More than 2,200 miles away from his home in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, Alejandro Zeballos is thriving in a small university town in northwest Arkansas.
Fayetteville is home to 65 Bolivian university-goers like Zeballos. The University of Arkansas’ Bolivian populace makes up a considerable community compared with that of neighboring colleges, none of which have programs that match those at the UofA, especially for Bolivians.
“It had always kind of been a dream of mine to study in the United States,” Zeballos said.
Because of a decades-deep partnership with eastern Bolivia, Zeballos, 19, pays in-state tuition at the UofA, which saves him nearly $8,000 each year.
There are no Southeastern conference schools that offer Bolivians a scholarship or tuition discount comparable to that of the UofA’s, although some schools allow international students to apply for in-state tuition after one year of enrollment. Even the other two states partnered with Bolivia–North Carolina, partnered with Cochabamba and Utah, partnered with La Paz–don’t offer Bolivians in-state tuition, Partners of the Americas executives of those states said.
It was this tuition discount and the school’s business college that drew him in. This is a common theme among Bolivians looking to the U.S. for university opportunities, as others said they were impressed by the Walton College of Business’ national ratings. Zeballos, a marketing major, also took this into account when choosing a university.
“Consuming American media and seeing how this ‘world’ is completely different than mine has always appealed to me,” Zeballos said. “It was kind of a no-brainer,” he added, referring to the WCOB’s No. 27 ranking among the best public colleges according to U.S. News & World Report.
Zeballos stays busy in northwest Arkansas as the vice president of the International Bolivian Organization, the interim president of Occam’s Razors, as a photographer for New Student and Family Programs, and as the student coordinator for Friday Night Live, which provides students with alternative on-campus activities.
The UofA offers other tuition advantage programs in addition to the Bolivian Tuition Advantage. Caribbean, Panamanian and Rwandan students may also receive in-state tuition.
Bolivians make up the fourth largest international student group on the campus, preceded by China, India and Panama. Bolivia’s presence at the UofA is due largely in part to Partners of the Americas, which linked Arkansas with eastern Bolivia–Santa Cruz, in particular–in 1964.
“We are unique, from that standpoint,” said Robert Frans, former executive director of the Partners chapter in northwest Arkansas.
Frans, an expert in weed science, made several trips to Bolivia during his more than 30 years as a member of Partners of the Americas. He primarily worked with locals to make agricultural developments in Eastern Bolivia.
“It was exciting, getting to know another culture like that,” Frans said. “It was really fulfilling. I think it opened me up a good bit.”
While on a Partners-related trip to Bolivia in 1973, Frans met Maria Teresa Villanueva, a native Bolivian who was an English teacher in La Paz. Just six months later, the two married, and Maria Teresa Frans returned with her husband to Fayetteville to study languages at the university.
“In the early years of the program, she was looked upon as one of the ‘mothers,’ I suppose, of the students who were getting started up here,” Frans said of her involvement with Bolivian students at the UofA.
It was upon her death in 1994 that the Maria Teresa Frans scholarship was established for Bolivians. The scholarship offers $500 to one eligible student each year.
“We are happy to provide this support for Bolivian students,” Frans said. “We only wish it were larger.”
Ana Lucia Paz Soldan Andrade is the most recent recipient, as she was awarded the scholarship last fall.
The Bolivian community in Fayetteville tightens further as connections are made after those students begin their schooling. Sometimes, students will end up on the same airline headed back to Bolivia, said freshman Fernanda Suarez, who also met up with her cousin upon her arrival to Fayetteville.
Zeballos didn’t make connections with peers he knew from back home after his arrival, although he said he has known a couple of older students from his high school who attended the UofA, and he’s become close friends with several Bolivians since his arrival.
Perhaps because Zeballos is active within the Bolivian community here in northwest Arkansas, he makes it back to Santa Cruz about once a year. He’s able to keep in frequent contact with his parents back home, mostly via text message, and he receives emotional and financial support from his parents for his Arkansas adventures.
He determined, after doing extensive research, that Fayetteville was a good place to begin a career and, ultimately, a life.
“It was a life changing decision,” Zeballos said.