Heydi Cucul grew up in Campur, Guatemala, a rural farming community without a high school.
Now, as a Walton scholar at John Brown University, she sometimes still can’t believe how far she has come and has to tell herself, “Ok, I am here in JBU. I am here in the United states.”
This May marks the 30th anniversary of the Walton scholarship. This program has brought 441 Central American and Mexican students to JBU since it began.
Becoming a Walton scholar was no small task for Cucul. She faced many barriers, not the least of which was learning English.
As a member of an indigenous community, Cucul’s first language is Kekchi, a Mayan language. She started learning Spanish in grade school and English in high school.
Cucul’s journey to the Walton scholarship started in middle school when she got a full-ride government scholarship to Liceo Dr. Ricardo Bressani, one of the top 10 high schools in Guatemala, where she studied accounting.
Cucul admitted to the difficulty of living far from home, but also said that this experience helped her handle the move to John Brown.
Cucul later received a scholarship to study English at a language school. Without these English classes Cucul could not have been considered for the Walton scholarship.
Winning the Youth Ambassador scholarship, Cucul had the opportunity to travel to Washington D.C., Michigan and New York, where she lived with host families and learned about American culture.
Cucul said the Youth Ambassador experience gave her a vision for going to college, getting a good job and traveling, though she never expected to come back to the U.S.
In 2011, Cucul graduated high school and traveled back to her hometown. Here, she volunteered as an English and accounting teacher at the first high school to be built in her community.
Ten months after Cucul graduated from high school, she saw the Walton scholarship advertised on the Youth Ambassador’s Facebook page. She initially discounted herself because the scholarship requires a high level of English competency.
All the same, Cucul began thinking about her desire to attend college. She knew her family couldn’t afford to send her to college, so she decided to apply for the Walton scholarship after all.
After submitting her application, the recruitment committee, made up of Walton alumni, selected Cucul for an interview.
Cucul said her English was still not good enough to speak unrehearsed, so she memorized answers to questions they might ask.
Cucul was interviewed by three Walton alumni, who said afterwards she should improve her English and then reapply the next year. They said if she didn’t receive a call within a week, it would mean she hadn’t been accepted to the final stage of the process.
A week passed without a call, leaving Cucul disappointed that she hadn’t made it.
Cucul said she was surprised when, a day after the week-long waiting period had passed, a member of the committee called her. She recalled being told, “You are one of the finalists for the Walton scholarship.”
Cucul would have to answer questions in English from the three Walton directors. These directors would make the final selections on who would win a scholarship to their respective universities.
Cucul re-memorized the answers she had prepared for the previous interview. As the interview progressed, she was able to handle several questions. However, when the directors started to ask questions different from the ones Cucul had prepared for, she didn’t know what to say. Walton director Ronald Johnson offered to translate her answers to the other directors, and the interview continued.
Cucul said that after the interview, Johnson told her, “I have a place for you.”
However, Johnson first wanted her to go back to school and improve her English during the next year, arriving at JBU a semester late.
“I didn’t cry, but I was so happy,” Cucul remembered.
Upon receiving another scholarship to study at the English language school, Cucul left her job and moved to the city again to take classes.
Cucul said this was a very difficult period for her. With no job, she found a home to live in where she could stay free of charge. To her disappointment, however, this home soon closed, causing her to move three more times. “It was a hard time but God never leave me alone and He was faithful to me,” Cucul said.
When Cucul’s mother became sick, Cucul left the English school and traveled home to take care of her mother. For the four months leading up to her flight to the U.S., she continued studying English from her home by reading books and listening to music.
Classes began at JBU, and Cucul, still struggling with English, lost much sleep to complete assignments and had to use Google Translate to understand handouts.
“It was so hard. I couldn’t understand anything,” Cucul said.
Cucul’s English has progressed during her time at JBU, though.
“It’s much better, but I’m still learning, still working hard,” Cucul said.
Cucul continues to be amazed at her situation.
“The Walton scholarship was a miracle for me,” Cucul said, explaining that she thought the Walton was only for people who speak English well. However, when she asked Johnson how she could be chosen despite her poor English, she remembers him replying, “It’s because God told me that I needed to give you that scholarship.”
Johnson said that each of the candidates he must choose from is qualified to receive the scholarship. He goes into every selection process prayerfully, seeking God’s will.
“The real primary factor is really the Lord impressing upon my heart, ‘Who should I bring?’” Johnson said.
Without realizing it, Johnson brought two of Cucul’s high school friends to John Brown this fall: Karen Carrera and Angela “Lili” Ixtecoc. Though Cucul, Carrera, and Ixtecoc come from different departments, or states, in Guatemala, they share a number of experiences that enabled them to win the Walton scholarship. Each won a scholarship to Bressani high school, studied English, and traveled to the U.S. as youth ambassadors.
Ixtecoc and Carrera said it is difficult to believe that they are now together at the same university with Cucul.
“Sometimes we don’t understand why, but God knows,” Ixtecoc said.
“I trust the Lord has brought the Heydis, and the Lilis and the Karens here for His purpose,” Johnson said.