledge – thinking domestic beer was craft beer – to seeing true American craft beer,” he said. “It had a ton of flavor and a ton of character. You could tell it was a gourmet product.”
Core also saw the positive impact breweries in Boulder had on the community by creating jobs and attracting tourists.
“It created a tourist destination for people. People came from all over to see these places and see how beer was made,” he said.
In his 11-year hiatus from Arkansas, Core continued to brew for himself at home, honing the craft while seeing firsthand what it took to make good craft beer and run a successful brewery.
He returned to northwest Arkansas in 2004, working in the Information Systems Department at Tyson Foods. It was then, in 2010, seeing the booming economic and population growth of the area, that Core made a simple decision: Arkansas needed some “really good” craft beer. And it would start with Core Brewing Company.
But that simple decision had complex consequences. Scaling from homebrewing to brewing on a commercial level was the difference in millions of dollars of equipment and labor. To make matters more difficult, Core was starting his business in the middle of the Great Recession, when investors’ pockets were understandably tight and craft breweries, which were few and far between in Arkansas at the time, were a hard sell.
“People were stuffing money in their mattresses,” Core said. “And for me to tell people, ‘Hey, I’ve got this 70-page business plan, here are all the things we’re going to do with the company’ – it was hard to convince them when we didn’t really know if Arkansas was going to embrace craft beer.”
He was confident enough that he took a leap of faith and invested his retirement to start the company. At the company’s inception, Core had three full-time employees and brewed with his uncle, Kit, from a one-barrel brewing system.
Around the same time Core started the company, his dog, Barney, died at age 19. The dachshund was given to him by his mother to cheer him up after the Grizzlies lost in the state championship when Core was a sophomore.
Even though he was heartbroken by the dog’s loss, Core saw a fitting mascot for his emerging brewery. The company’s logo was created with a silhouette of Barney below the word “Core.”
After starting the company, Core hit the road to solicit investors across the state. He met with hundreds of them – and was told no again, and again, and again.
“I don’t know how many times I was told it’s not going to work – there’s too many breweries, it’s too much money, your valuation doesn’t make sense,” Core said. “Banks wouldn’t even sniff me.”
But Core was resilient – he always had been. Growing up on the north side of Fort Smith as the youngest of three brothers created a tenacity in him that he’s carried with him all his life, and he had grown up facing the same sort of challenges.
When his junior high football coach laughed at him when he said he’d like to play wide receiver for the Northside Grizzlies, Core spent the following spring and summer determined to prove him wrong, running up and down stairs and practicing catching footballs.
In Core’s sophomore year of high school, he started for the Grizzlies football team at wideout.
Now, facing a similar challenge with higher stakes, Core felt the same frustration he did as a junior high student.
“I really don’t like being told what to do,” Core said. “If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. And I think that mindset is representative of Fort Smith’s blue-collar nature. We don’t back down from challenges, and we don’t like being bullied.”
Core kept meeting with investors. Each time an investor said no, he learned from it, remembering their apprehensions and anticipating them when he met with future investors.
“I got to where I could answer the investors’ questions before they even asked them,” Core said. “And once they had all their concerns addressed, it came down to, ‘Do you think I’m the guy to get this done or not?’”
Some investors believed he was, enough to purchase the necessary equipment and begin brewing on a larger scale. There were growing pains for the brewery – he recalled when a contaminated yeast spoiled $50,000 worth of beer – but Core worked diligently to grow it, prioritizing quality beer over flashy marketing.
The brewery expanded into a 5,000 square-foot facility, then 20,000 square feet that Core initially rented but was able to purchase in 2014. The complex, located in Springdale, became the official headquarters of the brewery.
“I really don’t like being told what to do. If you want me to do something, tell me I can’t do it. And I think that mindset is representative of Fort Smith’s blue-collar nature. We don’t back down from challenges, and we don’t like being bullied.”
“I felt like there was tremendous momentum behind the company, and we finally had room to grow,” he said.
He also fostered a business culture that encourages empathy among the company’s many moving parts, remembering a lesson from his mother, Jacquie, to walk a mile in another man’s shoes. No matter what job employees are hired to do, they start out in packaging or bartending at the facility’s bar.
“I don’t care if you had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering, you’re starting either in packaging or as a bartender,” Core said. “That way, when someone is having an issue in a different area, they’ll know what it’s like to work over there and understand the challenges they’re facing.”
