Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Stories from my journey

Old school Sara and Elliot

This morning I spoke at Campbell University Worship (CUW), Campbell's weekly chapel session required for freshmen and sophomores. When our campus minister asked me to be the first speaker of the semester I was honored. Not only was it an opportunity to speak to approximately 1,000 students, but it was a symbol that the Campbell community respected me and thought I had something valuable to say to students.

Typically before speaking publicly my heart beats out of my chest and my mouth dries up. Today, however, despite a nasty cold and not preparing heavily, my heart beat was calm and cotton mouth didn't kick in.

Below is the story I offered:

If you know me in anyway capacity you know that my life is a series of awkward moments and bad hair days. Over the years those awkward moments have become the kind of memories that make you laugh so hard you cry … and the bad hair days haven’t changed.

My friends will agree heartily that I have many stories to tell, and do so willingly. Escapades from my childhood, tripping up the stairs in a skirt at Marshbanks, to an embarrassing run-in with airport security all color my life and provide my friends a good giggle.

The most profound story of my life thus far, however, is how a small town girl from Massachusetts ended up in a smaller town in North Carolina to have a four-year adventure to experience another culture… and how she ended up staying.

I grew up with the same people from pre-school through high school. The kids who ate glue in kindergarten were the ones in detention every day in middle school, and the girls who sang the Lion King theme song with me in first grade were my lunch buddies until the day we graduated.

Despite the deep roots I had in the no-traffic-light town of Warren, Massachusetts, I felt called to a place different than what I was used to. And when I say “called,” I don’t mean the universe whispered in my ear and I don’t mean I wanted to travel. I mean God had plans for me elsewhere in the world.

That’s where Campbell came in.

After introducing myself for the first time to people, the most frequent first question is, “How did you get to Campbell?”

My response by this time is rehearsed. My answer is always “I used Google,” and after seeing a confused face I continue with my explanation. I grew up wanting to represent people in some way. I flirted with the idea of becoming a pediatrician so I could heal sick children too poor to buy band-aids and thermometers. I thought about becoming a teacher so I could teach the world to read and write.

By my junior year of high school, however, neither of these ideas seemed to settle. I didn’t have peace about my post-high school future until one day, the answer literally opened up in front of me.

The principal of our high school asked me to be the editor of the school’s first student-run newspaper. I had read magazines, filed through newspapers, and listened to the evening news my whole life, but I didn’t know the first thing about crafting it myself. This new situation was intimidating to me. Looking back, God was throwing me into a situation He knew would take me to greater things.

Senior year rolled around, along with college application deadlines. While working on the student newspaper I grew to love writing new stories. Though only about seemingly trivial topics like a high school dance or the annual essay contest, something inside me yearned to perfectly mold a story from the endless details and facts floating in the air. I wanted to catch the sights, sounds, and smells of everything I wrote about so the reader could best understand what happened. I decided I would major in journalism so I could learn how to better tell stories.

So, to Google I went. I wanted a Christian school… or did I? I grew up in church but wasn’t sure if I wanted a “churchy” environment for the next four and very formative years of my life. I thought long and hard about it and gave myself a question to ponder. Was I ready to go out into the world and live my faith by myself, or did I need a few more years of an encouraging Christian environment?

I chose the latter, and searched in Google for Christian schools on the East Coast with journalism programs. Well, what do you know, those are pretty narrow parameters and I literally ended up with just two results: a tiny, faith based college outside Boston and a slight less tiny faith based university in rural North Carolina, placed quaintly between a few cotton fields and churches of every breed. As the oldest of four children, my mom and I ventured out on my family’s first round of college visits. We took the tours, read the brochures, and bought the t-shirts.

And I had yet another decision to make—do I stay in my comfort zone and send my deposit to the school in Boston? I knew the culture. I was part of that culture. I would be close to home and people talked like me. Or I could be almost 800 miles from home and sleep in my cozy, full size bed only during Christmas and summer breaks. I would miss birthday parties, snow storms, and weekends visiting with my grandparents, who’s health was deteriorating more than any of us wanted to admit.

Campbell was the last school I applied to, and the first acceptance letter I received. God had placed my destiny in North Carolina, and I knew I had to go find it, even if I had to call my grandparents every Saturday instead of having lunch with them.

