Saturday, June 29, 2013

Dear family,

Thank you so much for the DearElder letters from everyone - it made my whole day! I love all so much!
It's been a busy first week, and I don't even know if I'll be able to fit it all into one email, but I'll just start from the beginning and see how far I get:

When I arrived at my gate in the Salt Lake Airport, I was surprised to see that there were already almost 10 missionaries waiting there. They weren't wearing tags, but it was only all too easy to recognize the row of clean-cut young people with bright eyes and wide smiles. The group was about half elders and half sisters. The sisters ages ranged from 19 to 21, but only one elder was over the age of 20, and it turned out that they were all headed to the Dominican Republic. The only real question seemed to be: East or West?

As we accumulated missionaries at each layover, that was always the second question asked after their name: which mission are you going to, East or West? Through sharing the little information that we had, the general consensus seemed to be that the East contained more urban and tourist places, and that the West is generally the poorer part of the island, and contains many smaller rural villages. It might make some people apprehensive to be sent to the poorest part of an already poor country, but for some reason this new information didn't really phase me. I have no illusions - I know that it isn't going to be easy, but I feel a peace in my heart because I know that that is the area where I am supposed to serve my mission, and through all the challenges that lay ahead of me, the Lord will be there.

 I will also admit that that this new didn't surprise me much because - in a way - I was almost expecting it. When I was praying to the Lord after I put in my mission papers, I asked to sent to a place that I would do well, but would also challenge me, so that I could grow by learning to put my trust in the Lord. So here I am.

Our plane descended on Santo Domingo in the midst of a storm, and my first glimpses of the growing city below were during brief flashes of lightning, and I couldn't see much at all through the rain-streaked windows as we taxied, except for the darkened silhouettes of palm trees against the deep purple sky.

When we all filed off the plane, the first that everyone commented about was the humidity. As we  waited for all 17 of us to regroup outside the jet way, all the sisters were fanning their faces and the elders were tugging agitatedly at their ties.

Before we could all get in line at Border Control, I - being one of the only missionaries to have travelled extensively outside the U.S. - had to help the sisters fill out all their entrance and Customs forms. (Needless to say, it took a few minutes.) It took even longer for everyone to find their bags and clear Customs. At the Baggage Claim, there were several men who would rush over and try to help you with your bags and several missionaries got swindled out of $20, but fortunately no one bothered me. I think it was because I didn't look confused - if you've been to one international airport, you've been to them all.

I stayed behind for a minute to help one sister who was having trouble clearing Customs, and once we walked outside, we couldn't see where the rest of the group went. Eventually, we found a many holding a sign for '"La Iglesia de Jesucrist de Los Santos de Los Ultimos Dias.’” We followed him and found the rest of our group piling into a large van. As the van drove through the darkened city, some of us were talking excitedly and others were peering intently out the windows. On the highway, newer cars passed us, some rustier vehicles stacked high with plastic crates, and lots of motorcycles - even in the rain.

It was a warm rain, though. Warm and humid, like stepping out of a shower and into a steam-filled bathroom. My clothes were sticking to me and windows were fogging up, making it hard to see much of Santo Domingo.

As we pulled off the highway, it became easier to see the buildings around us. Most f them were made of colored concrete and stucco. Their geometric forms looked like weatherworn boxes stacked on top of one another, with the occasional telephone wire strong in between them on the smaller streets. The larger streets were lined with bold, colorful billboards advertising products I didn't recognize. Many of the buildings were worn, with paint chipping off their stucco and most of the sidewalks were crumbling along the edges.

We turned down a smaller street and as the city buildings came to an end, the glowing spire of the Temple lit up the night sky above us, surrounded by a field of swaying palm trees, the golden angel Moroni lifting his trumpet to the tumultuous sky from the top of the tower.

The gates around the temple parted and we drove inside the compound, past the temple, and parked in front of a white stucco building that was a perfect rectangle. As we all filed out of the van, we were greeted by President and Sister Freestone, standing at the top of a set of pink granite steps, framed on either side by a row of gleaming granite columns. They welcomed us to the MTC and led us inside to the cafeteria. As we ate our late dinner, we were assigned to companionships and districts. I am in the Enos district, which has 6 missionaries (4 sisters, 2 elders), and my companion is named Sister Nodal.

