As told to Sara Florian
Nervous butterflies fluttered around in my stomach as I stared out the window of my sister Michelle’s Chevy Aveo, watching the endless rows of golden corn fields that make up northwest Ohio. I was headed off to college, about to start a new life on my own for the first time, and I was not even going to have my parents there to help me move into my dorm.
My older sister Michelle and my older brother Kevin were already at Ohio Northern studying pharmacy and engineering respectively. My parents decided to just send me with Michelle and Kevin because we all needed to be at school early for band camp. Once Michelle helped me move into my dorm, I was all alone for the first time, one of just a few people who had moved into our freshman hall early. This was a 180-degree turn from what I was used to, as I was the middle child in a huge family of seven siblings and had never really been alone before. As I closed my eyes to go to sleep in my new room that night, I had a terrifying, yet exciting feeling in my gut that this was the start of a great transformation.
I had originally planned on choosing a different school than my siblings. I felt that I needed to break free from their influence, as I had spent my whole life following in their footsteps. My mother convinced me to just look at ONU as just one of many possibilities. I ended up falling in love with the safe, small town and small school atmosphere. Admittedly, despite my initial reservations about attending college with my siblings, it was comforting to know that I would have my siblings there with me.
Growing up, my siblings had been my best friends. We never really fought the way other people talk about arguing with their siblings. Having Michelle and Kevin’s influence turned out to be extremely valuable, as they were the reason I got involved with organizations that really helped me find my purpose and passion. As a business major, I definitely had a wide range of directions I could go with my future career which was actually one of the main reasons I originally chose business. It seemed like a strong, generic option for someone like me who did not know exactly what they wanted to do. One of my goals through my college experiences was to narrow down my options to find the one career that was my true calling. I found one of my passions after I particularly enjoyed a public speaking class. This experience led me challenging myself to achieve a second major, communications. Despite this huge decision, I still did not feel completely confident with what I wanted to do with my life.
Several organizations that I volunteered for while studying at ONU helped me find my passion. I first got involved with Habitat for Humanity when my older sister convinced me to attend a meeting with her. I ended up really enjoying working with the organization and was able to contribute to building projects on several service-learning trips through ONU’s chapter. I had always been afraid of taking risks, but Habitat allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and see the world from a new perspective.
In addition, I volunteered for the Hugh O’Brien Youth Leadership Foundation (HOBY). HOBY works with high school students to help them discover their passions and use those passions to make a positive difference in their communities. At ONU, we would host four-day seminars during which the kids would open up to each other about their dreams and goals and make plans for projects in their hometowns. It was interesting to see how quickly the kids connected with one another. Many of them talked about deep, personal issues affecting their home lives including depression and abuse. At the end of the four days, we would send 200 high school students back into their schools and communities to implement their projects. For example, one student hosted a swimming event at his high school to raise suicide awareness and prevention. It was inspiring to see such young high school students be able to do such incredible work.
However, the most impactful organization I ever volunteered for was one I began working with after I had already graduated college. I first was connected to Flying Horse Farms when my youngest brother Kenny attended it, as it is a free camp for children who have serious illnesses. Kenny was born with a rare heart condition called hypoplastic left-heart syndrome which meant the left two chambers of his heart were not functioning properly. The first six months of his life were spent in the neonatal intensive care unit, where he underwent various surgeries during which doctors attempted to make his heart function without the use of the left side. Rather than wrapped in a blanket in my mother’s arms, my brother was left with numerous IV’s sticking out of him, wired patches on his chest to monitor his heart, and an oxygen mask to keep him breathing.
Thankfully, after months of fighting, late nights at the hospital, and countless prayers, my brother Kenny was able to recover and start life as a relatively normal child. Unfortunately, Kenny did experience some developmental delays as a result of his heart condition that lead to struggles later in life. Because he was not as big and athletic as his classmates, he became an easy target for bullying. Flying Horse Farms became the perfect escape for Kenny. At the camp, Kenny did not have to feel ashamed of needing to take a break or sit out sometimes, as there were plenty of other kids who had similar struggles and were able to relate to him.
In many ways, Flying Horse was an escape for me too. Every time I went there, I forgot about everything else that is going on with my life. The kids at the camp, despite all of their struggles, were so fun-loving, and their excitement was contagious. They were also extremely caring, possibly because they know what it is like to go through serious life challenges even at such a young age. For example, there was an awesome group of girls who helped one of their friends overcome her anxiety about wearing a swimsuit in front of everyone at the pool. The girl’s friends were all so encouraging of her, and in the end, they were all able to have an awesome time in the water. If it had not been for Kenny’s illness, I would have never gotten involved with awesome kids like those at Flying Horse Farms, and I may have never discovered my passion for working with children.
After graduating college, I initially applied to work full time for Flying Horse Farms. Though that did not work out as I had hoped, I ended up getting offered a position at Ohio Northern as an admissions counselor. Initially, the job was difficult, as I would get extremely nervous about going to high school and talking to students who were not all that much younger than I was. I was afraid that they would never take me seriously.
My fears were confirmed at one school when I was in a classroom and the teacher left me with a room full of rowdy kids who made no effort to participate in the group activities I was doing with them. I probably would have left that school that day feeling very discouraged if it had not been for one boy. He stood out to me because he was the only student who was engaged in the activity and attempting to be respectful. After most of the students left, I pulled the student, whose name I found out was Zack, and began to ask him questions about what his goals were after high school and what he wanted to study. After our long conversation, I knew ONU would be the perfect school for him and encouraged him to apply. He ended up choosing to join the polar bear family the next fall and every time I would run into him on campus, he would always greet me with a warm smile and a hug. It turned out that I was right about Zack fitting in at Ohio Northern, as his exemplary character lead him to be nominated for a prestigious leadership award at the end of his sophomore year.
I am so grateful for my experiences working with kids through HOBY and Flying Horse Farms lead me to my career helping awesome students like Zack find and thrive at ONU. Choosing to come to ONU, stepping out of my comfort zone to volunteer for Habitat, HOBY, and Flying Horse, and ultimately accepting a job as an admissions counselor were some of the best decisions I have ever made. Because of these choices, I get to go to work every day excited to help high school students discover all that Ohio Northern has to offer so that they can follow their dreams, and like me, achieve a career makes their hearts soar.
This story originally appeared in Facing Our Futures Beyond High School, a publication of The Facing Project that was organized by Ohio Northern University in Ada, Ohio.