A baker's dozen Samford University graduating seniors will wear colorful red, blue and yellow cords with their black commencement robes this weekend. The colors represent the flag of Ecuador, where they each spent part of a summer to complete a minor in Latin American Studies.
The 13 members of Samford's first graduating class of Latin American Studies Scholars majored in a variety of subjects, including English, business and history, but they all claim a common interest in the culture, history and language of Latin America.
"I could not have asked for a more perfect combination of my interests," said Latin American Studies Scholar Kyle Young, who will graduate with a double major in history and Spanish.
In addition to the three-week study trip for immersion in the culture of Ecuador, Latin American Studies Scholars took courses in Latin American history, language, political science and geography.
The new graduates will put their degrees and unique expertise to use in a variety of situations and places, some faraway, others not so distant.
Young has a job lined up in the South American nation of Bolivia, thousands of miles from his hometown of Tupelo, Miss. Alabama native Kelsie Robinson will work with the Hispanic community in Birmingham.
Others, such as Jenae' Steele, will pursue graduate studies. The history major from Montgomery, Ala., will study at the University of Texas Law School with plans to use her law degree to work on social justice issues.
Young enrolled at Samford with some high school travel experience in South America, but the college-level studies broadened his understanding of historical and cultural themes of Latin America, he said.
He spent parts of two Samford summers on study trips to Ecuador, first as a participant and later as a teacher's assistant. "I learned about Latin America through experiencing it," said Young, who eventually wants to attend graduate school, perhaps a seminary. For the next two years, however, he will be a missionary-teacher of social studies at an international Christian school in La Paz, Bolivia. It is an English-speaking school with about 70 percent of its students from Bolivia.
Robinson will work with the Hispanic community in and around Birmingham. The Language and World Trade major found the community service hours required by the Latin American Studies curriculum to be life-changing.
A freshman year experience that made her step outside her comfort zone became a turning point in her life, Robinson said of her work with an English as a Second Language class for Hispanics. She quickly bonded with members of Birmingham's Hispanic community and sought more ways to interact with her new friends.
"Those community service hours were the beginning of a lifelong commitment to the Hispanic community here in Alabama," said Robinson, who is from Vestavia Hills.
The more she gets involved, however, the more Robinson learns about misunderstandings between the Hispanic community and many Alabamians.
"The people of the Hispanic community are more than happy to communicate with me when I open my ears and express an interest in what they have to say. I hope to spread this joy of communication throughout my community, encouraging dialogues between the two groups," said Robinson.
She said she hopes to identify ways to make her home sate a better place by connecting the people in it. Her appreciation for Alabama's Hispanic community runs deep, and is strengthened by "its diversity, its history, and its potential."
Samford's Latin American Studies Scholars advisor Dr. Lynda J. Jentsch is proud of all of the students she has mentored during their unique academic journey.
"It was my privilege to teach these students," said Jentsch, professor of Spanish and Portuguese and Spanish Program director in Samford's Department of World Languages and Culture. "They will go far, literally, in whatever paths their lives take."
The complete roster of Samford's inaugural Latin American Studies Scholars graduates includes: Caroline Burkhardt, Margaret Frymire, Sarah Fultz, Ryan Gaines, Ashley Hall, Jane Marie Hutcheson, Carmen Patulea, Reed Richardson, Kelsie Robinson, Alexis Rollins, Abby Sander, Jenae' Steele and Kyle Young.
They will be among about 900 graduating seniors receiving Samford degrees during commencement activity May 17-18.