The Ultimate Decision

On a chilly November morning a young woman was spotted crossing the street at Evans and University.  She was flustered, in a rush, and multi tasking (as most young people in this time period do).  The noticeable thing about this common situation were the papers in her hand.  Multi-colored and large in quantity, it was clear that the papers had been acquired from a Study Abroad 101 session.  They were brochures for different schools in different countries.  While most students leave their 101 session with a few flyers, Sarah left hers with 89.  When she was spotted, she was in the process of arranging the flyers by color, into different regions.  Sorting the schools by color was the only way Sarah knew how to start.

As a mathematics major at the University of Denver, Sarah only knew one thing about her academics abroad: she didn’t need to take any math.  Maybe she’d take a few theater classes to fulfill some of her minor requirements, but theater was offered everywhere.  She didin’t have a particular interest in a certain language, she didn’t have to go anywhere for scholastic reasons, and she didn’t have an interest in a certain area.  That is why she walked out the 101 session with every flyer that didn’t have a language requirement or other prerequisite that she didn’t have.  That was why she was sorting flyers by color because it was the only way she knew how to start.  Because she didn’t have a single preference on where to go.  Actually, she didn’t even want to go.

Sarah is a master of the idea, “Don’t wait for the rain to pass, learn to dance in it instead.”  A life in poverty and tragedy teaches some to rebel, be angry, and do things they think they ‘deserve’ after all of the crap they’ve been through.  It teaches others to be happy with what they’re given, work hard, and change whatever they can.  As a Daniels Fund recipient, Sarah fell into category two.  The Daniels Fund is a supplemental scholarship to any University in the United States.  This includes financial coverage of study abroad.  As someone who had never left their hometown and who had only been on a plane twice, it’s more than unfathomable that she got to study in a different country for almost no cost.  So much more unfathomable was that she didn’t want to go.  She was happy at DU. She’d found a home, friends who she loved, and a place she belonged.  She was more than blessed, and couldn’t think of a good reason to leave it except the fact that everyone told her she should.  Deep down she knew she should too, but knowing and feeling are two different things.

Luckily the story doesn’t end with a confused girl with 89 flyers.  I know this because I am that girl and I know that I’m going to the University of KwaZulu-Natal Pietermaritzburg.  It’s a beautiful school in South Africa. (see below)  The thing is, the process of choosing UKZN wasn’t simple.

After organizing the schools by region, I realized how pointless that was.  I’ve never dreamt of going anywhere.  I’m not even sure if I understood that I could.  So I didn’t have a place I really wanted to visit or didn’t want to visit.  Who cares what part of the world the school’s in?  So then I prayed a lot.  I read through all of my flyers again and again.  I tried asking myself questions to narrow the search.  Do I want strong culture shock?  Do I want to live on campus, with other international students, or in a home of a native?  Do I want a lot of other Americans around?  Do I want beauty and places that have lots of adventure?

The more I questioned myself, the more I didn’t know the answer.  I’d be happy anywhere, and probably happiest right here at DU. I got rid of the schools that required me to take a language while I was abroad because I stink at foreign languages.  I got rid of the flyers that told me I had to present a ‘portfolio’ to get in because I didn’t have one and didn’t have time to make one good enough to get accepted.  I got rid of the schools that didn’t offer theatre classes and the ones that specialized in an area that I’m not good at.  I had about 41 flyers left.

“The heart can be deceptive, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to its suggestions.”

I had spent so much time of weeding out schools based on facts about them, and I felt like I was getting nowhere.  So I tried a different technique.  I let my heart decide.  I just started reading flyers (for about the 30th time) and placed them in piles.  The ones I was sick of looking at and reading I placed into the ‘no’ pile.  The ones that made my heart excited got placed into the ‘maybe’ pile.  The maybe pile only had 13 flyers in it.  This process was more successful than I thought it would be.

With only thirteen schools to look at, I felt more equipped to make a decision.  I looked up the schools online.  I looked up information about where they were located, climate, culture, ect.  I looked at pictures and imagined myself in each place.  Then I let it go.  I didn’t look at those thirteen flyers for about two weeks.  I didn’t think about abroad.  I went on with life and gave my brain, heart, and soul a break.

When I went back two weeks later, I played the heart game again.  They all still excited my heart.  I was still interested in all thirteen, but there were five that I lingered on just a little bit longer. There was Canterbuy in New Zeland, Cork in Ireland, Tasmania in Australia, Ulster in Northern Ireland, and KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg in South Africa. With in a day I had chosen UKZN.

A mini story is that I knew that I was leaning towards this school since my study abroad 101 session.  My 101 leader, Christina, went the UKZN three years ago and she spoke about how she got into a class where she got credit for working with kids who have AIDS in a children’s hospital.  Afterwards she and I had a long talk about me not wanting to go abroad and she prayed with me about it.  Through the entire process UKNZ lingered towards the top, but I didn’t want to choose it just because it was the first interesting school I heard about.  I wanted to go to the best place for me.

Once I started talking about the schools to different people, the answer became clear.  First of all, I received an email that day that told me that two schools weren’t offered for the Fall of 2012 anymore.  They both happened to be on my list. Then I was telling my pro and con list of the three schools to one of my best friends, Adam, and when I was done he gave me ‘the look’ and said, “I already know where you’re going and you do to.  Why is it even a question?” I knew he was talking about South Africa, but I asked him just to make sure.  He was.  Then I was explaining the options to one of my adult role models and he just politely listened.   After a leadership meeting, where I shared that he has a way of saying things that don’t relate to anything I’m going through, but some saying exactly what I need to hear, he looks me in the eyes and says “South Africa”.  When I woke up the next morning, I knew what I wanted.

I went through the motions, just in case.  I knew deep down that I wanted to stay here.  It took a lot to find my fire.  I talked to a lot of people, I prayed a lot; I did a lot of research.  I found reasons that I needed to go, besides just ‘ not losing an opportunity.’  I reached a point where it was my reality, and an exciting reality at that.

Sarah Caulkins, DUSA blogger


3 thoughts on “The Ultimate Decision

  1. I studied abroad at UKZN in Pietermaritzburg in spring of 2010 and recognized the photo from my reader! If you want any advice about being there, those “must-do” and “must eat/drink” items, etc. just let me know! I am so excited for you and jealous of you going to where my home was for five and a half months!

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