Mind racing. Palms sweating. Thirty-six thousand feet in the air and 4,700 miles from home. Sandra Marek wondered if she had made the right decision moments before touching down in the States just three years ago. From half-timbered houses and small cafés in her hometown to palm trees and Spanish Mission architecture in Valdosta, Georgia, she was making her big move.
She traveled from her hometown of Idstein (ɪd-ʃtaɪn), Germany, to pursue a dream that had followed her since middle school – a dream of understanding the inner workings of one’s mind and discovering how those inner workings affect the behaviors and attitudes of those around her. By coming to Valdosta State University (VSU), Sandra hoped to study Psychology and use the knowledge she gained to help others in life.
Making a new home in the States wasn’t without its obstacles, but Sandra’s perseverance and moxie led her to graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology in 2017 at Valdosta State and continue her studies by gaining a Master of Science in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.
At this point, you might be wondering: Wait. How exactly did Sandra find her way to Valdosta from halfway across the world? And when she did, how did she make her dream a reality?
Once Sandra graduated from high school, she began working for a travel agency in Frankfurt, Germany, where she started as a new trainee. While working her first job out of high school, she wondered what she would do next to continue her pursuit of understanding the human mind.
She realized that studying Psychology would be a great fit, but after a little research, she quickly found that it would be difficult to enroll in a program in Germany due to a lack of study opportunities. In an effort to test her luck, she submitted an application for a program in her home country.
Once she learned that she had been put on a five-year waiting list, she knew another path would need to be taken to reach her goal. Instead of becoming discouraged, she challenged herself to find a Psychology program across the world and complete the program in a different language – English. Soon, Sandra learned about Valdosta State through a company that helped her apply for scholarships.
“They had several school options for me,” she said, “but Valdosta State was very appealing because of the beautiful campus, the great Psychology program, and its location deep in the South with beautiful, warm weather – unlike Germany,” she said.
After applying to Valdosta State, Sandra found out that she had been accepted into a school with her dream program and knew she had to go. She prepared for her big move and jumped on a nine-hour flight to the States. Once the plane took off from home though, she spent all nine hours wondering if she had made the right decision.
When would she see her family again? Would she make friends? How would she do in her program?
Fortunately, Sandra was not alone. On her first day of orientation, she ended up sitting at a table where she saw a German passport and an Austrian passport in front of her. This is how she met her future German roommate, Lea, and trusty Austrian companion, Olav. Having met other students who spoke the same language, Sandra took the opportunity to form close bonds and create a support system of friends who had also made a big move to the States.
Sandra’s worry and fear that had formed on the plane ride over began to fade away once she knew she was not alone.
Only a short time after arriving in Valdosta, she settled into her classes at VSU and fell in love with its campus (especially the palm trees). Although the environment was still unfamiliar, it didn’t hurt that the other people she was meeting were kind and easy going.
“The people and the mentality in the South are so incredibly heartwarming. I remember my first roommate’s family picking me up at the airport and hosting me for my first weekend in Valdosta. They helped me get situated and organize everything, from buying things for my dorm room to setting up my bank account. I was overwhelmed by the hospitality and friendliness they showed me,” she said.
Sandra’s college experience at VSU, however, was not without its hurdles. She became homesick and found that her English was good enough for writing, but it was not great for small talk with Americans. She also found it difficult to communicate with her family via Skype because of the six-hour time difference. As time went on though, she tried to remain focused on her coursework and not get bogged down with worry. The deeper she dove into her studies, the more confidence she gained in knowing that she was on the right track.
On top of finding comfort in an on-campus community of more than 300 international students, she also found herself surrounded by inspiring mentors and professors who seamlessly guided her through her Industrial/Organization Psychology program. Sandra realized that everything was coming together for her lifelong dream to become a reality.
As Sandra continued to make her way through her program, more difficulties arose. During the middle of a semester, she received a phone call informing her that her dad had been taken to the hospital after experiencing a heart attack. She was unable to go home quickly to be with him, and if she did leave she would lose credits for all of her courses that semester.
Sandra made the decision to comfort her family from the States and visit her dad during the next break. Still, she persevered and supported her family as best as she could from afar.
When life became tough, Sandra remained steadfast and true – to her family, her friends, and herself. She continued her program despite unexpected challenges that came her way, and she excelled in her education. This is what led her to many successes at Valdosta State, such as presenting her Psychology research at the 2017 Undergraduate Research Symposium and being voted as Student Assistant of the Year.
Being an international student at Valdosta State for three years has allowed Sandra to experience some of the best and most challenging moments of her life.
“I have grown so much personally and realize that I have become more self-reflective of my actions and thinking, and more tolerant toward different people,” she said.
Sandra made the decision to challenge herself once again to continue her educational journey in pursuit of a Master of Science in Industrial/Organizational Psychology here at Valdosta State. She plans to graduate in the Spring of 2019. From experience, she knows that making a big move isn’t just about geographic distance; it’s about believing in yourself and knowing that going after your dreams may not always be easy, but it will always be worth it.