AFTER THE COMPACT of Free Association with the U.S. was signed in 1986, many Marshallese settled in the Springdale area as transfers from Tyson Foods facilities in the Marshall Islands. Now with more than 4,300 members, Northwest Arkansas is home to one of the largest Marshallese communities in the U.S. Jessica Olson and her family left the Marshall Islands and arrived in Northwest Arkansas in 2001 when Jessica was in the second grade. Now she is the first teacher of Marshallese descent in the Springdale School District, the district she attended as a student. Though she did not set out to be a leader, Jessica understands and embraces her role-model position for minority students.
On Teaching Marshallese Students as a former Marshallese Student: The Marshallese community is kind of separate from the rest of the community here, so I want to be that person that the Marshallese kids look up to. The main thing that I’m trying to do is show them that they don’t have to stop at the high school level—they can go to college. They don’t think they can afford it, but they don’t know about grants and loans and stuff like that. I want to show them that I did it, and they can, too.
On Adapting to a New Culture: Marshallese culture and American culture are completely different. The culture in the Marshall Islands is historically a male-dominated culture, though they recently elected a woman as president. Most women in the Marshall Islands stay home and do the cooking and cleaning, and the men get out and work. My mom is from the Marshall Islands, but my dad is from Wisconsin, so we were pretty Americanized when we moved here. I think they knew that we were going to move to the States so they were preparing us for that.
On Being a Reluctant Trailblazer: My mom was a teacher in the Marshall Islands, and my dad retired from education, but I didn’t want to get into education. I wanted to do my own thing. And then I started working in an after-school program, actually, it was at the school I teach at now. The student population was mostly Hispanic and Marshallese, and I really enjoyed working with the kids. I didn’t set out to be the first Marshallese teacher; I didn’t even know that I was the first Marshallese teacher until they told me.
On Instilling Confidence in a Kid: I coach seventh and eighth-grade basketball, and confidence is really something the Marshallese girls on my team lack. They don’t believe in themselves. Their expectations are low, and I don’t know where it really comes from. I know many of their parents work a lot, sometimes the kids don’t see their parents for more than an hour every day, so I try to be a positive in their lives. We’ve talked about the importance of confidence in basketball and in life, and I encourage them, I tell them they can do more. Coaching isn’t just about basketball. It’s important to help them become better people.
The Marshallese Education Initiative in Springdale frequently offers courses on Marshallese language and culture. For more info, visit mei.ngo.