Sebastian Roldan Gomez sat in Marcus Jones’ office asking about the price of a plane ticket to return to his native Colombia.
Roldan Gomez had attended classes at Northwestern State University for a few weeks, said his English was “awful,” and he couldn’t make friends even with fellow Colombians.
Jones, now NSU’s Executive Vice President for University & Business Affairs who has been a leader in expanding the school’s international student population, made Roldan Gomez a promise.
“He said, ‘Let’s take a video of everything that you’re saying,’” Roldan Gomez recalled. “’Give yourself three months, and at the end of the semester, if you think you still can’t stay here, I’ll pay for your ticket home.’
“That was almost four years ago now, and I’m still here.”
Roldan Gomez will be one of 12 Colombian students to graduate May 10 in Prather Coliseum. He’ll graduate with a bachelor’s degree in computer information systems after already obtaining an undergraduate business degree.
The group of Colombian students represent the largest single graduating class since Jones and others started making inroads into Central and South America toward the beginning of this decade.
Arguably the most important trip came when Jones heard the orchestra at Universitaria Tecnologico Comfenalco in Cartagena, a secondary school in the Colombian coastal city.
Jones returned with Bill Brent, then the director of NSU’s School of Creative and Performing Arts, who heard the orchestra and offered 28 students music scholarships on a 2012 trip.
The first five of those students enrolled in 2013, starting an impactful pipeline between Colombia and Natchitoches that’s expanded to seven different Colombian schools. NSU has 22 exchange agreements with schools in nine different countries on four different continents.
“I think it’s been a major cultural exchange for our domestic students because the international students really integrate well, befriend and are befriended by our American students,” said Jones, who started to expand NSU’s international program at the request of former NSU President Dr. Randall Webb. “Many have met life partners, gotten married and are starting families with Americans.
“The other impact I see is the desire to continue their education. Many are staying here to work on masters and doctoral degrees. Many of the students we’ve recruited from the Cartagena region come from low-income families, so this whole process is life-changing not just for them but for their entire families. You see this process lifting an entire family out of the struggle they’ve dealt with.”
Aura Hernandez Canedo was part of the Cartagena pipeline centered around music, the most common path for Colombian students to NSU.
Hernandez Canedo finished five semesters of chemical engineering at Universidad de Cartagena before transferring to NSU, where she’ll graduate with degrees in music performance and industrial engineering on May 10.
“I’ve met so many people from so many different cultures here — America, Jordan, Dubai, Nepal — and my violin professor (Andrej Kurti) is from Serbia,” Hernandez Canedo said. “Nothing has really been that difficult because everyone has been willing to help.
“I was a little shy speaking in the beginning because I didn’t want to embarrass myself. But everyone welcomes us with open arms, and they say, ‘It’s OK if you make a mistake, we’ll correct you.’”
Hernandez Canedo initially started singing but fell in love with the violin in the sixth grade.
“I would like to be in music my whole life, and I’ll be OK as long as I’m playing,” Hernandez Canedo said. “I’d be happy teaching, too.”
The majority of Colombian students are on musical performance scholarships. Those students are often featured in special performances reserved for the highest achieving musicians.
“These students truly love music and love playing it,” Jones said. “They are some of the hardest working students, and I think it goes back to how they were trained in the Colombian institutions.
“In Colombia and other places like Honduras, there really isn’t anywhere for classical music students to go after they finish high school. So they come to NSU to play because this is what they love to do and because there are more options here.”
Jones encourages Colombian students to get degrees outside of music, especially if they want return to Colombia.
“Business, engineering and music business are three degrees that they tend to gravitate toward,” Jones said. “It goes back to the type of options they have available to them if they go back home.
“A music degree might not be as financially viable as an engineering or business degree. They can come here to get an engineering degree, fund that degree partially with music scholarships, and then go home and still get musical training if they want to do music, but they are armed with another degree that might open more doors.”
Roldan Gomez will likely return to Colombia, possibly to his home Pereira in central Colombia. But his dream is to go back to Los Angeles, where he worked at an internship equivalent for international students at a technology firm focused on the environment.
“I was excited to be able to use some knowledge from college, but I was scared at the same time because you don’t know anyone,” Roldan Gomez said. “I came here with a dream, and that’s all we have.
“I’ve used my (internship), so the only way I can stay (in the U.S.) is to find a company to hire me through a sponsorship.”
Wherever Roldan Gomez and Hernandez Canedo end up, they’ve found a community in Natchitoches that they will forever remember.
“We’re far away from our families in Colombia, but we became a family here,” Roldan Gomez said. “These people have become my family.
“We feel that everyone here at NSU wanted us to succeed, whether it’s asking somebody where a building was, asking professors extra questions or another student sharing a calculator.”
For more information resources available for international students at Northwestern State go tonsula.edu/international.
CUTLINE: Northwestern State students from Colombia play music at an International Food Festival in downtown Natchitoches in 2018. Drummer Fabian Correa and flutist Hassik Vasquez are two of 12 NSU Colombian students graduating May 10, the largest Colombian contingency to receive degrees since students began arriving in 2013.