By Jerry Duggan
As president of both the high school and junior college divisions of St. John’s College (SJC) in Belize City, Belize, Mirtha Alice Peralta is busy and engaged in her community. She is a devout Catholic who best applies her faith through her actions, words and deeds. As president of SJC, she has taken significant steps to improve the opportunities available to its students, keeping Jesuit values in mind every step of the way.
Born in Belize as the third of six children in a Catholic family, Peralta originally sought to be an accountant, and attended SJC, the institution she now leads. Upon completion of her junior college education, her family was not able to afford her pursuit of a bachelor’s degree in accounting, so Peralta, whose mother and older sisters were already in education, decided to give teaching a try.
“Because I had so many family members who were educators and they spoke about how fulfilling their career was, I decided to try it for myself,” she said.
Alice began her career at the elementary level and then moved to the secondary level at an all-girls high school and then to a co-ed high school. During those early years, Peralta had opportunities along the way to launch a career in accounting but ultimately committed to being an educator because of her love for the classroom. While pursuing her teaching career she also completed a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from the University of Belize, which she supplemented with a Master of Education in educational leadership from the University of North Florida.
In 2003, she joined the teaching staff of the high school division at SJC, and, two years later, moved to the junior college division. She was subsequently named as the academic chair of the business department and led the department for the next four years. Alice then served as interim dean and dean for six years before being named president in 2015.
In this role, Peralta has little free time, so she finds the best way to express her faith is through action.
“I incorporate my faith into everything I do here at SJC,” she said. “When I work with students, teachers and parents, I am doing it to further the mission of our school, yes, but ultimately I am doing it all for God.”
As president of St. John’s, Peralta has taken bold steps to transform the campus of St. John’s College, both in terms of the physical plant and the opportunities it affords its faculty and students.
Most notably, she has overseen efforts to make the campus more accessible for persons with disabilities, helped kickstart partnerships and collaborative efforts with other Jesuit higher educational institutions and engineered the school’s admission into the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities (AJCU).
“Persons with disabilities are a marginalized group everywhere, but that is especially the case in Belize,” she said, explaining one of her priorities. “There is little in place in terms of accommodations and legislation to help them.”
Peralta, long an advocate of the disabled, based her approach on the Jesuit ideal of cura personalis.
“We wanted to make our campus more physically accessible for those with disabilities, of course, but this is just part of a broader effort, in line with our Jesuit mission, to promote a culture of inclusion,” she elaborated. “Our efforts to make it more welcoming for persons with disabilities are no small part of that.”
Under Peralta’s leadership, St. John’s College has entered into agreements with other Jesuit institutions of higher education to broaden its course offerings. A partnership with Loyola University New Orleans helped the school launch its music program, the only such collegiate level program in Belize. An online, collaborative program in business has been initiated with John Carroll University, allowing SJC graduates to complete a four-year business degree from John Carroll at a discounted price.
For Peralta, the key to these efforts is the underlying moral obligation to make Jesuit education accessible for all.
“Many of our students would not be able to afford an education without discounts, special opportunities and collaborations,” she said. “As a Jesuit institution, we are called to help make that a reality for them.”
Peralta also stewarded the school’s application to become a full member of AJCU. This membership is has had tangible benefits for SJC students.
“We don’t really have an accreditation system or board in Belize, so being a full member of AJCU adds further credibility to our school internationally,” she said.
What’s more, the membership will open more doors for current and future SJC students.
“Since we have become an AJCU member, our students are more easily able to transfer into universities in the U.S., and more of their transfer credits are accepted, too,” she said.
In addition to all of her on-campus efforts, Peralta has taken time to shepherd an outreach into the broader nation. Within the last year, SJC has undertaken several immersion trips into the nation’s remote regions in the Toledo District, a geographically isolated, historically socio-economically disadvantaged part of the country, to meet with local students and parents to discuss their academic needs. Following these conversations, SJC begun to offer online courses to Toledo residents, including students from the surrounding Mayan villages, in programs such as criminal justice, business entrepreneurship, biology and chemistry.
Peralta has brought all of these initiatives into existence because of her strong faith, infused with Jesuit values.
“I try my best, through all that I do as president, to live out Jesuit values – to care for the less fortunate, to be engaged in social justice efforts and do everything for the greater glory of God,” she said.
For her, to be a “good person” and a person of faith, what is most important is not what one believes, but rather, what one does.
“Our faith, and in particular our priorities as a Jesuit institution, mandates that we show our faith through action,” she explained. “Having faith and believing in God is one thing, but putting Jesus’ words into action with every person we encounter is what we are really called to do.”
Peralta’s accomplishments at SJC are many, but she remains mindful that all she does is for the greater glory of God.
“I feel very strongly that this is where God wants me to be,” she said. “He is the leader, and I am the follower, just trying to do his will.”