Left to right: A group of the first Peace Scholars at Hesston (1989-91) attended Homecoming 2016 for their 25th class reunion: Otto Najera (Antigua, Guatemala), surgical instrumentation specialist for global eye care company, Alcon; Gilberto Oliva (Hesston), systems administrator for Hesston College Information Technology; Juan Guardiola (Hesston), owner of Mama Lupe’s tortilla plant (Moundridge, Kan.); Gabriel Canela (Kissimmee, Fla.), owner of AC Particle Parts; Connard Williams (Noonan, Ga.), IT consultant; Margie Wiens (Hesston), former CASS program staff; Linda (Melara) Melara de Guevara (San Salvador, El Salvador), financial director for a NGO that helps high schools students develop skills for college; and Arnoldo Guevara (San Salvador), call center IT manager.
They didn’t choose Hesston, Hesston chose them – literally. They were hand selected to attend Hesston College as part of the Peace Scholarship Program sponsored by the Cooperative Association of States for Scholarships (CASS), primarily to study electronics, but also to learn English and learn about communication, American family life, politics, government, democracy and volunteerism. The idea was that studying in the U.S. would help them get better jobs when they went back home to their Central American and Caribbean countries, and that they would help create diplomacy and friendship between their countries and the U.S.
The international students who studied at Hesston would say they got all of that – the program was a success. But even more than that, their two years at Hesston College shaped their lives in ways they continue to realize even 25 years later.
“We didn’t even dream about getting out of our countries or having the opportunity to go to university in our countries,” said Gabriel Canela ’91. “There, you have to work to survive – whatever you can do. Then suddenly, the Lord gave us this great prize from this great nation. Out of having nothing, suddenly you see everything is available for you
In the fall of 1989, the first 20 Peace Scholars arrived at Hesston College. In the fall of 2016, seven returned for their 25th class reunion.
The first time they came, 14 of the 20 spoke little or no English. The program brochures they received pictured city skylines; they weren’t expecting the Kansas prairie. They lived with host families for the first semester to help them adjust to the culture and be immersed in the language. They would attend their classes taught in English, then gather together to go over all the material a second time together and translate it to Spanish.
It was hard, exhausting work. But it was worth it, and not just for them. As much as this community impacted their lives, so too did they impact the community.
“Them being here was a whole new experience for the college at that time,” said Margie Wiens, who worked as a staff person, and later director, for the Hesston program. “The community saw the challenges they faced, saw their hard work and dedication and really respected and admired them for it.”
As they reunited, the group reminisced about the two years here that started their lives on a new, unexpected trajectory. They remembered marathon study sessions during January term and host families who demonstrated patience, kindness and support as they acclimated to a new language and life away from their own families. They talked about using their strengths in English or an academic program to assist a fellow student struggling with that same area. They recalled trips to see American systems in action and learning to ride a bike or drive a car.
Each of their stories and memories carried similar undertones – determination and connection are what helped them succeed.
“You look back and reflect how much impact you went through at Hesston College,” said Juan Guardiola ’91. “The community improved and changed our lives. It made us a lot better people. It made us people with more wisdom and wider vision than when we came here. Despite long hours of studying and working to understand, we grew up and we are all a lot better people thanks to the opportunity we had at Hesston.”