“We don’t have ceilings in the company,” Core continued. “If you provide value, we’re gonna keep pushing you up the ladder.”
Core Brewing Co. emerged from the Great Recession as one of the top breweries in northwest Arkansas, both in quality and quantity of beer produced, but the company’s growth is far from over. In addition to its regional expansion, the company has also purchased property in downtown Fort Smith to open a distillery and cooperage as part of the revival of the city’s downtown area.
“It’s going to be a world-class facility,” he said. “We want people to come here and take tours and eat food and enjoy themselves. It’s going to be a cool place to get dropped off and hang out. It’ll be like Disneyland for adults.”
Core is also working with UAFS to conceptualize a potential academic program in brewing at the university.
“That professor’s conversation with me when I was a student sums up why I love UAFS,” Core said. “They teach kids how to get jobs, and they do that by showing how to apply the lessons students are taught in the classroom. They’re not saying, ‘You need to learn calculus so you can get a good grade.’ They’re showing people what they can do with those skills, and I’m a staunch supporter of the applied sciences.”
The new Fort Smith distillery marks a homecoming for Core, even as he has carried the city with him throughout his career.
“I’m a romantic about Fort Smith,” he said. “The people are ethical, kind and hardworking. They understand that if you want something, you have to work for it – life isn’t going to hand you things. My wife and I are proud to be from Fort Smith, and we’re excited to see and be a part of the city’s growth moving forward.”
Article by John Post, Director of Public Information
Photo by Rachel Putman, Photographer, Marketing and Communications Office
By Julia Heffington
Mired in a home with no electricity, running water or indoor plumbing, Lydia Razo had heard her husband say that she was just a workhorse. She felt trapped in the bottom of a dark pit.
For the final seven years of her 24-year marriage to an abusive and controlling man, Razo searched for a way out for her and her five children.
“He hurt me and my children in many ways, but eventually I decided to leave him,” she said, “It wasn't easy, but he finally left a hole where I managed to slip out and get away.”
In 2001 at age 51, Razo discovered it’s not too late.
After getting help from a shelter for battered and abused women, Razo started her life in the sun. To support herself, she cleaned houses.
“I was gathering aches, then started to get educated in a class about battered and abused women, I realized what happened to me. They told me, ‘You need an education to give you the confidence to be more than an ache gatherer,’” she said. “I had very poor self-esteem, I was constantly beaten down.”
A new friend encouraged her that it wasn’t too late, that she could go to school.
The first day of classes at Rich Mountain Community College in Mena, Arkansas, Razo shook with fear. Sweat poured off the terrified woman as she struggled to complete simple tasks.
“I didn’t know how to start a computer, didn’t know anything, it was so, so hard,” she said.
But she didn’t quit.
In three years, Razo earned an associate in business administration.
“I had never thought about what I wanted to be, you don’t think of those things. So the first thing that came to mind was to be a secretary,” said Razo with a laugh. “Education opens your mind. It gives you choices. It makes you think better about yourself. It makes you think better about others. Education is the best thing that can happen to a person.”
While studying at the community college, Spanish quickly became her favorite class. Razo earned a certificate for having the highest grade in Spanish.
“I strived to make a high grade in Spanish, it was so important,” she said.
As a third generation Mexican-American, Razo had lost touch with her heritage. She hadn’t spoken Spanish since she was a child, and then it had mainly been slang. But now she loved learning the language. Excelling in Spanish class led her to a job opportunity in Waldron, Arkansas, as a paraprofessional working with Spanish speaking students. After completing English as a Second Language training, a former instructor who became the principle for a school in Wickes, Arkansas, offered Razo a job and raise with the school. During four years at Wickes, Razo worked with Spanish speaking students and helped the school’s literacy test scores rise from 14 percent to 65 percent passing.
“I thought, ‘God, I would love to be a teacher,’” Razo said.
It’s never too late to have a new goal.
She took the core classes she would need to start the education program one by one while working at Wickes. Then at 60, Razo left Mena, and started her new adventure by attending Texas A&M University - Texarkana.
“I didn’t know how I was going to stay; I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I know I wanted to be a teacher,” Razo said, “I was so nervous, but, by golly, I was going to go, so I went.”
