Isaac Barrantes, a third-year student in the University of Memphis’ Department of Architecture, is many things. Minister’s son. Husband. Native of Alajuela, Costa Rica. Former college athlete. Holder of three undergraduate degrees.
And now, citizen of the United States.
“Becoming a citizen is a big process,” Barrantes said. “It’s a big process for those of us who are not living in a country where you are being chased by a dictator or someone like that.”
Barrantes’ inspiring story is one of the more diverse tales you’ll find on the U of M’s campus. Its latest chapter happened last fall, when Barrantes, 28, completed the lengthy requirements and testing to gain his American citizenship.
It was as much a test of endurance as it was a test of knowledge, given that much of Barrantes’ time is dominated by his architectural studies at the U of M.
His wife, Nadja, of Brazil, had already gained her U.S. citizenship. Two of Barrentes’ U of M studio mates, Kayla Bolden and Matt Simmons, helped him navigate the citizenship requirements and often quizzed him before he took the final exam. Using PowerPoint slides and loads of encouragement, they’d run him through questions on U.S. history and government before their architect classes or whenever they had a few moments of free time.
“They found ways to kind of help me remember this word and that word,” he said. “The whole intensity of that scary feeling of an officer of immigration … After you pass, you can tell the room kinda feels a little more clearer.”
Barrantes first came to the United States in 1999 when his father, Rafael Barrantes, a Hispanic minister, studied at the Memphis School of Preaching and was later hired by a church in Russellville, Alabama. At the time, Barrantes spoke only Spanish and learned English through watching cartoons on television and his English as a Second Language classes in school.
Their family spent five years in Alabama and moved to Jackson, Tennessee, when Rafael was offered a position at a church there. Barrentes graduated from high school in Jackson and accepted a soccer scholarship to Freed-Hardeman University in Henderson, Tennessee, where he eventually earned three degrees: one in missions-based theology, one in graphic design and one in Spanish that required him to study in Spain.
After graduating from Freed-Hardeman, he worked in graphic design for Federal Express in Jackson, but he remained unfulfilled in his career.
“I’ve always wanted to be an architect,” Barrantes said. “When I went to Freed-Hardeman, I felt like I didn’t have much of a choice. I had a soccer scholarship, and I was excited about that, and nobody really advised me to look into my dreams at first. I really didn’t look at what the university had or if it even had architecture (classes).”
The graphic-design work at FedEx wasn’t what he expected, but he didn’t see the point in going back to school so soon.
“I wasn’t really happy,” he said. “My wife said, ‘Why don’t you keep following your dream?’ (But) after three degrees, you just feel like what’s the point of going back to school? Why don’t you make the best of what you got? But she continued to push me.”
Nadja’s urgings finally worked. “We made the big change,” Barrantes said. He and his wife sold their house in Jackson and moved to Memphis more than four years ago so he could enroll in the U of M’s Department of Architecture.
Today, Barrantes has a clear a vision for his career after graduation.
“I want to go into church design,” he said. “I guess it’s because I have been around it my whole life and seeing some of the things that could be enhanced. I really love that you can create a space that can amplify your spiritual feeling, amplify your worship. I feel like a lot of churches today are missing that, the spiritual amplification of the space.”
— Phillip Tutor, CCFA media coordinator, firstname.lastname@example.org