Spotlights

Lela Nickell, ’84, sat back in her seat at the Stubblefield Center with tears streaming down her face. “I didn’t realize how much I wanted it until then,” she said. As she watched the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith students cross the stage and graduate, Nickell knew she wanted her bachelor’s degree. She told her husband that watching them made her want to go back to school. He reminded her that she couldn’t quit her job.
Leanna Zimmerman, ’15, planned to start her job hunt closer to graduation in May, but an ordinary day of waitressing gave her a head start. Zimmerman worked for three and a half years as a waitress at Chili’s while studying marketing at the University of Arkansas – Fort Smith. She went to work that November day that seemed like any other when she served a table that would start her professional career.
Angie Stout, ’15, stood outside a science lab listening to an 18-year-old student admit to being nervous as she hadn’t had the class since a sophomore in high school. “It had been over 20 years since I’d had science,” said Stout with a laugh. But she didn’t doubt herself.  She knew she could learn. “I’ve always loved to read and there’s a lot of learning in reading,” Stout said. She made it past the science class and on May 9, she graduated cum laude, earning with a bachelor’s degree in English with teacher licensure. Her third attempt at college proved the charm. After graduating from Cedarville High School in 1985, she enrolled at Westark Community College. During the day, she worked full time at a factory and tried to take classes at night toward her business major. She quit school.
Vi Tran moved with her family from Vietnam to Fort Smith five years ago in search of a better future through a quality education, and she’s finding it at the University of Arkansas - Fort Smith. “I was born in Vietnam and lived there for 13 years,” Tran said. “My parents moved here for my sister and me, so we would have a better education and better future with more opportunity.” Tran, a sophomore bio-chemistry major who graduated from Southside High School, hopes to attend medical school in Mount Sinai in New York and begin a career as a surgeon. It’s a daunting profession requiring years of schooling, and it begins with a four-year baccalaureate degree from UAFS. “I keep thinking that somebody from a bigger school might be learning something that I won’t here, but I’m realizing that I’m learning the same things that people are learning at bigger schools,” she said. “I think UAFS is better for me emotionally, being this close to home, and it’s preparing me just as well academically for a career in the medical field.”
When Sylvia Nguyen thinks about her future, she also considers her family’s recent past. Specifically, she looks to her parents’, who emigrated from Vietnam as teenagers. “I do want to make them proud,” she said. “They want me to have a better life than what they have, like so many other immigrants.” In 1975, Fort Chaffee near Fort Smith became one of four entry points for Vietnamese fleeing their homeland after the end of the Vietnam War. In that effort, dubbed “Operation New Life,” more than 50,000 refugees went through Fort Chaffee. While many moved to other areas of the United States, some stayed, like Nguyen’s parents, and created a thriving Vietnamese community in Fort Smith.