Razo asked a nearby school, Texarkana College, for a place to live, and ended up with a job as the dorm supervisor.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she said. “He hired me right on the spot. I said, ‘Sir, I will be the best worker ever.’”
She earned several raises in her job, and top marks as an English major. Then Razo’s son, who lived in Fayetteville, Arkansas, was in a car accident with his son. Razo’s grandson’s skull had been crushed and he needed brain surgery. She gave her two weeks’ notice and left Texas.
“My family is more important than anything else in the world. So I went to Fayetteville,” Razo said.
After caring for her son and grandson, she attempted to attend the University of Arkansas, but eventually left. She returned to Waldron and worked in the school for three years before she retired at the age of 66.
In 2014, Razo decided it’s never too late to finish her education. She enrolled at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith.
“Oh I love it! I love clubs, I love Fort Smith, and I thank God every day for my education,” she said, “because education has brought me to a point that I appreciate life.”
Razo participates in clubs, excels in class, and works as a tutor in her spare time.
“We call her ‘abuelita,’” said Professor Rosario Nolasco-Schultheiss. “It’s a term of endearment given only to those who embody the best traits a grandmother and matriarch in our society possess: wisdom, generosity, compassion, willingness to help, and much, much love.”
Bill Yates, director of the Gordon Kelley Academic Success Center, called Razo a good role model.
“She can help them with more than just Spanish. Even after all she has been through her enthusiasm and positive attitude teach students to keep moving forward,” he said.
Razo helped start the Spanish club, is a member of student government, is the membership coordinator for non-traditional students, and is in the Pinnacle Honor Society.
On a fall afternoon as seniors gathered to prepare for graduation, most admitted to an uncertainty about the future. They moved through Gradfest with equal parts excitement and fear. But Razo graduating with a bachelor’s in general studies, walks with excitement and radiates confidence.
“I know exactly what I can do now and I didn’t know that before,” she said.
Razo will graduate with her Bachelors in general studies, December 10, 2015, at 7 p.m.
“The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith has embraced me, and they can count on me that I have embraced them back,” she said. “This ole 67-year-old grandma is going to do it, I’m going to graduate, because I want my children, and my grandchildren, and anyone that’s interested to see it’s never too late, it’s never too late to change your life. I’m not saying it’s easy, but it’s worth it.”
By Hannah Meadows
Thirty minutes into his first day as a bank teller, as Daniel Peek helped his first customer, the front doors flew open and in ran a masked man.
“It looked like he was holding a camera at first, but then I realized it was a gun covered up with a bag,” the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith junior criminal justice major said.
When the armed man pushed Peek’s customer up against the wall, Peek realized it was not a drill. It was a robbery. The man ran to the counter and pulled up his white ski mask, revealing his face to Peek and the security cameras.
“Give me $5,000 in one dollar bills,” the man yelled at Peek.
Peek grabbed all of the moneyin his drawer, including some bait money, which can be traced in the event of a robbery, and put it in a burlap sack. Though it didn’t have $5,000 in one dollar bills, Peek handed the bag to the man, who ran out the front door and around to the back of the building, disappearing into an alley.
“It took a while for me to believe what had just happened,” Peek said. “It all happened in about four minutes.”
A customer in the bank’s drive thru saw the robbery and called police. Police arrested the man within 45 minutes and Peek identified the suspect.
Peek remained at the bank for the rest of the summer.
“I would still get slightly nervous when people walked through doors,” said Peek, “especially if they resembled the robber.”
Peek said his bank training helped him during the situation.
“I was told to do what the robber says and not to stop it,” said Peek. “It could put me and the customer in danger.”
Now working in the university’s advising office, Peek continues to work towards a degree in criminal justice, and said that after the robbery he felt it was a sign, affirming that he was in the right field.
“I was able to observe how the police handled the situation, while also experiencing the other side, as the victim,” said Peek. “This will allow me relate to victims in the future.”
Peek transferred to UAFS, from Arkansas Tech University, the second semester of his freshman year, thinking he would take a few classes before transferring elsewhere. But once he stepped onto the campus, his plans changed.
“I love the way the campus looks,” Peek said.
He also felt impressed with the classes and how he could approach the professors. He got involved on campus and met new people, and that was when he realized that UAFS was the place for him. He is involved in: Sigma Nu fraternity, Student Ambassadors, Baptist Collegiate Ministry and Grand College Ministry.