After we finished eating, we were told to go up to our rooms and get some rest. My room has 4 sisters in it. For the next hour and a half or so, we picked beds, unpacked our things, and got to know one another. Sister Nodal is from New Mexico and is studying Nursing at BYU. As this week had progressed, I have really gained a testimony that we are put with certain companions for a reason, because Hermana Nodal and I compliment one another very well. We get along easily; have similar personalities, and the same sense of humor (we laugh a lot). We are even at similar levels in our Spanish. And on a more practical note, I can help her reach the high things because I'm 5'10" and she's 4'11".

We didn't have any trouble falling asleep that night because we were all so exhausted from getting up at 3am, but this week, I've come to learn that a day at the MTC can be just as tiring as travelling thousands of miles.

Each morning, we get up at 6:30am. Breakfast at 7am. Personal study at 7:30, followed by Companion study at 8:30am. Language study (classroom and computer) until Lunch at 12:30pm, followed by more language study. Gym time at 3:30. Dinner at 5:15pm. And more studying after dinner until we meet for nightly prayer at 9:30pm.

The first few days it was extremely difficult to stay awake and alert all day - especially in the morning. But you just have to push through it and keep moving forward, even if it is difficult to keep your eyes open. Every night I prayed for the energy to stay focused and the ability to sleep soundly. Sure enough, by the morning of the fourth day, it began to be less painful to peel my eyes open at 6:30am. And it continues to get easier each and every day. I know that I have the wonderful people here and the much needed blessings of the Lord to thank for that.

Another adjustment was the food - it took a while to get used to 3 square meals a day. Our typical breakfast consists of eggs, some kind of meat (usually sausage, or sometimes Spam), and always a large pot of brown porridge. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, and always features rice with some kind of beans poured over it. They also put out a lot of fresh avocadoes, and the juiciest pineapple and the sweetest mango I've ever tasted. Dinner is usually some form of potato (or plantain mash) accompanied by 1 or 2 types of mystery meat (we can only usually identify it about half the time). And every meal is always accompanied by several jugs of a thick, sweet, bright red fruit punch. I can only usually drink about half a glass.

In between meals, we are constantly study.  We have one teacher in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one at night. Essentially, everything is in Spanish, which is fine for me because I can understand most of they're saying, but there are 2 people in my district that don't have any experience with the language at all and I can only imagine how overwhelming it must be for them. All the teachers are native Dominicans in their twenties, and the lessons usually include a fair bit of laughter. Sometimes it doesn't even seem like a lesson because we all have so much fun with each other in our district. We've already grown close in the short time that we've been here. We're together in class all day, and usually even sit together in the cafeteria. We all compliment one another very well and frequently laugh to the point of crying. It's the kind of unity in a small group that you can only get at one of the smaller MTCs, and I am so thankful for that. But despite all our goofing off, we are all very dedicated in our studies and work effectively together to help one another better learn the language.

In only the first week, I've already learned dozens of gospel words (an area of the Spanish language that I was wholly unfamiliar with). I am now relatively confident with bearing my testimony and praying in Spanish, which we all have plenty of opportunity to practice. Hermana Nodal and I even have our first progressing investigator (which is really just one of our teachers acting - very commitedly, I might add). We've taught her 3 lessons, and we improve and feel more confident each time, although we both still have a long way to go.

Well... there is so much more I have to tell you all, but I don't have much time left on the computer. So I'll just have to stop here for the week. I love and miss you all so much! You are always in my prayers and never far from my thoughts.

Give everyone my love! <3 I miss you all, but know that I am off to a great start :)

Todo mi amor,

Hermana Olsen

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Why I have decided to serve a mission:

“Along the pathway of life you will observe that you are not the only traveler. There are others who need your help. There are feet to steady, hands to grasp, minds to encourage, hearts to inspire, and souls to save.”
— Thomas S. Monson, Church President

