Two years ago I uprooted my clinging hands from central Ohio soil, packed my bags, loaded my car, hugged my family goodbye, and drove off down the road to a new life in Kansas.
Spreading my wings sounded like a good idea at the time. I became less certain as the mile markers flew past and as my tears dribbled down onto the steering wheel.
“Wait, so why are you going all the way to Kansas to go to a community college?” people would ask with a frown.
“Well,” I offered, “there are some really great people there. Great professors. Some of them are dedicated Christians even though the college is a secular. Also, I might even be able to work at the college in the English department for the professors.”
“What a great opportunity!” their faces would light up, “Go for it!” they would reply, as if it wasn’t even a question for me to do otherwise. “You’re young and single. You should do it.”
Their next question would inevitably be, “So do you have a lot of friends out there?”
“Well, actually…” I would explain, “I don’t know a soul.”
“You mean you don’t know anyone at all?” they would ask me incredulously.
“No, not really, except some family friends of ours who I will be living with,” I replied.
They would stare at me.
“You are a lot braver than me.”
I would smile bravely (and proudly). (Proud that I had convinced yet another person that I wasn’t in fact shaking (in my boots) like a helpless rodent in a determined canine’s mouth. )
For the most part, I wasn’t worried. While I had initial concerns about college course work, in the back of my mind, I knew the academics would probably come as easily as it had in high school. Academics would be a success: just a lot of hard work. Friends? I figured it would work out. There were several churches in the area and youth groups that I could participate in.
Money was another story. After high school, I worked full time for two years. I saved my money, sure, but I traveled as well, and somewhere in there I went to a Bible Institute. So when I finally decided that I wanted to go to college, I was at a loss for how to pay for it. In fact, my financial situation almost kept me from going to school. Since college debt was at the fore front of my mind, I chose to begin at an affordable community college. Admittedly, out-of-state tuition in Kansas cost a little more than in-state tuition in Ohio, but there were several opportunities at the community college in Kansas that I couldn’t pass up, including getting personal advice from some alumni friends, being able to participate in choir, and procuring the English Department job. While this seemed like a good choice financially, along with the out-of-state tuition, I would also need to pay for room and board. And buy my own groceries. All of these responsibilities seemed a little daunting. I worried. A lot.
“What if my car breaks down? Where will I get it fixed? Where will I buy groceries? How will I organize my time so I have time for buying groceries? Will I eat healthy food on my own? What kind of people are in Kansas? Will I make any great friends? Ew, what if there are boys? What about my family? Will I get homesick? What about school? What if I fail? What will it be like at school socially? I’ve gone to a Christian school my whole life. How will I survive out in ‘the real world’? Will I make any friends at college? How will I pay for everything? I’ve heard college textbooks are extremely expensive. How will it all come out in the wash? I have to buy a laptop, too, before I go. Where am I going to get all this money? What happens when it snows and my car goes in the ditch? WHO WILL PULL IT OUT?!”
My friend Camille, always the voice of reason, looked at me and frowned.
“UHH, Esther!! People don’t decide not to go to college because they don’t know anyone who will pull their car out of the ditch. You just don’t make decisions that way. But in answer to your question: a kind little Mennonite man.”
Nevertheless, I did decide. I did go to college. And I lived on my own. (Kind of.) And actually, grocery shopping became one of my favorite bi-weekly activities.
I moved to school a week before classes began. I had many things on my to-do list. 1. Move in. 2. Stop crying. 3. Write mom a letter telling her I got here okay. 4. Look brave. 5. Buy an iron. 6. Get a library card. 7. GO GROCERY SHOPPING. 8. Go job hunting. 9. Climb Mount Everest.
My sister had driven out to Kansas with me. I don’t know how I would have otherwise made that fourteen hour road trip. Rachel was to fly out the next day, however, so I drove her to the airport the next morning. At the airport, we hugged goodbye, and I tried to make it very light and cheery, and we acted like it wasn’t a big deal at all.
