New Walton scholars settle in mid-semester

Just a month ago Karina Castanon was enjoying warm weather in her hometown of Mexico City, Mexico. Now she braces herself for a winter in the southern United States.

“I can’t wait to see snow [for the first time],” Castanon said. “But I don’t like this cold weather at all.”

Castanon is one of three Walton Scholars starting classes this spring. Josafat Rodriguez from Guatemala City, Guatemala and Walter Hernandez from Honduras are the other two. The three students are 22-years-old and were working in their countries prior to the scholarship.

Two weeks into the huge transition, both Castanon and Hernandez said their biggest challenge was getting used to the new food.

Rodriguez, however, said he enjoyed the variety of food at the cafeteria, but it’s the lack of public transportation that he finds a challenge.

Both Hernandez and Rodriguez said they liked the university’s Christian environment.

Although most of the 60 Walton scholars arrive in the fall, a few students from Central America and Mexico start halfway through the year.

Ron Johnson, director of the Walton International Scholarship Program, said this situation has happened most of his years as director, with the spring freshmen class varying from one student to a record of seven in 2010.

“If I had my preferences, I would probably not bring students in January,” Johnson said.

“But the reality is we have no choice.”

Some students arrive in January because of situations back home, such as issues with their health or immigration documents that delay their arrival.

Other students are given the scholarship in time, but are encouraged to stay in their home countries to build up their English skills. When a student graduates a semester early or later, that also leaves an opening for new students.

In some cases, students are offered the scholarship last minute, when a Walton scholar loses the scholarship in the fall and the program must find a replacement within weeks. Johnson said that the Walton program tries to keep 60 students enrolled every semester.

Senior Analu Marin, who came in spring 2009, had been chosen as a Walton scholar for the fall of 2007, but had to wait a year and a half due to immigration problems.

“When I came, my first impression was that it was dead; there was almost no one else on campus,” Marin said. “And when people came back, they all seemed to know each other,” she added.

A different culture, harsh weather, the small number of other new students and the established relationships from the fall can make things especially difficult for spring Walton freshmen, Johnson said.

“Those coming in January wonder where they fit. It’s an awkward place to be,” Johnson said. He pays special attention to these students to ensure their success. He encourages the students to meet with him every day, and he plans numerous activities to keep them busy and adapting to the college life.

“I see an incredible potential in the three new students this semester,” Johnson said. “It’s a very unique group.”

Still, the biggest contribution to a smooth transition is the student community itself, Johnson said.

“The Walton community is embracing and they are all encouraged by their peers,” Johnson said. “It is good to know they have all these people willing to reach out to them.”

The three students said they felt welcomed by the rest of Walton scholars, and they were excited to make new friends from all around the world.

Marin’s advice for the new Walton scholars is to get out of their rooms and allow themselves to make new friends.

“Open your door, let people meet you, show them that you’re interested in connecting with them and with JBU,” Marin said.

For now, it’s all about taking it one step at the time.

“I fear the snow will be too cold, but I can’t wait to make a snow angel,” Hernandez said.