I believe that the ultimate direction of our lives is decided by a select few pivotal decisions, which means that once you’ve made up your mind about something, your life can change in an instant—like the decision of where to go to college, what career path you want to pursue, whether to serve a mission, or even something as simple as deciding to go to church. All of life’s decisions boil down to that singular moment that you commit to yourself and say: Yes, that is what I am going to do with my life. In October 2012, I thought I knew exactly what I was going to do with my life, but as I have come to learn over these past few months: sometimes the plans we’ve chosen for ourselves and the plan that our Heavenly Father has in store for us don’t always match up, and it is our job to make sure that we exercise our faith so that we are able to discriminate between the two.
I didn’t always know that I was going to serve a mission. Growing up, I went through phases of ‘yes, I think I’ll go on a mission’ and ‘no, I don’t think I’ll go.’  But I did always have a love of languages and took Spanish for quite a few years, and so whenever I pictured myself on a mission, it was always to some hot, humid, beautiful country in Latin America.
But when October 2012 came around, I had decided that I was definitely not going to go on a mission. I had made the decision that, after my last year at Utah State, I was on targeted and uninterrupted path towards a doctoral degree program in neuropsychology. I still know that is what I’m going to do with my life, but I’ve learned that I am supposed to serve a mission beforehand.
The October 2012 session of LDS General Conference brought with it some startling news; news that would alter the life plans of thousands of young people like me across the world. The age that church members could begin serving missions had been lowered: young men could now serve missions beginning at age 18, and young women could now serve missions beginning at age 19. Since this announcement, the Church has seen an unprecedented rise in the number of young people leaving on missions: there are now over 65,000 missionaries serving worldwide, with another 20,000 waiting to enter the field. As Elder Russell M. Nelson has so eloquently described it: “an unprecedented wave of enthusiasm for missionary work is sweeping the entire earth.”
When the announcement was made in Conference that day, it was one of the few times in life when my jaw has genuinely fallen open out of surprise. Suddenly, at age 20, I was now old enough to serve a mission. However, even after watching all the Conference sessions that weekend, I still didn’t think that this news applied to me. I had a plan for myself and I was going to stick to it. I didn’t have time to go on mission if I wanted get my doctorate. 
So I went about my week, marveling at how boys fresh out of high school could be trusted with such responsibility and how girls everywhere I turned were putting their lives on hold at the drop of a hat. It seemed like I couldn’t go to a single class period without overhearing some eager young woman talking about how she was putting in her papers. At the time, this made me even more determined not to jump on the bandwagon. I didn’t want to serve a mission just because it seemed like everyone else was going.
However, I have come to learn that today’s rapidly growing enthusiasm for missionary work is not the result of young people casually jumping on the bandwagon, or the simple byproduct of popular opinion.  Elder Russell M. Nelson assures us that this wave of missionary work “is not man-made! It comes from the Lord, who said, ‘I will hasten my work in its time.’” It is “a wave of truth and righteousness” and a glorious and exciting sign of the times we are now living in.
It wasn’t until I drove home for the weekend about two weeks after Conference, that I began to think that maybe the whole mission thing might be for me as well. It wasn’t some overwhelming spiritual revelation, in fact, in my experience, things rarely ever are. As it says in Alma 37:6, “…by small and simple things are great things brought to pass.” In the past few months I have truly gained a firm testimony of that principle, because what got me to consider that maybe the Lord wanted me to serve a mission was a small and simple comment that my Dad said to me one night, seemingly out of the blue.
He said, “You know, Kaitlin, if you want to serve a mission, you might want to think about doing it while you still have a year of school left. That way, you’ll have a familiar routine to come back to. It makes the transition easier.” Never again will I underestimate the power a single sentence can have, because at that moment, I irrefutably knew the truth and the logic contained in those simple—even seemingly inconsequential—words. And distinctly I knew that I had to at least be open to the possibility that the Lord wanted me to serve a mission. That is a lesson that I will never forget: the first step to following the path that the Lord has for us is being open to receiving the promptings of the Spirit and being willing to act on those promptings when we receive them.
So, for the next two weeks afterwards, I thought about serving a mission virtually all the time. I earnestly prayed and read my scriptures with that question in mind, and I carried that prayer always in my heart. I even reworked two possible alternative schedules for my classes in order to graduate. It turns out that most graduate programs only start in the Fall, so serving a mission will actually put me two years behind in school. At the time, that was frustrating, but I willed it not to dissuade me from the possibility of doing what the Lord wanted me to do.
After two weeks, however, I was still undecided. I hadn’t got my answer. And then one morning, I was walking in the Institute (church) building on campus and a poster caught me eye. It was advertising a speaker for the following afternoon. There was a speaker every Friday afternoon at the Institute, but I didn’t usually go because it was during my lunch hour. For some reason, however, I felt impressed that that I needed to go listen to that particular speaker: Camille Franc Olson. And I did. And again, I was reminded of the power the single, seemingly insignificant, decision can have on our lives if we listen to the Spirit.