Before I left the airport (to drive back to the great unknown), I committed the first of a kind of action that is well-known to independent travelers. These actions are derived from a sort of survivor impulsiveness. It is an action that is driven by curiosity, but once it is committed, it seems almost premeditated in its brilliance. It is definitely an “Oh yeah, I meant to do that” moment. What I did was, as I was leaving the airport, I wandered past an information booth, stopped, backed up, and proceeded to grab a stack of all kinds of free Kansas maps. I returned to my car and calmly unfolded the first one to try and figure out how to get back to Hutchinson. Once I had figured out my route, I did the second unpremeditated act: I deviated from my route (while on the freeway) and recalculated from what I remembered of the map and changed my route to include… Walmart. Yes. Survivor indeed. (Actually, I just needed to buy an iron.)
Next on the agenda was to find a job. While I had told many people that I would be working as the English Department Scholar, that opportunity would not actually begin until the second semester of my first year. So at the outset, I needed some other sort of job to pay the bills. My friend Maria recommended that I become a waitress; there were several family-friendly restaurants in the area that would be looking for good, honest help. She also recommended a babysitting job. There were also a couple of gift shops in the nearby thriving metropolis of Yoder (population 200) that might be options. For me, the idea of becoming a server seemed appealing. I knew I could make a lot of money that way. But I knew it would be stressful because I would have to learn a complete new set of skills.
You see, I had worked at a gift shop in Ohio before coming to Kansas. Now I know gift shops have a certain stigma attached to them, but my gift shop was a little more than calendars and lace. It was not Cracker Barrel. In actuality, we were an 8000 square foot retail store. We sold Vera Bradley handbags and Donna Sharp. We had Heritage Lace and Thomas Kinkade. We had furniture and (one) Amish-made quilt. We had cards and gifts and textiles and toys and music and florals and candles and a boutique section and solar-powered light-up key chains. We also had a designer who presented us like the design-conscious home interiors store that we were. It was… a gift shop of gift shops. It was a “gift shop” because of its location within a restaurant complex, but it was actually a retail store. So then, retail was my background.
Anyway, I recognized that serving might be a better option financially even though it would just one more “new” thing for me to conquer. I figured a new college, a new church, new friends, and a new town would be enough. But I left it up to God. I figured He would show me what job I was supposed to get.
I was cruising down the highway at 75 miles an hour. The blazing Kansas sun beat down from a big blue sky. It was a hot 100 degrees. I cranked up the tunes and pushed down on the accelerator. I was perfectly happy driving an hour home, content to survey the wide open fields. Well. It wasn’t home yet. But it would become that (though I couldn’t have known it at the time).
As I drove along, I saw a sign for Yoder. I knew that was where one of the restaurants was, and it was also the location of another store that my friend had worked at while she was going to college. I committed my third act of curious impulsiveness for the day: I stopped in Yoder to pick up a job application. Mind you, I had just been planning to take my sister to the airport. My first day in Kansas, and I’m coming home with free Kansas maps, an iron and ironing board in my trunk, and job opportunities. And it was barely 10:00. I got off the exit and drove to the restaurant.
I entered the “Amishy” restaurant, reminiscent of the one back home. I wandered into the gift shop. I smirked. It didn’t hold a candle to OUR gift shop. It was tiny. They had T-shirts with birdhouses on them, some quilts, and a few calendars. Presentation was poor, and the lighting was dim. To put it simply, there was nothing hip at all. No chandeliers that looked like the ones at Restoration Hardware. No boutique section with leather handbags and pricey jackets. It just didn’t compare.
I walked back to the restaurant and talked with the people at the front desk and received an application. I would be back in a few days to drop it off (and possibly get an interview).
I left the restaurant, still excited that I had found it myself. And now that my job hunting work was begun, I would begin exploring.
