The president of the Republic of the Marshall Islands visited Arkansas's Springdale High School in 2011, in light of the school's large number of Marshallese students. Image: Samantha Baker/ NWAonline

Education Institutions in Arkansas and Oklahoma Help Marshallese Migrants Adapt to the US


The University of Arkansas, in partnership with the Marshallese Education Initiative in nearby Springdale, recently developed a diversity initiative plan to bring more Marshallese students to the university. The three-point plan provides local Marshallese high school students the opportunity to receive targeted advising sessions in math and physics, talk with advisors from the university’s admission office, and directly communicate with the current Marshallese students at the university.

The US is home to more than 22,400 people of Marshallese origin. One-in-five resides in Arkansas and many others in adjacent parts of Oklahoma and Missouri. The city of Springdale, which is 10 miles away from the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, has a Marshallese population of at least 2,000 people, the largest Marshallese community in the continental United States. That number might grow further as more Marshall Islanders are displaced by rising sea levels.

The majority of the Marshallese population in the US arrived after 1986, the year when the Marshall Islands obtained independence from the US and a Compact of Free Association (COFA) was first enacted. Under the terms of the COFA, citizens of the Marshall Islands were given the right to live and work in the US as nonimmigrants. Many chose to move to Arkansas and Oklahoma, a region some might have heard about from local missionaries who went to the islands in the 1970s. The relatively low living cost and abundant low-skilled job opportunities were also appealing. Many Marshallese started to work in the poultry processing industry there.

As the local Marshallese population grew over the years, regional organizations began to develop programs to support the new community. In addition to the new diversity initiative, the University of Arkansas is part of EngageNWA, a project in conjunction with the Northwest Arkansas Council and the Cisneros Center for New Americans, which works to help immigrants integrate in the area and with the University. Other local schools are also working to assist the incoming migrants in adapting. Enid Public Schools (EPS) in Oklahoma offer English Language Learners programs to around 400 Marshallese students, who constitute about one third of the non-English speaking students, and also hired two Marshallese cultural liaisons. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS), the state’s only comprehensive academic health center, has been studying ways to teach diabetes self-management skills in the community, as while they still pay taxes, COFA migrants were denied access to federally funded health care programs. This problem is particularly salient to the Marshallese community, which has one of the world’s highest rates of diabetes.

Individual members of the educational community are also doing their part to help improve the lives of the Marshallese in the US while preserving their distinct culture. After conducting fieldwork with Marshallese community members in Arkansas, Professor Jessica Schwartz and Professor April Brown founded the Marshallese Educational Initiative (MEI) in 2013. The initiative organizes lectures and forums about Marshallese culture and issues that impact the community, such as climate change. MEI is also the key partner with University of Arkansas in the new diversity initiative plan.

“Our college readiness, recruitment, and retention programs take it as a basis that many students have not had the multiple academic, cultural, and social experiences that will prepare them for college—in particular a research university like the U of Arkansas, Fayetteville. Thus our programs seek to level the field, guiding students to prepare for and succeed in college”, Luis Fernando Restrepo, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Diversity and Community of the University of Arkansas told Asia Matters for America about the intention behind the diversity initiative. He also noted that “Early college awareness programs, parent outreach, and more diversity sensible scholarships are needed to adequately support Marshallese and other underserved student groups in Arkansas.”