Over the past several years, Northwestern State University has developed numerous transfer agreements with institutions around the world to promote study-abroad opportunities for both American and international students. Jorge Vargas Martinez, a junior from Cartagena, Colombia, is a junior business administration major at NSU and a prime example of how international students enrich school culture.
Vargas arrived in Natchitoches in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic in August 2021 not knowing anyone and not confident speaking English. It didn’t take long for him to make friends and get involved in all that NSU has to offer. He is part of the Presidential Leadership Program and is a PLP mentor. He was a Freshman Connector this past summer. He plays baritone in the Spirit of Northwestern Demon Marching Band and works at Chick-fil-A. Working with NSU’s International Student Resource Center to assist other students, Vargas realized he enjoys helping people and is aiming to focus on human resources as a career.
Vargas had previously visited the United States, traveling to New York City and to Colorado with his father. Since arriving at NSU, he has visited Mexico and travelled twice to France as an international student recruiter and as part of a research and international business class. NSU President Dr. Marcus Jones, who spearheaded international recruiting years ago, is a special mentor to Vargas and other international students.
Vargas’ humor and outgoing personality contradict his claim that he was a shy person when he first came to Northwestern. His English vocabulary continues to grow and he is quick to teach friends foreign phrases and Colombian slang. NSU staff visited with Vargas to discuss his experiences and why he loves the university. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How did you arrive at NSU?
Vargas: This university has an agreement with my high school, Comfenalco, for the music program so all I had to do was apply and audition and get a scholarship to play with the marching band. I arrived in Fall 2021. It was right after COVID and I was the only Colombian at that moment, and it was kind of hard, but then I found friends over here. We have a large community of international students here at NSU and I really like that. We have a lot people here from every corner of the globe.
What are some things you are involved in?
Vargas: I’m a marching band member. I used to be a Freshman Connector. I’m an international student advisor and I’m doing recruiting sometimes. I work for Sodexo, for the dining service that is Chick-fil-A. I’ve been there for two years. I started as a dishwasher and now I’m kitchen leader. That’s crazy. I love it.
How did you become a Freshman Connector?
Vargas: That’s a good story. They offered it to me at the beginning. I didn’t want to. Then Dr. Jones brought me into [Director of Fraternal Leadership and Civic Engagement] Mary Katherine’s [Maggio] office. At the table there were two papers and he said, “I need your signature on this one and this is your recommendation card. Just do it. Trust me. You’re going to enjoy it and have fun.” I took his advice, and it was amazing. I loved it. I had the chance to hang out with all these new people, get out of my comfort zone, meet my Connectors. I love them. They are cool people. I loved my team.
What did you add as an international student Freshman Connector?
Vargas: My role was to be the diversity part and taking care of all the international students and people that are from here, but they are bilingual, and provide information to them and their parents that may not speak English. There was this dad who talked with me and said, “My daughter just wanted to be on your team.” They were from Peru, but they moved to the United States because of the Army. He told me “We saw your information before the presentation and she said, ‘I want to be able to speak Spanish with someone during this transition from high school to college.’” I was helpful.
What’s something really memorable you’ve done?
Vargas: Go to the BCM. I’m not Baptist but I love that place. It’s the nicest place on campus. The first American person who came and talked to me here in the States was from the BCM and they saw me walking around campus and that person told me, “Hey, do you want to join to us tonight?” I didn’t know it was a Baptist place. They just said, “Come on and have fun and hang out with us.”
Talk about going to France.
Vargas: It was an international business class. You do research on the differences between France and the United States. The second time I went to do recruitment and convinced international students to come study here at NSU. I was supposed to be like a leader to take care of the rest of the people in the group but at the same time try to help them to do research and do recruitment. I recruited seven students.
What do you think the international students add to the university?
Vargas: I think our energy, our traditions and culture. We are everywhere. We have events where we teach Americans how to dance, like the Fiesta Siesta. We enjoy that. We hang out with Americans and share our energy.
Dr. Jones is known for taking international students under his wing. Can you talk about that?
Vargas: He used to be the guy in charge of international students. For me he’s just an angel. He’s a blessing. He takes care of everybody. He has international students to his house and has dinner with us and takes care of us. He saw potential in me that I didn’t see in myself.
What do you love about NSU?
Vargas: Everything! Purple and white, I love them. I love my campus. I love my people. I love faculty and staff. It’s just my place to be. I tell this story to everybody: when I came here, I didn’t feel comfortable at the beginning, but then I realized I love it here, so I went to the Campus Marketplace and bought my cap and gown. I also really care about the international students. They have a lot to offer the university and the traditions that we have here. I like to try new things.
What would you say to an international student to encourage them to come to Northwestern and what would you say to an American student to encourage them to study abroad?
Vargas: For an international student, I would say come to Louisiana. They have a lot of culture here. You’re going to love it here. You’re going to feel at home. We have nice food over here. Just take the step. Don’t be scared about it. There are people here who are going to take care of you, people like me. We are going to be completely helpful. It’s going to be kind of hard, but you’re going to have fun.
For an American student to encourage to go abroad: Just do it. Go out of the States, go to new places and new countries and learn a little bit about other places around the world.
I think that people should come and try to meet an international student. If you see them around, talk to them, learn about their stories. Everybody here at NSU has a different story. Ask them about how they feel. Ask them about cultures and traditions. Be open minded about it. Get involved. I will share the best advice I ever got in my life: find new people every single day. It’s worth it.
Information on NSU’s study-abroad opportunities can be accessed at https://www.nsula.edu/international/