Esthela Criollo Ventres, a recent graduate of UA Little Rock, has been honored as Student of the Year in the Master of Public Administration program at UA Little Rock.
“Receiving an award was wonderful for me, but unexpected,” Criollo Ventres said. “The university has been very supportive. I’m so grateful for my advisors, my professors, and my classmates. The program has been great.”
Born and raised in El Salvador in Central America, Criollo Ventres earned a bachelor’s degree in public accounting and a master’s degree in educational technology. She worked for the Salvadoran Ministry of Education for over 15 years.
In 2011, Criollo Ventres met her husband, Dr. Bill Ventres, at a restaurant on the Pacific coast. He had come to El Salvador on a Fulbright scholarship intending to stay for one year, but ended up staying for five.
“When I came to Little Rock, I couldn’t speak much English,” Criollo Ventres said. “We met in El Salvador, and my husband could speak Spanish well. Five years later when we got married, I said I want to learn English and I want to get a degree in the U.S. Having a bicultural family gave me the motivation I needed.”
In 2017, Criollo Ventres and her husband moved to Little Rock, and she entered the Intensive English Language Program (IELP) at UA Little Rock.
“Learning a different language as an adult is hard, and it takes time and patience,” Criollo Ventres said. “Having a supportive university has been really important. The Communications Skills Center, the IELP, and Ottenheimer Library have given me a lot of help and support.”
While earning her master’s degree, Criollo Ventres has been volunteering at free or low-cost clinics that serve immigrants in Little Rock, like Harmony Health Clinic at UAMS 12th Street Health and Wellness Center.
“Esthela is simply amazing,” said Dr. Jerry Stevenson, professor and graduate coordinator of the MPA program. “Her graduate work has been nothing but stellar. And best of all, she is genuinely kind and giving, always willing to assist other students when needed.”
After volunteering for one year at El Zócalo Immigrant Resource Center, Criollo Ventres became the organization’s health program coordinator.
“El Zócalo means town square in Spanish,” Criollo Ventres said. “It works with the Mexican Consulate to provide basic needs for immigrants. We have a food pantry, provide used clothes, and serve as a resource referral center. We help immigrants access community services and navigate the system when they don’t speak English.”
In her position, Criollo Ventres has seen firsthand the difficulties that immigrants face when looking for healthcare. Because of the language barrier and high cost, many immigrant families are unable to communicate with healthcare professionals and need interpreters to speak with their healthcare professionals.
“In the clinics and hospitals that I work with, I am trying to help immigrants connect with their healthcare professionals,” Criollo Ventres said. “When immigrants hear someone speak in their native language, it gives them hope. In many cases, they don’t feel like they belong to this community. They feel isolated. When someone speaks their language, they feel hope and they feel better just because somebody cares. The sense of being a part of the community is a huge need.”
In addition to her MPA, Criollo Ventres is finishing her studies at UA Little Rock to gain a graduate certificate in nonprofit organization management. She hopes to find employment locally in the public or non-for-profit sector where she can put her skills, knowledge, experience, and education to work to help people.
Criollo Ventres’ long-term goal is to start an educational nonprofit in El Salvador.
“Having a nonprofit in my own country is my dream for my retirement,” she said. “ I want to find a way to help people. If people in El Salvador have their basic needs met, maybe they won’t have to cross the border and put their lives in danger. This is my dream for the future.”