Four years ago, Denise Chavez Reyes arrived at ETSU from Ecuador without knowing what to expect. This May, she walked across the commencement stage with her degree and a newfound passion for serving others.

ETSU wasn’t the first university that came to Chavez Reyes’ mind when applying for colleges, but her decision to come here was one that shaped the person she is today.

Chavez Reyes went to high school at the American School of Guayaquil, her hometown in Ecuador. In 2011, she met Michael Marks of ETSU, who was at her school for teacher training. She had never heard of ETSU before, but he encouraged her to apply, and the rest is history.

“[Marks] approached me and asked me to apply to ETSU, helped me with my SAT, came to my high school graduation and even helped establish a scholarship for me to come here,” Chavez Reyes said.

Originally from Guayaquil, a city of 2 million people, she experienced a bit of a culture shock upon arrival to the hills of Tennessee.

“It took a while to get used to the South because I am from a big city. My first day in Tennessee I heard donkeys out on a farm,” she said, laughing.

However, the transition was not a hard one to make thanks to ETSU’s welcoming international community.

“International Buccaneer Buddies was welcoming from the very beginning,” she said. “When I was eating alone in the Marketplace, a member invited me to a table, and from that day we all started becoming friends.”

Since this early involvement, Chavez Reyes has been an active member of the ETSU international student community. She was the president of the Human Services Student Organization, co-president of President’s Pride, vice president of the International Student Association and an active member of the Hispanic American Student Community Alliance during her undergraduate career.

Chavez Reyes, who completed her Bachelor’s in Human Services this spring, will return to ETSU in the fall to pursue a Master’s in Public Administration. After being motivated by her parents to pursue a graduate degree, she chose to stay at ETSU because it has become her American home.

“In my culture and in my family, we value education highly,” she said. “We believe that there is never one moment in life when you ‘know enough.’”

For her graduate assistantship, she will work as a Program Coordinator for QUEST for Success. She has also worked as a QUEST leader and QUEST intern, and loves the program because it gives her the chance to influence other students to become leaders and fulfill their own potential.

“Working with QUEST, I learned that everyone needs a voice,” she said. “Being a leader and impacting others is something that society needs to encourage, but instead we discourage that through conformity. I’ve come to understand that people have potential in different areas but often don’t realize it, so I want to push people to get out of their comfort zones.”

She was pushed out of her own comfort zone this April when a devastating earthquake rocked her home country of Ecuador.

“I felt lost in the daily uncertainty and in the hope that everything would be OK,” she said.

Even being thousands of miles away in Tennessee, she still wanted to help. Chavez Reyes used her voice and the leadership abilities she learned at ETSU to spearhead the university’s involvement in aiding victims of this tragedy, along with the corresponding earthquakes in Japan.

“I worked with Japanese students to raise funds with donation booths and yard sales to send money back to our homes,” she said. “And we had a much better turnout than what I expected.”

International students coming together to support one another in situations like these are what she loves most about the strong community she has found at ETSU.

“I get to impact students and then encourage them to impact others,” she said. “It’s a domino effect. I want to show all minority students that they can make a difference.”