This is a view of Yoder in 1915. The view hasn’t changed much since then. Main Street, is paved, now, but dust blows down it the likes that you ain’t never seen, so much that you might think you done walked onto the set of an Old West movie, yes sirree! Complete with board walks!
I stopped in Kansas Station (a bulk foods store) and another little grocery store on Main. I walked across the street to cute little store called the Mercantile Shoppe. I smiled at the name. I stepped inside (out of the heat) to a familiar gift shop ambience that made me feel at home. It was small, yes. But right inside the door they had Miche handbags! Those were just coming out with those when I left Ohio, and to see them in this little gift shop in this tiny West town surprised me. A young woman cheerfully greeted me at the door. I browsed the tiny gift shop, marveling at the amount of product that I recognized. There were Woodwick candles, Park designs, Donna Sharp handbags, and Carson plates. It was nicely arranged, too. A little cramped, but someone knew what they were doing with the presentation. A middle-aged lady came around the corner.
“Hello! Are you finding everything okay?”
“Oh, I’m just looking around today,” I smiled.
Should I talk to her?
It would be my first Kansas interaction.
“Actually, you have a really great shop,” I commented.
“Well, thank you!” the woman said, looking genuinely pleased.
“It actually reminds me quite a bit of the shop I used to work at back home. I just moved here from Ohio.”
“You did? Wow!” She exclaimed. “So, when did you get in?”
“Well… just yesterday,” I offered, “So I’m out today just sort of looking around… exploring.”
She looked at me and cocked her head.
“Are you looking for a job?”
“Yes?” I said sheepishly. “Why? Are you hiring?” I was incredulous.
“Well,” she started, “I am looking for some more help…”
I was floored. There I was. Not even in the state 24 hours and someone was offering me a job. Nevermind an economic downturn. Nevermind that I had been planning on having to learn an entirely new job. Nevermind that I was expecting to look for a job for several weeks.
She walked toward the register to get me an application.
“So what kind of hours are you looking for?” she asked.
“Well, you should know that I’m in college. I’m going to HCC. That’s why I moved.”
She stopped short.
“But I can work on Saturdays and holidays,” I offered.
“Well, I do need help on Saturdays. And maybe you could work in the afternoons if you ever get out of school early or something. Take the application. We’ll have an interview on Thursday, then?”
I was ecstatic. I nearly danced out of the store. Who needs waitress tips? I wanted the gift shop job. (Thank you, God, for my new job!) I still had the interview, of course. And I continued to pursue and interview at the restaurant. But the way that the gift shop opportunity was presented to me made it seem like the best choice, and I took it.
My gift shop interview went well. She hired me on the spot. We talked retail and design. It was a lot of fun. I talked about my Ohio store, and she was all excited. She thought that I would be able to introduce her to new products. She also asked if I ever do displays. While I had done a little bit of setting back home, I downplayed my skills to her because I didn’t have much experience and I didn’t want to disappoint her. That lasted until one Saturday when I got bored and started re-setting a hutch. She walked around the corner and stopped short.
“I’ll go get you more coffee,” she said, leaving me to my work.
And so began my lazy Saturday job in Yoder, Kansas.
This story represents God’s provision for me in one small way during my two years in Kansas. Finding a job that I liked was a major answer to prayer. It was so nice to continue doing the work that I used to do in Ohio. But the thing is, that job found me. That first day in Kansas, in that gift shop, meeting that woman, was what I think is referred to as, “a God moment.”
There was a second such moment during my first week in Kansas. It is a moment that I think I will always remember.
I drove to campus with a perky little to-do list. I had to buy my textbooks, get my student ID, and get my parking pass. I entered the Student Union and followed the signs to get my student ID. Heeding the advice of seasoned peers, I had dressed up so that my student ID picture wouldn’t look like death. The picture turned out well. And the photographer liked my outfit.
“I like your outfit,” the photographer said.
