Last Updated: August 15, 2018, 1:39 pm

Saipanese student overcomes typhoon, collectivist culture to attend DSU


For Allison Arellano, the decision to attend Dixie State University was not an easy one. Although Dixie State University is home to thousands of impressive students, for Allison, simply attending DSU is near-miraculous. 

Allison is a sophomore integrated studies major from a tiny island in the Northern Mariana Islands called Saipan. Life was no paradise for Allison and her five Saipanese peers who would later attend DSU by her side. From a young age, she learned how to always be thankful, cope with emotional distress, and understand that tough situations are simply a part of life. She didn’t realize her lack of privilege until she arrived at DSU, a place where she and her five peers wouldn’t be without their hard work, dedication and the generous help of others.

The most impactful experience for Allison was a devastating obstacle named Soudelor. Soudelor was a tropical storm that was predicted to swirl past Saipan in 2015 with minimal impact, but by the time 17-year-old Allison’s house was demolished, Soudelor had become a Category 4 typhoon. Saipan was completely without power and resources for months, hundreds were without homes, and life was never quite the same for its citizens.

“My mom got severely injured; my house got destroyed; we started from scratch all over again,” Allison said. “So, the conversation of going to college was really tough; that was probably the hardest part.”

Although Allison wished to pursue higher education on the U.S. mainland, after the typhoon, her parents begged her to stay and help them in their struggle of life after disaster. Allison said her parents were looking for a short-term answer to their problems, but Allison, after bearing the emotional weight of such a decision, decided she would go to school to bring long-term relief later in life. Even though leaving the island was frowned upon on Saipan, a place of collectivist culture, Allison decided it was best to get her education elsewhere.

Allison, with the help of her mentor, Gerard Van Gils, attended college preparation courses, tutoring sessions and began to fundraise with her group of peers. Van Gils bought the group a refrigerator, which they would soon reimburse him for, so they could sell ice cream as a way to help finance their journey. The students scooped ice cream on the island every day for months on end, making up to $400 a day.

“From the island of Saipan, in the Northern Mariana Islands, it is extremely rare and difficult to leave for college,” Van Gils said. “But that’s a problem as we are one of only two places in America lacking access to a four-year University, American Samoa being the other. Allison and her friends decided to make the leap as a cohort.”

Soon enough, word began to spread about what the six were doing.

“It started getting out there, people started talking, we were in the newspapers; it was like a big thing,” Allison said.

The group began to receive donations from local hotels, friends and family, corporations and tourists on their island. Along with scholarship money, they launched a GoFundMe account that continues to contribute to the futures of Saipanese students. The group became known as the Million Dollar Scholars. Now because of students like Allison Arellano, future Million Dollar Scholars are hopeful.

“Allison exemplifies our mission, the potential of our scholars, and the grit required to stay in college,” Van Gils said. “Allison is a first-generation American, a first-generation college student, and she is first to offer help and support to her friends. I love and admire her.”

Allison’s best friend, Richelle Castro, a sophomore criminal justice major from Saipan, said Allison plays the “mom” role in their group, meaning she acts as their voice.

“She is a very outspoken person and full of energy,” Castro said. “She will never stop to succeed and never hesitates to solve a problem.”

Despite adjusting to a new world, Allison is now a successful, full-time, first-generation college student at DSU. She continues to prioritize her education, alongside her group of peers from home, to make her dreams a reality. After her second semester at DSU, Allison won the Awards of Excellence and Perseverance at the annual TRiO banquet and continues to impress her advisers with her warm heart, work ethic and dedication.

“My favorite thing about Allison is that she always has a beautiful smile on her face,” said Allison’s TRiO adviser Valerie Housley. “Allison is the kind of student that never misses a class and hands in her homework early and done with precision. Allison is not only worried about her own welfare, but the success of those around her.”

Allison’s story has been printed in a book that is now being used as a tool of inspiration and learning in Saipanese high schools called The Million Dollar Scholars Of Kagman High School. After beating tremendous odds, Allison is a critical part of the change that Saipanese students will benefit from for years to come.