College wasn't on the immediate radar for Nokukhanya "Noks" Lucy Shabalala '16.
Her priority—along with her older siblings—was working to put food on the table and helping to provide an education for the younger siblings in her large family in South Africa.
After high school, she began working as a residential director at a mission boarding school started by German Lutherans. She hadn't thought about her next career move until she met Dr. Cheryl Williams, CUI Professor of Communication and Business during Williams' visit to the school in 2012.
Impressed with Shabalala, Williams pledged to return to Concordia and look into scholarship opportunities so Shabalala could study at CUI.
"For me, really, it was a total God-orchestrated opportunity," Shabalala said.
Six months later, Shabalala was on a plane to America. With funding from an organization in South Africa and a tuition scholarship from Concordia, Shabalala began her first year on campus studying theology.
Coming from a stricter educational culture, Shabalala encountered a bit of a culture shock during her first semester, especially the first time she saw a student express differing views from their professor.
To me, communication gave me another psychological aspect of things," she said. "It was addressing issues, addressing conflict, sitting down with people, being a liaison between two people and trying to figure out a common ground.
"In the end, I realized that education is a reciprocal thing," she said. "You go to class. You don't just take what they give you. You take it, you process it and you ask questions."
As Shabalala settled in at CUI, Associate Professor of Theology Glenn Fluegge encouraged her to consider pursuing a secular major that she could use upon her return home. Shabalala consulted Williams, who pointed out that Shabalala was good with people and a good communicator. That got Shabalala thinking. At the time, she was taking a communications class that piqued her interest.
"I was really intrigued with communications, the study of people and how people communicate," she said, adding that she decided to pursue communication studies as a major because she wanted to work with people.
That decision proved pivotal, strengthening her relationships with local and international students in her campus jobs, as a residential assistant in the Global Village living learning community, and later, as a teacher in China.
"To me, communication gave me another psychological aspect of things," she said. "It was addressing issues, addressing conflict, sitting down with people, being a liaison between two people and trying to figure out a common ground. And having learned those things ... really helped me a lot in my college career."
Communication was also an important aspect of her role as president of CUI's Global Citizens Club. With a healthy membership of international and local students, the group's reach grew with events that encouraged members to share cuisine, pictures and stories from their native countries. The club also gave local students an opportunity to introduce local fare like pizza and In 'n Out to their international friends as well as American traditions like pumpkin carving, Thanksgiving and Christmas.
"This was an opportunity for us to get a taste of Spain, a taste of Africa, a taste of all the global countries that were represented at our school," Shabalala said. "And it worked out so well. It opened up so many doors, so many opportunities for friendship."
After immersing herself in her communication classes and the campus culture, Shabalala had found a second home.
When you are at Concordia, you are not just a face," Shabalala said. "I had professors who dedicated their time for me ... helping me to be the best writer, helping me to construct my thoughts, and even inspiring me to look at grad school ... They inspired me to love education.
Her love of education continued after she graduated from CUI in May 2016 with a bachelor's degree in communication studies and a minor in theology. With the help of her mentor, English Professor Adam Lee, Shabalala secured a teaching post at a public middle school in Shenzhen, China. There, she taught German and English, often drawing on the knowledge she gained from her CUI communication classes.
"Because of that background, the communication background that I came with, (I was) able to go to my colleagues and even my students and say, there's an issue and it needs to be addressed and we address the issue right there and then and then we move forward with no baggage," she said.
Shabalala completed her first academic year as a teacher on June 23 and is embarking on a new journey to acquire her master's degree in Spiritual Care at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis. After that, she would like to work with former child soldiers and victims of civil war in Central Africa.
"I feel like I'm bringing all this global knowledge that will strengthen my people, my community," Shabalala said. "It's just an amazing gift."