The couple behind me in line, looking on, commented,
I suddenly felt like an exhibit at a horse show.
Next I bought textbooks which was a long process involving long lines, impatient students, confusion, stressed out cashiers, and me, who finally got ticked off because I stood in line for an hour, and when it was finally my turn to check out, they wouldn’t let me use my financial aid to pay for my books. In the end, I went to the financial aid office, and a very nice lady immediately made my problem her problem, and she made some phone calls and had me sign some documents before sending me back to the bookstore to the front of the line to finish paying for my books. Ahhh victory.
Next I went to the Information desk to get my parking pass. After obtaining one, I pulled out my little green notebook with hummingbirds on it and crossed yet another thing off my to-do-list. The receptionist noticed my little green notebook with hummingbird on it and tried not to smile. I suddenly became very self-conscious of my little green notebook with hummingbirds on it. Stupid to-do-list.
Before I left campus, I had another brilliant thought that became one of those impulsive unpremeditated actions. I decided that I should walk around campus to get my bearings and find all of my classrooms so I wouldn’t be lost on my first day of school.
After scouring Lockman Hall, I headed over to the Fine Arts building where I would be taking speech and also singing in choir. (Or course I was a puddle by the time I had walked all the way there. It was so hot that day.) I walked in the west entrance. I remembered that the music director’s office was right inside the door. I glanced toward the open door and noticed him sitting at his desk. I walked past, but I remembered my friends had recommended that I talk to him as soon as possible about getting a book scholarship. My friends (the ones I was living with) had sung under this illusive director before and knew that it was possible to get a $100 book scholarship for singing in choir. This scholarship would be added to whatever financial aid I had and would pay for my books; I, in turn, would return the books to the college as “used” at the end of the semester. Every little bit helps (in regards to money), so in that split-second after walking in the door, I turned around and knocked on the side of the door.
“Come in!” he called.
“Hello!” I said, “My name is Esther, and I don’t know if you remember me or not, but I visited last spring… I just moved here from—”
“Oh yes! Iowa? Indiana? Yes!” he exclaimed softly.
“Uh, Ohio,” I corrected.
“Yes, and your last name?” he prompted, as he picked up a clipboard with a list of names on it and began scanning it.
“Swartzentruber,” I replied.
“And what can I do for you today, Miss Swartzentruber?” he asked quickly, looking up from the clipboard.
“Well, I was wondering about a book scholarship? I heard you can get one for singing in choir.”
He began shuffling papers.
“Yes… yes… you can. You’re probably a little worried about money, aren’t you? Moving all the way from home. Now, are you living in the dorms or off campus?” he asked.
“I’m living off campus.”
He picked up a sheet of paper.
“Yes, Esther, we can get you fixed up right away. I’m just going to make a phone call, if you can give me one second.” He proceeded to call the endowment office. The lady at the other end wanted to make sure I had filled out a scholarship application. I was sure I had, but she checked my grades anyway. Once I was cleared, he named my amount to the lady.
“Yes, I have a student here, Esther Swartzentruber, and we’re looking at some financial aid today. Yes, go ahead and put her down for one thousand dollars,” he said with a hint of a smile.
I blinked. Had I heard him right? One thousand dollars?
Now, understandably, that amount may seem small to anyone going to a private school. But for me, that was about a third of my tuition. Paid. Like that. With a phone call. I wasn’t really understanding what was going on. I don’t think I really believed it until I reviewed my financial aid later in my online account. The music director had, in fact, handed me a $1000 scholarship on top of handing me a book scholarship to pay for all my books for the coming year. I was weak.
He finished up on the phone, and while he did so, I picked up a copy of music from stacks he had sitting on his desk. Trying to look important, I browsed the song. It was a setting of “Ubi Caritas.” Now, I don’t sight-read music really well, but I could tell it wasn’t the version I was familiar with.
He hung up the phone.
“Well, I think you’re all set then!” he announced. I awkwardly thanked him and set the piece of music back on his desk.