Peek also recently joined the university’s first Fishing Club. He is the media communication director for the club, which competes in bass fishing tournaments all across Arkansas. The club placed 30th out of 86 at its first tournament in September. Peek says that, because the club is new, there are only a few members but he hopes that they continue to grow and improve.
“Getting involved on campus is what made me love UAFS,” said Peek, “I would advise any student to do so too.”
By Julia Heffington
At 5, Marissa Moore decided that she was going to be just like her uncle as she watched him clean teeth.
UAFS brings Moore a step closer to her goal as it is one of the only schools in the area to offer a degree in dental hygiene.
“I’ve known what I wanted to do since I was five, I haven’t changed my mind once,” Moore said.
And when Moore has a goal in her sights, she cannot be stopped. That resolve was one of the reasons she was selected as the first recipient of the $1,000 UAFS Alumni Legacy Scholarship.
“She has an incredible drive, ambition and determination. She will go far,” said Alumni Affairs Director Rick Goins.
The Alumni Advisory Council established the scholarship as an opportunity for family members of alumni to attend the university. The scholarship has been set up to assist a child, parent, spouse or sibling of a UAFS graduate or a former student who passed 14 credit hours from Fort Smith Junior College, Westark Junior College, Westark Community College or Westark College.
When looking for a university to attend, Moore, who grew up on a cattle ranch in Mulberry, Arkansas, chose UAFS.
“I didn’t want to leave home, I wanted to stay close to family. UAFS is like a home away from home,” Moore said.
The freshman is following in her mother’s footsteps.
“We are not just mother and daughter, we are best friends,” Moore said, “and now we will both be alumni here at UAFS. My mom is so proud that I am going here.”
After first earning her associate’s degree, Pamela Moore, ’91 and ’09, returned to UAFS for a bachelor of science in middle school education.
“I was hoping Marissa would go to Fort Smith,” Pamela said. “It’s exciting that she is going to the same school as me.”
A high achieving student, Marissa graduated from Mulberry High School with a 4.0 GPA and college credits. She’s also a single mother caring for a 10- month-old daughter, Emma Grace, while working and attending school.
“I support my daughter. I’m trying to save up for a home to call my own, but that is difficult to do while trying to save money for my education, too,” Marissa said.
Members of the Alumni Advisory Council were excited to welcome Marissa to the university and the Lion family.
“I would hire her,” Karla Jacobs, scholarship committee chair, said. “She is so well spoken and well mannered.”
To learn more about the Alumni Legacy Scholarship or to make a donation, please visit uafsalumni.com/scholarship.
Lela Nickell, ’84, sat back in her seat at the Stubblefield Center with tears streaming down her face.
“I didn’t realize how much I wanted it until then,” she said.
As she watched the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith students cross the stage and graduate, Nickell knew she wanted her bachelor’s degree. She told her husband that watching them made her want to go back to school. He reminded her that she couldn’t quit her job.
That is when the tears started to flow.
Nickell never planned on the almost 30-year hiatus from pursuing her bachelor’s degree. She graduated from Northside Christian Academy in 1981 and started studying at Westark Community College in 1982. After earning her associate’s degree, she and her brother planned to transfer to the University of the Ozarks.
Then plans changed. In a family conversation, their mother, a single woman, worried about working and caring for the siblings’ brother, who has Down’s syndrome. Nickell’s mother said her son should pursue his education, as it was more important for a man.
“That was probably the only wrong thing she said to me in her entire life,” Nickell said.
Nickell agreed to stay home for one more year. She continued her studies at Westark and helped her mother and brother.
Then life happened. She met a wonderful man, whom she married the following year. Then came two sons. She taught piano lessons and music classes for 30 years.
“I don’t regret my marriage. I don’t regret my kids. I’ve been able to do a lot of things,” she said. “What I gained from Westark, I used.”
Then came the tear-filled graduation ceremony and the realization of how strongly she wanted her bachelor’s degree. She decided to see what might be possible. She filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. She applied for scholarships. She auditioned for UAFS’ music education program, planning to be a vocal major.
Then began doors opening for her to finish her education journey. She was accepted into the UAFS music program. She received notification that she’d been awarded the Pauline Plummer Scholarship. She enrolled at UAFS in the fall of 2014.
“I think it’s amazing that people taker hard earned money and invest in other people,” she said.
