The “Portrait of an Alum” blog series gives a glimpse of life after graduation, with a particular emphasis on our students’ readiness for the transition to college and how their affections and outlook have been shaped through their experiences, teachers and Christian community at Veritas. For this portrait, Director of Communications Sara Kennedy interviewed Class of 2015 graduate Sara Katherine Parks. This is a summary of their interview.
On one of the hottest days of last summer, I met with Veritas alum Kelly Norfleet. As we wrapped up our interview and prepared to head back to our hot cars, she looked straight at me and said “you’ve got to talk to Sara Katherine. She’s doing amazing things this summer.”
As I quickly discovered on my Skype call with Sara Katherine a few weeks later, Kelly was right. Up bright and early in her dorm room at Auburn University, Class of 2015 grad Sara Katherine (SK) was bubbly and talkative, excited about life at Auburn and the opportunities her summer in southside Chicago presented.
As a student at Veritas, SK was known for her questions. She wanted to know the hows, the whys and in particular, the why nots of life. Her scope was huge – friendships, ministries, interests, activities, plans – if it involved SK, it was big. So it was no surprise when Sara Katherine decided to pursue big southern state schools during her senior year. After visiting eight different colleges, she knew. Auburn, with its football, its Greek system, its rich traditions and southern hospitality was for her.
There was just one issue. The unsolved medical challenges of her senior year persisted. Headaches and leg tremors, unexplained weight loss and more continued to compromise her plans. She became an expert at doctors’ appointments and trial medicines and specialists, but without answers. Finally, two weeks after graduation, she received the news – a rare infection which triggered the onset of diabetes.
For Sara Katherine, this diagnosis was huge. First, it meant she had a name for why she felt so rotten, and also a path forward for care. Secondly, it meant approaching a huge party school like Auburn with different eyes. She began asking some pretty important questions of God. Not just why do I have to have a chronic disease, but also, how – how do You want me to use my time at Auburn? How do You want me to use what I’ve learned through the medical uncertainties of the past two years? Are You going to be here with me? Am I alone?
The Lord answered Sara Katherine in beautiful ways.
She joined a sorority, Kappa Delta, known at Auburn for its faithful and authentic Christian young women. During Rush Week, “How Deep the Father’s Love for Us” echoed through the sorority house, Cru (Campus Crusade for Christ) members reached out to new students and she joined a sorority Bible study. A local church plant, Auburn Community Church, became her church home – filled with university students and a wide diversity of men and women from the community.
Academically, Sara Katherine also flourished, earning Dean’s List in her first semester. She felt challenged by her courses, but invigorated when opportunities for public speaking, and the application of logic and rhetoric arose. Auburn also offered a perfect-fit major for SK – Child Life Specialist in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies. A mix of pre-med, psychology, counseling and ethics, this major prepares students to serve as liaisons between medical professionals and children and families undergoing short or long term hospital care.
Working toward a degree in this field feels like God’s kindness to Sara Katherine, a beautiful redemption of the two years of uncertainty and illness she faced at the end of high school. Her personal experience with the fear, discouragement and challenge of significant pediatric illness, accompanied by pre-med and counseling training, uniquely equips her to enter into a hospital room with confidence and deeply felt empathy.
To get a real-world feel for the work ahead, Sara Katherine spent the summer with her aunt, volunteering at a 42-bed Children’s Hospital in southside Chicago. In this vulnerable community of limited resources, care for children with chronic illnesses involves care for the whole family. From providing encouragement to parents as she accompanied doctors on their rounds to read-alouds with patients to creative games that help distract from pain, she entered into their stories with the compassion born out of her own experience.
And because Sara Katherine is a “why not?” kind of gal, she took on a second job while in Chicago, promoting the Jackson Chance Foundation as a social media intern. The Jackson Chance Foundation raises funds to offset the incredible transportation and parking costs that can be accrued by parents whose babies spend weeks, or even months, in the NICU.
Did she have hard days? Many.
Some of the longest days were spent with kids who had tried the patience and endurance of the medical staff, who then turned to Sara Katherine for relief. Playing this important role opened the door to more learning – about children revolving through the foster care system or the homes of extended family members, little ones trying to navigate unstable and unpredictable adult care while battling a chronic illness.
Leaving Chicago to return to Auburn was bittersweet. As she begins her Sophomore year, Sara Katherine will serve as the Chaplain of her sorority, as the Assistant Director for Auburn Family Relation’s fundraiser for the local Children’s Hospital, as a Team Leader for Best Buddies, which partners university students with children who have developmental challenges and will lead a Bible study. Oh – and yes, she will continue as a full-time student, with classes in bio-ethics, counseling, biology, professional ethics and more.
Amid all this busyness, does she see Christ at work? Absolutely. First, in her own heart, as she lives in the good of His unconditional love amid her brokenness. She feels pursued by Christ, even and perhaps more intensely because of the struggles of the last few years. Secondly, she sees Christ in the people around her – those she ministers to and those who minister to her. She is awed by the responsibility she’s been given to love others well – and to point them to Christ at Auburn. Third, she sees Christ at work as healer of mind, body and spirit as children get well and families are made whole again.
Sara Katherine has been on an incredible journey since she walked across the stage in front of Virginia Hall 16 months ago. In many ways, it feels like it was just yesterday that she was bringing her many questions to class at Veritas; reflecting back, she wishes she had known how fast the time would pass. She treasures her relationships with faculty, with those who walked with her through the questions, the grand plans, the days of feeling rotten, relishing the feeling of being known and valued.
Her encouragement to the students coming behind her? Find your identity and worth in Christ. When life feels fantastic, trust that He is in this good gift. When life feels hard and you feel helpless, trust that He has a good plan and good gifts for you in this as well – that He will and does bring beauty from ashes.
Continue to follow these conversations with our graduates through our Portrait of an Alum blog series.