“That’s a beautiful piece,” I said, “But it seems to be a different version than the one I’m familiar with.”
“Ah, yes,” he said as he began to dump like a master, “There are over 700 different musical settings to the text ‘Ubi Caritas.’”
I stood amazed at his knowledge.
“Well, we’ll see you Monday,” he dismissed, “Unless we’re all baked like sausages on the sidewalk til then.” His sarcasm was becoming apparent.
I left his office… richer. $1000 richer. I didn’t even notice the melting process that occurred on the long walk back to my car. I was so excited. Another exciting provision. From God. I felt… secure. It felt… so miraculous. It felt like a little nudge from God. It was like a little bump from the nest: “Go on out there! Go. I’m here. I’m sending you out. This is where I want you. I love you, and you are mine.” I immediately called my mom to share with her the good news.
This was the second “God moment” from my first week in Kansas. Both of those incidences served as great confidence boosters. They seemed like confirmation that Kansas was where God wanted me to be. I feel like I hung on to these experiences as living proof that I was supposed to be there. And I would need that confirmation because the hard times surely came.
My time in Kansas came and went. I wasn’t sure by the end if I actually was supposed to be there. It was hard. It was gruesome. But it was doable. And I made it. We made it. God and I made it together.
But now that I’m looking to start a new school, it seems as if I am dealing with the same things all over again.
“This campus is so huge! How will I ever find my way around? I went to small schools all my life! What will it be like at one of the biggest universities in the U.S.? Will I make any friends? Will I have nice Christian friends? How will I pay for school? I always had a book scholarship before! I’ve heard college textbooks are extremely expensive. I also have to pay for gas. Where will I get this money? How will I even cover tuition? How do federal loans work? What kind of non-federal loans are available? How will I be able to wing this financially? Do I even have any business being in school right now? What about commuting to the downtown area? What happens in the winter when it snows and my car gets stuck in the ditch? WHO WILL PULL IT OUT?!”
Oh yeah, that’s right. A kind little Mennonite man.
As I continue on toward Ohio State, I’m praying that God would supply my needs. My needs, not necessarily my wants. So I’m trusting in Him.
The previous stories were from two years ago, right when I began a particularly new chapter in life. I find myself in that place once again, returning home, but coming back to a community different than when I left it, and going to a new school all over again.
Is it any surprise that God had another “moment” waiting for me? I have been putting off Ohio State to-do list for some time now. I need to buy a parking permit. I need to figure out my financial aid. I need to go to a bank and take out a loan. I need to buy my books. I need to have some kind of special counseling for my federal loan.
This all seems a bit daunting, especially after an especially taxing “orientation day” this summer when I went down to campus, got lost and depressed and ended up not even going to my last appointment because I had had too much city, too much heat, and too much information for one day.
Fast forward to me randomly checking my OSU account late at night last week to look at my financial aid information. It was then that I found… the Lampton scholarship. Completely unannounced. No email notification. Completely hidden. Until I clicked on my financial award package, and there it was. Along with some other numbers that were much higher than previously reported.
It was a complete answer to prayer. It was God being faithful. Once again, he bothered to come alongside me and say, “Go. Go on out there! I’m sending you. I love you, and you are mine.”
(Of course, it’s not as if I have a full-ride scholarship. It’s not even a prestigious academic scholarship. It’s need-based. And I still have to work. And I still have to work hard in school. I will still have debt when I graduate.) But God has put money right here and right now for me. And I’m awestruck. I’m flabbergasted. I’m surprised. I’m happy. I’m thankful. I’m overwhelmed. I’m… awed.
This is a little reminder, then, of some of the physical things God has done for me.
But be reminded of the things God has done for you. We must never forget. We must never forget what God has done for us. What God has given us.
Jehovah Jireh, My Provider… His GRACE is sufficient for me.
He also owns the cattle on a thousand hills.