Waltons welcome new students, tell story

The next couple of months will be busy for Ron Johnson, director of the John Brown University Walton International Scholarship Program.
Besides his usual duties helping students with their tax filings, presenting to the board and making sure things are right on track for graduating seniors, Johnson added two more items to his ever-growing to-do list: awarding the scholarship to upcoming students and finishing up the program’s book.
Walton scholars enrolling in the fall are chosen between November and early February, when Johnson usually travels to Central America for personal interviews along his counterparts from Harding University and the University of the Ozarks.

This year, Johnson faced some health issues regarding an irregular heartbeat, forcing him to cancel his trip to El Salvador and Honduras in February.

“The other two directors brought back their top applications for me to consider, but the candidates were all so similar,” Johnson said, adding it was difficult to create an accurate image of the candidates only by their paperwork.

With a shortlist of four strong candidates from each country, Johnson asked graduating seniors from El Salvador and Honduras to look at the candidates’ applications, conduct phone interviews, and present him their top two choices, which he then weighed with the input from the other directors.

“Through the assistance of these seniors it became apparent that the Lord was leading in a different direction,” Johnson said. “Their phone interviews produced a different selection than what I first considered.”

Johnson has missed the candidate interviews only a handful of times. Five years ago he also faced health issues, and in 2009 the ice storm made him stay to work on his property’s damage. This was the first time Johnson used students’ input to help him reach a decision.

With the last four students chosen, Johnson will travel to Central America April 19 to award the scholarship to 15 new students.

As with every year’s students, Johnson said he was excited about each of the scholars’ life story. This year, a particular student from Villahermosa, Mexico, caught his attention.

Maria Velazquez is a bright student, graduating high school with a 99/100 GPA, Johnson said. Velazquez comes from a humble family and her father is unemployed, so the directors were surprised when she told them she gathered $70 and purchased a bus ticket to Mexico City, a 12-hour ride from her hometown, for the interviews.

“Maria’s act of faith and determination won her the scholarship, she will study business administration and management this fall,” Johnson said.

With more than 100 pages written so far, Johnson’s year-long project to document the history of the Walton program nears a satisfactory end.

“The book will be complete by this summer,” Johnson said, adding that he is still working on the stories of the Galindo family from Panama, who were the first people to meet Sam Walton in the 1980s and who encouraged him to initiate the program. Johnson is also interviewing University faculty and staff who have been impacted by the program, including president Chip Pollard.

The book will probably be published early in the fall, Johnson said. Nadia Soberanis, a 2010 alumna from Guatemala, is copy editing while senior Alexander Soto created the cover artwork.