by Kara Hansen
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Sarah Orscheln will have no trouble with that perennial back-to school essay assignment: How did you spend your summer?
She spent hers at the recent Olympic games in Beijing.
Orscheln, a convergence journalism major at the University of Missouri, was a volunteer for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Games of the 2008 Olympics (BOCOG). She started her position on July 1, trading in the Midwestern summer for an unforgettable Olympic experience in China.
The Church of the Nativity, Leawood, parishioner worked as a member of the Press Operations team of the National Indoor Stadium in Beijing, more commonly known as the Bird’s Nest. Although daily tasks varied depending on the need, Orscheln was involved in everything from running the press conferences to escorting Olympic medalists Nastia Liukin and Shawn Johnson back to their seats after the gymnastics all-around competition.
“I think I might have Olympic fever. In the past week I’ve watched Usian Bolt sprint to his spot as the world’s fastest man, Nastia Liukin get robbed of a gold on bars, and Shawn Johnson beam with pride as her first, well-deserved, gold medal was placed around her neck,” said Orscheln in a post on her blog. She has been faithfully updating it as a way for family and friends to keep current with her adventure.
Orscheln’s position as a journalist-in-training also entailed interviewing specific Olympic athletes and then entering their quotes into an online database. News organizations from around the world could access those quotes for use in their own stories.
“I’m working one-on-one with journalists, clearing seats for AP (Associated Press) and Reuters (the British news agency), watching the Olympics in action behind BBC broadcasters and running press conferences from start to finish with the help of our Chinese moderator and simultaneous translation booths,” said Orscheln. “Just being at the Olympics and working with some of the finest media the world has to offer has been a phenomenal launching point to a career in what feels like a current state of limbo, mostly because I have a year left of school.”
The process for getting to China in the first place was nothing short of rigorous. The pool was slim, drawing from just 13 universities internationally. Journalism students from these universities went through multiple interview processes including written tests, oral debates, and one-on-one interviews.
Care was taken to ensure the students would be able to understand — and still provide accurate quotes — from athletes with strong accents. Orscheln, who is participating in this program along with 59 other University of Missouri journalism students, attended weekly classes for her entire spring semester to help prepare for her experience in China.
“We took in bits and pieces of Olympic news, reporters’ advice and teachings about Beijing,” said Orscheln. “I can tell you now that nothing in those few months could have adequately prepared me for the culture shock that I have experienced in the past few months.”
First, there was the challenge of getting around in a foreign city where few people speak English. And then there was the food. Orscheln learned to appreciate Chinese cuisine while she was in the country, but a Pizza Hut or McDonald’s was always a welcome sight just the same.
Not that the Mizzou senior is complaining. The challenges of her Olympic experience have been far outweighed by the unique opportunities that have come her way. The chance to immerse in a completely foreign, Eastern culture has both intrigued and inspired Orscheln.
“Politically, China is the place you want to be as a student, journalist, American, you name it. There’s a reason to be here, and there is too much to learn. The Chinese are not only a rising superpower, but the country offers so much in the way of insight toward how to relate to Easterners in general, who make up one fourth of the world’s population,” said Orscheln.
Orscheln has experienced both frustration with a culture that asserts its power so absolutely, and, conversely, been humbled by the graciousness of her Chinese hosts.
“This experience has restored my faith in humanity, while at the same time forcing me to question how in the world people can live in harmony under a state of government that rarely, if at all, resembles what we try to define as a democracy,” said Orscheln.
Besides the practical aspects of training, Orscheln took it upon herself to train for the two month stint spiritually as well. Though it meant spending less time with family before leaving for China, Orscheln worked at Camp Tekakwitha in Williamsburg throughout the early part of the summer.
“I knew I had to get my heart in the right place before traveling across the world to a place I could have never accurately imagined,” said Orscheln, who had worked at the camp in the summer of 2007 as well.
“I had the opportunity to choose a community of love right in the vicinity of my own hometown,” she said, “and there wasn’t a question in my mind where I wanted to spend the month and a half leading up to a summer away in China.”
Now that the Olympic flame has been doused and Orscheln is headed home, she recognizes her Chinese journey as a decidedly unique experience whose lessons are not lost on the aspiring journalist and faithful Catholic.
“Each day is a personal choice as to whether or not I’m ready to commit myself to the unfamiliar. It’s a prayer and gift of choice less vulnerability that has forced me to grow more and more into an independent adult with real decisions about where I fit into this crazy world,” she said.