Through that scholarship, she could keep her part-time position at UAFS’ testing center, and it brought financial relief for tuition, books, choral dresses, music and more.
“I just haven’t had to worry,” she said.
Now, Nickell has discovered that she can learn new technology and do the mental gymnastics required by the schoolwork. She’s found a new family in the music program. She’s also found something else. Nickell recalls Proverbs 13:12, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
“I’m walking around with a smile all the time,” she said. “I always meant to come back and I’m just so thankful that I can.”
She’s now pursing her dream of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in the fall of 2015 and then pursuing a master’s degree in music therapy to give back to the community, “if the Lord gives me time, energy and money.”
By Tilisa Anderson
Leanna Zimmerman, ’15, planned to start her job hunt closer to graduation in May, but an ordinary day of waitressing gave her a head start.
Zimmerman worked for three and a half years as a waitress at Chili’s while studying marketing at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. She went to work that November day that seemed like any other when she served a table that would start her professional career.
At that table sat the USA Truck Dallas branch manager. She spoke with him like she did other customers; they talked about school and her plans after graduation.
Impressed with Zimmerman’s upselling and business tactics, the branch manager offered her an interview for an account manager position in Dallas.
“I was excited but I tried not to let it show. I didn’t want to seem weird, but then I went back into the kitchen and told everyone about it,” she said.
On Dec. 15,Zimmerman travelled to Dallas for her interview where she was offered the position.
“He looked at me as I was walking out and said, “OK, you have a job right out of college. You have nothing to worry about now,’” she said.
The first person Zimmerman called was her mother, whom she felt obliged to thank for being supportive throughout her life.
When asked what she could relate from school to the position, Zimmerman pointed out that attending UAFS helped prepare her professionally for those moments.
Having been trained in the corporate office in Van Buren, Arkansas, Zimmerman now resides in Dallas working as the account manager for the sales branch at USA Truck.
Angie Stout, ’15, stood outside a science lab listening to an 18-year-old student admit to being nervous as she hadn’t had the class since a sophomore in high school.
“It had been over 20 years since I’d had science,” said Stout with a laugh.
But she didn’t doubt herself. She knew she could learn.
“I’ve always loved to read and there’s a lot of learning in reading,” Stout said.
She made it past the science class and on May 9, she graduated cum laude, earning with a bachelor’s degree in English with teacher licensure.
Her third attempt at college proved the charm.
After graduating from Cedarville High School in 1985, she enrolled at Westark Community College. During the day, she worked full time at a factory and tried to take classes at night toward her business major.
She quit school.
Then she married and had her first child, a daughter. She changed her major to education and again enrolled in the junior college.
But then she became ill and had to leave school again.
For years she concentrated on taking care of her family, which had grown by a son. She became involved in her church’s youth ministry and led it to grow to more than 100 teenagers. That led to the development of an after-school program that provided a hot meal, homework help and activities.
“The youth didn’t have to attend the youth services,” she said. “It was totally about community service and serving the youth in the area.”
Even while leading the youth, Stout maintained a full-time job directing the senior citizen’s center in Cedarville. While she enjoyed working with the youth and senior citizens, she knew it was time to make a change as her job didn’t offer benefits or a retirement plan.
“I feel like we’re all called to do something in this world,” she said. “Mine is to reach out and be a positive influence with kids.
In 2012, Stout enrolled again at UAFS taking 16-plus hours a semester while continuing to work full time.
“I wasn’t real fearful because I’m one of those people that if I decide to do something, I just do it,” she said. “I had some concerns with keeping up because it had been some time since I had taken any classes.”
Stout found that she thrived this third time. Evenings and weekends, she studied and read through assignments. She met with professors when she didn’t understand an assignment. In the nurturing environment, she flourished. An English research paper earned Stout an award and $150 from the UAFS Research Symposium. She worked to receive all “A”s and to graduate with honors.
“It was the best thing that I decided to do as an adult,” she said.
But she worried about her senior year and how she and her family would manage financially. She needed to take 19 hours that fall semester and in the spring she would spend her days in a classroom for student teaching, both meant she could not work full time. During a conversation about a project with Cammie Sublette, English department head, Sublette surprised Stout by stating that she would be a good candidate for the Gordon Kelley Scholarship. After an interview with the dean, Stout received notice that she’d been awarded the scholarship.
