The first thing Macarena Arce explains is her name. Though some may assume that Macarena, pronounced like the popular song by Los del Río, was so named because of the meaning behind the lyrics, she quickly states that this is not the case.
The song, which describes a woman cheating on her boyfriend with two friends as he’s being sworn into the army, has no connection to the self-assured girl from Lima, Peru.
Arce has been an integral part of anything to which she is connected since a young age, as at ages 4 through 10 she was a member of the gymnastics team that won nationals in Peru two years in a row, and she grew up frequently sailing alongside her family throughout the Pacific.
“And from that moment I decided to work things out on my own,” Arce said of the day she received her acceptance letter from the first college. “If my car broke down, if anything went wrong I would fix it. I wouldn’t ask my parents for help because I wanted to prove that I could do everything by myself, I wanted to show them that I would be okay.”
Arce made the 3,536-mile trip from Peru to Fayetteville in 2014 after deciding that she was meant to study abroad. She attended orientation with all the incoming international students and met Natalia Johnson, a girl from Bolivia.
“I thought to myself,” Johnson, Arce’s roommate and best friend said, “we might be good friends someday because the more we spoke I felt like the more we knew we were quite similar.”
To spend even a few minutes with Arce would lead most people to say the same thing. She walks with a confidence that one might carry after being independent for several years, maintains engaging eye contact while in conversation and is openly friendly from the first hello.
Almudena Arce, the younger sister of Arce, describes the sailing experiences of the duo as some of her favorite memories as a child.
“We have done many trips inside and outside of Peru,” Almudena said in an email. “Traveling by ourselves, caring for each other and exploring new challenges at very young ages, these are the things that shaped my sister and I growing up.”
This self-exploration and liberated journeying are the keys to understanding why Macarena was one of only two students from her graduating class of 120 people that decided to leave their city and pursue an education elsewhere.
“It’s very different in Peru because when you go to college everyone continues to live with their parents,” Arce explained. “Most of the time lasts until you get married, and most everyone gets married in their thirties. So, my leaving at 19 was just really unheard of.”
Arce was unsure how her parents would feel about her desire to venture out into the world, but she had visited her cousin at Yale University the summer before her first semester of school in Peru and had become enraptured with American colleges.
“So, I filled out all the paperwork,” Arce said, recalling the moment with a look of nostalgia, “and right before applying I sat my parents down and told them, ‘This is what I want, this is what I did, what do you think about it?’”
Sitting on the couch that day in their home her parents were supportive, though reserved with their excitement on the matter, and Arce could sense their anxiety about the possibility of their daughter living in a country thousands of miles away.
The fact that Arce had been learning to speak English since age 5 was a major benefit of growing up in Peru, where many private schools are tied to another language and system so that students can be equipped to be in a better position upon graduating, as Peru is not as developed as the U.S.
Since moving overseas, Arce has found herself in a world of much difference from that of which she came. Living with roommates, one from Bolivia, one Mexican-American and one American has offered Arce a completely new perspective on people from various nationalities, countries and beliefs.
“I believe moving to a new place on your own makes a person more open-minded,” Johnson said of both herself and her friend. “You grow so much as a person and you get to know yourself better. Knowing when you need your own space, what you like to cook for yourself, what type of people you do and don’t get along with. It completely changes a person.”
Arce’s independency is apparent through her willingness to challenge herself, whether by competing in gymnastics until she was forced to quit for an abundance of broken bones, sailing, attempting taekwondo, which resulted in crutches for an entire semester, or obtaining the position of a board member in the Associated Student Government of the university.
“She is also very competitive and determined,” Johnson emphasized, “because she knows where she wants to end up and what difference she wants to make in the world.”
When asked about the qualities of Peru that she often finds herself missing, Arce laughed and said, “Well, definitely not the traffic or time scheduling. In Lima, if someone asks you to meet them at a coffee shop at 4, you should expect to see them around 5. That’s just how life works in Peru.”
“I do really miss how people are more touchy back home,” Arce offered after a second of thought. “Everyone kisses when saying hello, there’s just more contact there than there is here, and it’s sometimes comforting in that way.”
Thinking back to her life before she had experienced dorms and doing one’s own laundry, Arce knows she’s never been more sure of a decision in her life.
“It all started with my drive to the full ride scholarship office and the first question I asked them,” Arce said. “’What do I need to do to study in the U.S.?’ And once I was holding the acceptance letters in my hand, I had no doubt that I was going to be just fine.”