Summer of 2006 came and went with the breezes of the season. I graduated from high school, went on a couple shopping sprees at Linens ‘n’ Things, washed my clothes and packed up the family minivan. I was ready—way more than I should have been. At that time of my life I was so shy I dreaded Sunday school and meet-n-greets at church because I hated talking to new people. I didn’t like change. I ate Life cereal almost every morning since I could chew. But somehow I wanted to ship off to North Carolina for four years. I had no friends there, didn’t know the area, the people talked funny, and I sure wasn’t going to eat fried everything. But somehow, somehow… I was ready.

Strangely enough, I immediately acclimated to college life. I took advantage of some AP credits to take only 12 credit hours the first two semesters. I spent my extra time dabbling in SGA, CAB, and the Campbell Times. I had lots of friends in each of the four undergraduate classes. I loved my life at Campbell and felt I was truly myself here. While I brought the baggage of my pre-college life down with me, no one else knew my past, and I knew nothing about anyone else. At first my new college friends didn’t know the size of my family, that I’m afraid of heights or that as a child I cut my own bangs into the shape of a triangle. I was a new person at Campbell.

Little did I know how much my first year at Campbell, those fewer than twelve months, would ripple effect my whole life. I met people who became my mentors. I met people who I never want to be like, and I met people weirder than myself, which taught me that there are all kinds of people in the world but really we’re all just as weird as the person next to us. Of all the people I met that year, perhaps the most important was the man who next month will become my husband.

The whirlwind of freshman year passed, and the following three dissolved away as I learned more, grew more, and spent more time thinking about my life after Campbell. For so long Campbell was my entire life. For four years Buies Creek was my final destination. My time revolved around classes, extracurriculars, traveling back and forth between Massachusetts, and developing my relationship with my fiancĂ©. Beyond that, I had been a student in some capacity for almost two decades. I was good at being a student, and quite frankly I wasn’t sure if I could do anything else. Like I said, change wasn’t on my list of favorite activities.

I stuck with journalism and made writing my niche. I had finally learned how to craft a story. But really I had accomplished a goal I didn’t know I had until recently—I had learned how to tell the stories of others; those who can’t speak for themselves. Sure, I could cover a house fire or election, but my passion lived in the projects, behind convenience store counters, and in shelters. I didn’t want to interview the policy makers to get their side of the propaganda. I wanted to be the voice of the citizens who live those policies or die because of them.

After Christmas break of senior year I decided to start the job hunt. The doom and gloom forecast of the print media, also known as newspapers and magazines, didn’t deter me from finding a writing job. If I had to write obituaries and wedding announcements for three years, I was going to do it. I didn’t spend four years writing story after story to sit at home until something better came long. Resume after resume and e-mail after e-mail went out. I was shocked, in a good way, to get an interview, then another, and at one point I had four interviews in a week, and two call-back interviews lined up. I was pretty sure a job offer was coming down the pike, just in time for graduation.
Me being an awesome reporter.

But, even if I had a job eventually… where would I live after graduation? Would I be close to my fiancĂ©? Could I afford to live on my own? All these questions lingered in my mind, invading all my thoughts until the weekend of Operation Inasmuch 2010, when hanging outside in the heat and among the bugs was never worth it so much as that day.

I was helping the university’s public relations office cover the projects at Erwin River Park when I spotted Faithe Beam. I knew Faithe somewhat from previous mission trips through her office and I wanted see how she had been the last few months. She told me about a new position her office was looking to fill, something brand new. They needed a recent graduate with good communication skills to, according to my memory at the time, do something or other with community service and the migrant community. She asked me to keep that job in mind among my interviews with local newspaper. I put the thought on the back burner, fully expecting to steam through to a job offer in the coming days and leave Campbell as a gainfully employed newspaper reporter, living the dream.

Later that day, to Google I went, again, just to read up a tiny bit on the job Faithe had mentioned. I read a tiny bit, some more, a little bit here and there... and before I knew it, I couldn’t read enough about joining the AmeriCorps VISTA program. Despite not being a reporting job, it was right up my alley. I wouldn’t be a reporter of course, but it was a way for me to speak up for the invisibles around us who can’t speak for themselves. I came to the conclusion that I could be a reporter later in life. This was a unique opportunity.

So, after graduation I joined AmeriCorps, bought some “grown up” clothes, and moved into a new apartment on the edge of campus. After years of transition and decision making, I ended up exactly where I needed to be—telling the stories of others, all of whom are part of the story of my journey.
More old school Campbell memories.

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