“It relieved a burden off of me,” she said. “Going back to school has been amazing. I couldn’t have done it this past year without the scholarship money.”
With her graduation behind her and a teaching career before her, Stout found her third attempt at education charmed. She plans to earn her master’s degree while teaching.
“I really feel like I was led to where I was supposed to be,” she said. “I’m excited to begin this second chapter in my life and have a shot at a career that I dreamed about when I was younger.”
In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, the then-14-year-old Vi Tran, with her family, boarded an airplane that would send them to a new opportunities in Fort Smith, Arkansas.
“My parents moved here for my sister and me so we would have a better education and better future with more opportunity,” said Tran about that journey in 2009.
Tran studies at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith as a sophomore bio-chemistry major. It’s another step following her lifelong dream to become a doctor, which has recently found focus.
“After all the shadowing and summer medical programs that I was in, I realized that being a surgeon would allow me a more hands-on approach in treating patients,” she said. “I do like challenges and being able to figure out the best approach to a situation. Being a surgeon would let me do all of that while still be able to do outpatient clinics.”
Tran further prepared herself by attending the 2014 Summer Medical and Dental Education Program at Rutgers Medical School. She attended physiology classes, seminars on healthcare topics and dissected cadavers.
UAFS is part of her journey.
“UAFS is like a train that will take me closer to a better future, but it can only do so if I have the courage to get on it and the commitment to stay on it until the end,” she said.
When Sylvia Nguyen thinks about her future, she also considers her family’s recent past.
Specifically, she looks to her parents’, who emigrated from Vietnam as teenagers.
“I do want to make them proud,” she said. “They want me to have a better life than what they have, like so many other immigrants.”
In 1975, Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith became one of four entry points for Vietnamese fleeing their homeland after the end of the Vietnam War. In that effort, dubbed “Operation New Life,” more than 50,000 refugees went through Fort Chaffee. While many moved to other areas of the United States, some stayed, like Nguyen’s parents, and created a thriving Vietnamese community in Fort Smith.
In her senior year of studying at Northside High School in Fort Smith, Nguyen began thinking about future careers and settled on one.
“I could really see myself being a dentist,” said the junior biology major.
It would allow her to work with her hands, which she enjoys. Plus, she would like to 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 and a diverse campus.
“There’s a sense of community,” she said.
Nguyen also has found support from professors.
“My first year here I was intimidated by them. They seemed tough,” she said.
But by getting to know her professors, Nguyen found, “They’re normal people after all.”
And the times when she begins to doubt herself, she turns to her biology adviser Professor Davis Pritchett.
“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. I meet with him two or three times a semester to get my confidence level back up.”
Pritchett said he sees his role as offering encouragement and reassurance when needed.
“Sylvia is a very capable young woman and I am sure that she will be very successful in life,” Pritchett said. “Pursuing a preprofessional 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.”
Nguyen also received the university’s Academic Excellence Scholarship, which is paying for her tuition and books while she lives at home.
“I’m very fortunate,” she said. “I didn’t want to put my parents in the position to pay for my schooling. I’m very glad to get that scholarship.”
Though she doesn’t live on campus, she has found time in her studies to get involved in the Biology Club and the Student Alumni Association (SAA). Such involvement is something she recommends to other students as well.
“Find an organization like the SAA that really does a lot of events so you’re involved more,” she said.
After a semester at UAFS, Mayra Esquivel registered for only one class in the spring. When her concerned advisor asked why, she refused to answer.
“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 As, joined clubs and made the honor society.
But 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 buoyed her and 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 following semesters. Each semester she kept her secret wrapped closely to her, afraid that the lashing whips from the national debate on immigration would slice across her.
Then came the year 2012. She found her voice and stepped out of the shadows. She first 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 many others hiding in the shadows of shame. They, too, were caught in the bureaucratic immigration net unable to get visas or green cards, or apply for citizenship because of their illegal status. Strengthened, she spoke out more. In August 2012, she journeyed to Washington D.C. with other Arkansans to speak to members of Obama’s administration in the White House about changes to immigration. 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, President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals allowing people in Esquivel’s position to get jobs and work in their careers. Esquivel found a position 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 neuro-psychology researcher. She also will continue her fight for immigration changes.
By any definition Tony Jones had an adventurous summer.
In May, the junior traveled to Spain as part of the Chancellor’s Leadership Council Scholarship class. Then two days 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 – Arkansas.
