For many of us, the words “college” and “uncertainty” go hand in hand. After graduating from high school, we leave home and are on our own, some for the very first time. We go off to a new place with new people, new friends and new ways of living. We have to negotiate new food with caution to avoid the “freshman fifteen,” a feat more challenging than it sounds. And perhaps most importantly, we have to figure out what we want to study, what goals we’re aiming for. All of this can be overwhelming and frustrating—why can’t we all just have road maps of our future laid out in front of us?
But even if it seems like we have everything figured out, even the best laid plans can go awry—reminding us that it’s not the end, but the journey that’s important. For Kayla Walker, a sophomore professional writing major who transferred to Carnegie Mellon at the beginning of this year, one of the hardest challenges to overcome has been learning to accept uncertainty—for she hadn’t planned on ending up here. In fact, up until she had major hip surgery just over a year ago, she had been following a very different path: the path of a professional ballet dancer.
The dream started when she was very young. “When I was four I saw The Nutcracker. My mom was worried I’d get bored and wouldn’t be able to sit still,” Kayla said. “But I didn’t move a muscle. I was so enthralled that I wanted to be Clara in real-life.”
She began taking classes at a local ballet studio in Hood River, Oregon when she was five. “My mom thought I would have stage fright,” she said. “I didn’t.”
From there on, she continued taking classes, and at age 11 she did a summer intensive program with Oregon Ballet Theatre. “That was an eye opening experience,” Kayla said. “I realized that if I was serious about this, I would have to work a lot harder. A local studio wasn’t going cut it.” As a result, she started training at a studio in Vancouver, Washington at age 12, and she knew at that point that ballet is what she wanted to do for her life. “There was never a question,” Kayla said.
From there on, training picked up in intensity as she trained throughout her summers. She trained in Washington State for three summers, and in Long Beach, California for two. During her second summer at Long Beach, she was rehearsing for a performing tour of China—that was in 2008, the summer of the Beijing Olympics. But by then she was already beginning to have signs of physical wear. Before she went to China, she was diagnosed with a labral tear in her hip, and she also began having back pain. “We were performing Swan Lake, and I pushed through a lot of pain. I couldn’t bend my back in Long Beach, but I pushed through in China for the performances,” she said.
The next summer she trained in Boston, and smaller injuries like tendonitis plagued her, but there were no major problems. The following school year, after graduating from high school, she moved to Cincinnati to train at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati. By the third quarter of the school year she was in significantly more pain. Doctors continued to say that it was a labral tear in her hip, but that it didn’t yet require surgery, as long as the symptoms didn’t get worse. So Kayla kept on pushing through with her dancing.
After spending a second summer training in Boston, she moved to New York to be a trainee with the Joffrey Ballet School. “I was so excited to be there—it was New York City, and I had amazing faculty,” Kayla said. “But I was in a lot of pain, even though I have a pretty high pain tolerance.”
The pain came and went while she was a trainee with the Joffrey, but by November, it was significantly worse. “I came home after class one Friday, and after I got up from a chair, everything from my waist down locked up. My roommate came back and found me lying on the floor.” After taking it easy that weekend, she went back to class on Monday, but she could feel something catching in her hip.
“I could tell something had changed. I went back to the doctor, and they did MRIs, CT Scans, X-Rays—they thought I had torn my ligamentum teres, and they could see a bone spur (an abnormal shape) on my femur head.” Doctors gave her a cortisone injection to confirm that the problem was indeed within her hip joint, and after spending Christmas break with her family, Kayla knew that when she went back to NY in January, the doctors were going to tell her that she needed surgery—that her dance career was over.
“Christmas was rough,” she said. “I was always the kind of person who had my whole life planned out. It didn’t seem right that it was all blowing up.”
When she went back to New York in January, the doctors confirmed what Kayla already knew—that she needed surgery. “While I waited for the surgery, I got a job nannying, and I dove headfirst into figuring out what I wanted to do. I had three huge books about different colleges, and I researched all these different programs. It’s really hard to transfer into a good school, and I had to apply by February.”
She finally had surgery on March 28, 2011. “The surgery went well, but the doctors were genuinely surprised at how bad my hip was. I had completely chewed up my ligament,” Kayla said. “Now when I go back for follow up appointments, the doctors always comment, ‘Oh, you’re the one whose hip was so bad!’ The surgery they performed is fairly cutting-edge—it’s relatively new, and only a few doctors perform it. I was at the right place at the right time, and I already had a community of support in New York, which really helped, because I was there for three months afterwards recovering. Overall, the recovery time takes about a year.”
Finally at the end of June, several months after the surgery, she found out she was accepted to Carnegie Mellon University. “I was a bit nervous,” Kayla said. “I hadn’t been in rigorous academics since high school. I’m still figuring out where I fit in. When you have that big of a life change, you can’t just suddenly flip and do something completely different. For my first semester here, I felt like I was living someone else’s life. For 16 years everything in my life was so focused on dancing—this was a huge switch. I feel like I’ve come a long way, but I still have a lot to figure out.”
But despite all these changes, Kayla believes that a lot of good has come out of her experience. “I’m really thankful that I’m here. I have great classes, professors and peers. And even though I’m not really sure what the next step is, one thing I’ve learned is that when opportunities arise you just have to take them. You have to be open. I have a lot of opportunities now that I wouldn’t have had before. This summer I’ll be volunteering at a Young Life Camp in central Oregon, something I’ve always wanted to do but couldn’t before because I was always training.”
And Kayla has also learned something perhaps even more important: to trust in the support she has in her life. “These experiences challenge you as a person and develop your character. What’s really gotten me through are my faith, my family and my friends.” And that’s something we can all take to heart, no matter where we’re aiming to go in life—no matter what challenges we face.