Changes, Transitions, Decisions

This post was written by Anna-Lisa Halling, a Humanities Center faculty fellow.


I am currently preparing to direct a study abroad program in Portugal, and my children happen to have a lot of opinions about this new adventure. My daughter declared that she prefers Madrid because Lisbon has “too many hills,” a fact with which it is hard to argue. My son’s protest was not related to our destination, but to what we were leaving behind. Once I finally convinced him that a sixth-grade graduation ceremony is not all it is cracked up to be, his next grievance was missing a school event known as “Cotillion.” Surprised by this rejoinder, as we do not live in the southern states nor in the nineteenth century, I asked why this was important to him. He explained that the other students were excited about this “big party” and he did not want to miss out. Because I know my son very, very well, I pointed out that this event also involved formal dance instruction, which meant dancing with a girl, which therefore meant having to touch said girl for an extended period of time. His response was immediate and emphatic: “NEVER MIND.”

This humorous interaction made me think about the changes, transitions, and decisions that define our mortal experience. In fact, it reminded me of a time when I, like my son, begrudgingly agreed to something that my parents had planned for me—to study at BYU. I was adamant that this would not happen, perhaps because we had visited the campus so often when I was a child (during road trips to visit our cousins in eastern Utah), or perhaps because both of my parents studied here, or maybe just because not attending BYU would have been my most rebellious decision to date as a seventeen-year-old. I had already decided to attend Chapman College (now Chapman University) in Orange, CA, close enough to home to do laundry at my parents’ house on the weekends, but far enough away for independence. My mom, who balked at the co-ed dorms during our campus tour, gamely told me that she would support any decision I made if I promised to tour several other colleges first. I agreed, knowing that my mind was made up. After visiting Ricks College (now BYU-I) and Utah State, our last stop was BYU. Although I had visited numerous times previously, the minute I set foot on campus, the Spirit let me know in no uncertain terms that this was where I belonged.

My transition to BYU was not an easy one. My hometown had as many residents as BYU had students, and I felt invisible. Everyone else seemed smarter, richer, more prepared, more outgoing, and more talented than I was. The culture shock was real, too, especially at church. My planned major was not a good fit and I wondered what the future held for me. Then an opportunity presented itself to study abroad in Spain for a term. The logical thing to do was to stay in Provo or go home for the summer. I did not know how I would afford this program and I had just finished the 200-level Spanish classes with barely any communication skills. I had never traveled that far before and did not even have a passport. I should have said no. Instead, I decided to say yes, and it changed my life. I fell in love with the people, the culture, the language, the history, the food, the architecture, and the art. Upon returning home, I immediately declared a Spanish major.

A year later, I was called to serve a Spanish-speaking mission in Tampa, FL. Serving a mission was another decision that seemed to make no sense. My family could not support me financially and I had no idea how to pay my expenses. I went anyway. It was not until after my mission that I learned that the husband of my former seminary teacher, who was not a member himself, paid the expenses of my mission in full. It was a miracle to me. During this experience, not only did I love the diverse group of people I worked with, who came from every Spanish-speaking country in the world, I was also introduced to Portuguese for the first time. We were often sent to the houses of “golden contacts” who purportedly spoke Spanish, only to realize that they were in fact Brazilian and that the English-speaking elders could not differentiate between Spanish and Portuguese. These interactions stoked my interest in learning more, and when I returned, I signed up for Portuguese 101. I became enamored with this new language and decided to live in the Portuguese House in the FLSR (now LISR) and then to minor in Portuguese studies.

Upon graduation, I started an MA program in Spanish literature at BYU. It turned out to be an intense and rewarding experience, and I was looking forward to a summer free of classes and full of reading in preparation for my specialty exam. Then one of my friends studying with me in the program decided that both she and I should participate in a BYU-led study abroad in Brazil. This did not make sense financially or, it seemed at the time, academically. I regretfully declined the offer, and that is when the emails started arriving. Every day for several weeks my friend sent me an image of a beautiful place in Brazil. I saw pictures of Iguaçu Falls, Florianópolis, Curitiba, and many more amazing locales. Eventually she wore me down, and I agreed to go with her. I went to Brazil and fell in love all over again.

After this experience, my MA advisor encouraged me to get a PhD, an idea that seemed out of reach for many reasons, not the least of which was my own self-doubt. I applied to only three universities, just to see what would happen. At the same time, I was offered a job teaching AP Spanish in the high school where my father taught German, choir, and theater. It was an opportunity to move back home, live near my family, and do something that I loved. Then an offer arrived from Vanderbilt University with an invitation to visit the campus. I flew to Nashville partly out of curiosity and partly to visit several friends who were already studying there, but with no intention of accepting the offer. The visit was nice, everyone was friendly, and the campus was beautiful, but completing a PhD did not make sense to me and I was not convinced. I boarded my return flight feeling secure in my decision to return to California, but as the plane took off, I was overwhelmed by a sense of homesickness for the city below. I knew I was meant to be there. And so, I returned and completed my PhD in Spanish with a minor in Portuguese.

Upon graduation, I accepted my first academic job. It paid very little, but we had health insurance, and I was on the tenure track. I worked there for four years, teaching mostly lower-level Spanish classes, a few literature classes, and just one Portuguese class I cobbled together for two native Spanish speakers. I felt settled and was not looking for a change. Then emails arrived from two different friends working at BYU. They had both sent me the same job description for a Portuguese position. It seemed odd, but I supposed they were simply informing me of the workings of my “home” department. Three days before the applications for that opening were due, another friend from the department called me and asked me to apply as a personal favor to him. I agreed, assuming they just needed to expand the candidate pool. Applying to a Portuguese position just did not make sense. I was a Spanish professor. I scrambled to get letters of recommendation sent, polish my CV, and write a convincing letter of intent. To my great surprise, the hiring committee contacted me and, after our initial conversation, invited me to campus for a formal interview. I thought I would enjoy a trip to Utah to see my former professors and did my best to prepare and perform well, but never thought the department would consider me for the job. I was shocked when the offer came in but accepted immediately. As it turns out, and unbeknownst to me at the time, this is my dream job.

As I look back on these changes, transitions, and decisions, I see a chain of events that provided me with opportunities and experiences I could never have imagined. I see so clearly how each is connected and I sometimes marvel at my resistance to these pivotal moments. Our mentors, friends, parents, professors, and especially our Heavenly Parents can see so much more clearly than we can with our limited, myopic vision of who we are and what we can achieve. Listen to those voices. Take the chances. Embrace the changes and lean in to the transitions. Make decisions that feel right but may not be sensible. Go on the study abroad. Audition for the play. Learn the language. Travel to that faraway land. Apply for that job. And whatever you do, do not give up Portugal for cotillion.

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