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 cam 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 Castilla. 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.
The knots that grew tighter in Lillian Howerton’s stomach erupted into clawing pain. But the questions to which she had no answers jackhammered her spirit.
Where are you going to attend college?
Where are you going to live?
What are you going to major in?
A scope of her stomach showed “it looked like raw hamburger meat,” ulcers lacerated it.
Medicine helped and so did an awakening.
One spring morning, she faced the new day with clarity. The girl who enjoyed biology classes knew she wanted to be a pediatrician. Howerton thinks it could have stemmed from her father, Jerry Howerton’s heart condition, which meant doctor visits and hospital stays. Her father died a month before her high school graduation.
“As tragic as it is, good came of it. It gave me my direction to medicine,” said Howerton, now a University of Arkansas – Fort Smith senior.
When Howerton enrolled at UAFS as a biology major she planned to study the basics before transferring to another university. But then something happened.
“I just fell in love with the university,” she said.
Howerton decided to finish her undergraduate studies at UAFS when she discovered the small class sizes and professors who remember her name years after she sat listening to a lecture. Those relationships she built with professors have helped her walk further into the science world.
Her work in a microbiology class, and question after question on biofilms – collective communities of bacteria –led to a sought-after campus job working as a lab assistant in microbiology. She also received an opportunity to submit a paper on her research into aquaponics in the UAFS greenhouse for publication. She looked at dissolved oxygen in the water system and perhaps a better way of distributing the water to plants at a lower cost.
“If you get to know your professors, they open some doors and good things happen,” she said.
As she prepares to graduate and she looks back at her life-changing years at UAFS, Howerton feels a sense of accomplishment and rightness in studying at Fort Smith.
“I’m proud to be a Lion because that means I go to a university that upholds the values I believe in and maintains its traditions while growing and expanding.”
After high school, Wil Moon, '14, knew he didn’t want to go to college, especially after a couple of semesters enrolled in one. So he went to work as a bartender. Then he worked in construction to help rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina submerged the city.
And the years passed.
Then he drove past a church with its sign proclaiming, “The only difference between a rut and a grave is time.”
“I’ve thought about that a lot,” he said. “I knew I had to do something different.”
At 32 years old, he enrolled in UAFS and found a passion for learning and a way out of the rut. In the spring of 2014 at 35, he completed his bachelor’s degree in marketing and prepared for entering the University of Arkansas School of Law in the fall with a desire to study business law.
“The College of Business definitely breeds confidence. I went from being cocky to confident,” he said. “There’s a huge difference between the two. Cocky, you think you know everything. Confident, you know what you know. I thought I knew a lot when I got here but the amount I learned is astonishing.”
Besides continuing to work while attending UAFS, Moon got married, became a stepfather and then a father. He also interned with Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.), served as state president for the business fraternity Phi Beta Lambda and as treasurer for the UAFS Student Government Association.
“As a non-traditional student, I think you get a lot more out of your educational experience. One reason is you know how crappy it is out in the real world,” he said.
And that can motivate a person with a full life who returns to school.
“If you make it important, you’ll find time,” he said.
Jordan Watson came to UAFS expecting to study chemistry. After a few weeks in that class, he realized it wasn’t for him.
But he realized he always enjoyed business-related activities. Even as a child he liked playing with a toy cash register. He collects coins and has sifted through hundreds of dollars worth looking for coins he needed in his collection of state quarters.
He switched his major to accounting.
“The first few weeks being in accounting class I felt less stressed than being in chemistry,” said the junior from Harrison, Arkansas.
He also added criminal justice as a minor as he wants to go into forensic accounting.
“I’m more interested in figuring out what’s missing than sitting behind a desk looking at books to see what’s going on,” he said.
Watson found his way to UAFS through his girlfriend, who planned to study dental hygiene. When he visited the campus, he found a small campus with beautiful landscaping.
“It felt homey,” he said.
Watson receives the Chancellor’s Leadership Council Scholarship, which covers tuition, books, and living expenses. That scholarship sealed his decision to attend UAFS. He knew it would give him freedom now while he’s in the school and in the future.
“It gives me the opportunity to do more with student organizations, to help reach out to other students,” he said. “I don’t have to worry about going to class, going to work and trying to get more hours to study.”
Watson is active in the Student Alumni Association and Phi Beta Lambda.
In the classroom, Watson found professors who remembered his name and more.
“The class sizes allow you to get to know your professors,” he said. “You can go to them for help. They want you to learn.”
Despite Courtney Gosch’s younger siblings protestations about it being summer, she made them sit at constructed desks to work on writing the alphabet or learning multiplication tables.
As a child playing school with her brothers and sister, Gosch found collecting and grading their worksheets fun.
“I decided in preschool that I wanted to be a teacher,” she said. “I believe that is what my calling has always been.”
As a senior in high school, Gosch began her studies in early childhood education at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith through the Western Arkansas Technical Center. That experience reinforced her decision to pursue a bachelor’s degree in education and to do so from UAFS.
“I built connections with the professors,” said the Greenword, Arkansas, native. “I was able to get comfortable with the campus and slowly get used to college classes.”
Now as a junior studying early childhood education and pursuing a Teaching English as a Second Language certificate, Gosch has been helped toward her dream with several scholarships, including the UAFS Academic Excellence Scholarship.
“I don’t have to worry about anything,” she said. “It makes me strive to earn good grades to show people that I am using their money for the right reasons.”
As part of that, she has involved herself on and off campus. She participates in the Student Government Association and Future Professional Educators Association as well as volunteers as an orientation leader. Off campus, she has started volunteering in the classrooms and working as a substitute teacher.
Gosch also knows that her education won’t end when she holds her degree in her hand. She plans to pursue her master’s degree in education and has an ultimate goal of being an education professor.
“I want to be the teacher that children remember when they are 50 years old,” she said. “I want to be one of those teachers who go down in the books.”
As Tasha Heard faced her first 20-page research paper at UAFS, she had doubts about her ability to do it.
“I thought it was going to be terrible,” said the junior from Harrison, Ark. “I hadn’t written over eight or 10 pages. I didn’t have the confidence that I could do it.”
She does now.
For that paper in her speech communications class, she turned to a topic that had interested her since the fifth grade and had become her major: dental hygiene. She researched, interviewed other students and wrote a paper titled “Fear of Going to the Dentist and the Effect of Music on Those Fears,” which considers how concentrating on sounds other than dental equipment would decrease a patient’s anxiety.
“It is scary,” Heard said about how some people feel about going to the dentist. “You’re giving up control. You have to trust who’s working on you.”
After she turned in the paper, Susan Simkowski, assistant professor of media communication, encouraged Heard to submit it to the Southern States Communication Association’s 24th annual Theodore Clevenger Jr. Undergraduate Honors Conference, where it was accepted. Heard presented her paper in New Orleans in early April thanks to help from the UAFS Foundation’s Gordon Kelley Language Study Endowment, which paid for the trip.
Simkowski described Heard as an ideal student who strives for perfection in all of her work.
“She takes my instruction and builds on it,” she said. “As a professor, Tasha is a dream student.”
The experience of presenting her paper at a national conference bolstered Heard’s self-assurance.
“I had confidence in myself in science and math classes, but I didn’t in English and writing,” Heard said about the experience. “Knowing I can do this, actually write something that people like and respect, is really just honoring. I see myself in a new light; I know I can write.”
That’s just one door that Heard has had open for her since enrolling at UAFS. This fall she’ll step through another as part of the first dental hygiene class working toward a bachelor’s degree at the university. That would be the final step of a journey that began as an elementary student going to the dentist for teeth cleanings and checkups. Heard found her passion as she watched her dental hygienist work.
“She got to talk to people all day and it involved science,” Heard said. “All of the equipment she used was pretty cool.”
Her search for a dental hygiene program led her to UAFS, which she visited four times to be sure of her choice before enrolling.
“What sold me on the school were the grounds; it’s so pretty,” she said. “I liked the atmosphere. It was refreshing from other colleges. People were really friendly.”
The Honors International Studies Program Scholarship sealed her decision to enroll at UAFS. That scholarship, which pays about $33,000 during a four year span, along with other smaller scholarships have covered tuition, fees and housing.
“I wouldn’t be able to go to UAFS without the scholarships,” she said. “I’d be in Harrison going to a community college.”
And she doesn’t think she would be working toward becoming a dental hygienist, and for that she is thankful to the university and scholarship donors.
“Without them, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t have the confidence in myself. I wouldn’t have the future.”