Sister Olson wasn’t technically there to speak about women serving missions. Honestly, I don’t even remember what it was she was actually there to speak about. But she spent over half her time speaking about why she had personally decided to serve a mission as young woman, many years ago. As I sat there, I heard many details of my own life, my own thought processes, and even many of my excuses, spoken back to me from that pulpit. Like me, she was a student at USU, she graduated in 3 years, and after her mission went on to earn her Ph.D. in sociology and have a very successful career as a professor at BYU and an author of numerous books.
Here was an intelligent, independent, scholarly woman telling me that serving a mission was one of the best decisions of her life. Obviously, the Lord knew that I was quite stubborn and needed my answer told to me pretty much point blank.
As I sat there in that crowded cultural hall, all of my excuses, which had once seemed so valid and compelling, suddenly evaporated. The reasons I had told myself for why I shouldn’t, or didn’t need to, go on a mission just didn’t seem all that important anymore. And I knew, without a doubt, in that moment, that I needed to serve a mission. That was what the Lord wanted me to do. And the very instant that I committed to that decision, a tremendous feeling of peace spread over me. It was like shutting an open window or turning off a fan, and getting rid of a noise or an unsettled feeling I didn’t even really notice was there in the first place. It just felt right. I knew that was what the Lord wanted me to do, without a doubt. And there was no arguing with that.
Once I had made that decision, it was as simple as that. I started working on my papers the following Monday.
For me, however, my mission preparation process began when I first sincerely opened my mind to the possibility of serving a mission. The firm foundation of my process of earnestly seeking to know if a mission was right for me, was reading from the Book of Mormon every day. I had a 90-day reading chart and I was determined to stick to it. Through doing so, I found that focused scripture study paired with sincere, directed prayer made my worries less troubling, stress easier to bear, and life is more meaningful. Even though I may not have received my answer right away, everything just seemed brighter, clearer, and more balanced. My daily focused scripture study brought power to my life and a sensitivity to my spirit that made it possible for me to receive the answer I was looking for, through listening to the words of my father and acting on the impression to attend that Institute speaker.
Once I knew that I was supposed to serve a mission, my ways of preparation branched out. I bought a copy of Preach My Gospel and began to study that along with the Book of Mormon. Preach My Gospel explains our beliefs and the fullness of the gospel with a pure simplicity that even someone who knows nothing of our faith can readily understand, and yet I managed to learn something new every time I opened it. I know that the knowledge contained in those pages will become an indispensible tool to anyone who reads it, whether preparing to serve a mission or otherwise.
            My mission call arrived at our house only nine days after my papers were officially submitted. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make it home to open it for another two days. Some people might call it strange, but I didn’t spend those two days waiting in tense anticipation. To me, that envelope simply represented some inevitable unknown. I didn’t know what my call would say, but I knew that it was inspired by the Lord and that it wasn’t going to change no matter how long I waited to open it. Those two days were the last time that I could imagine going in the world, and anything at all was possible. Once I opened that envelope and read its contents, all the 300-plus possibilities would collapse into a single tangible reality. This idea was both thrilling and daunting, and consequently, my call had seemed to come both too soon and not soon enough. The one thing that I did know for certain was that wherever I was called, that was where the Lord needed me and it was where I could do the most good.
When I read that I had been called to serve in the Dominican Republic Santo Domingo West Mission, I instantly felt both excited and comforted. Somehow I had always known I would get sent to some hot, bright, beautiful country to speak Spanish. President Thomas S. Monson has said of those called to serve: “The missionary opportunity of a lifetime is yours. The blessings of eternity await you. Yours is the privilege to be not spectators but participants on the stage of priesthood service.” And I couldn’t be happier or feel more blessed for the privilege to serve a mission at this time in my life.
My first semi-coherent thought after reading my call—after the cheering died down and the tears dried up—was research. My mind was reeling. I needed books, webpages, documentaries, statistics, maps. There were so many wonderful, exciting things to learn. I drove to Barnes and Noble, and then for the rest of the night, I get lost in the research. By the next morning, I had a general understanding of the country’s climate, geography, history, demographics, economy, and culture. The more I learned, the more excited I got, and the more I fell in love with my call.
            As my second order of business, I decided to open a colorful new pack of scripture markers and reread the Book of Mormon. …No matter how many times I think I’ve read scriptures, there is always something new to learn. This time around, I was reading with a newfound hunger fuelled by my approaching mission. And it has been a truly magnificent experience, through which I have learned that the amount of enthusiasm that we pour into our personal scripture study makes all the difference in the magnitude and quality of our personal growth.
Furthermore, I also got a subscription to Rosetta Stone to brush up on my Spanish, since I haven’t taken a formal class in several years. Some people might call it overzealous, and I am frequently guilty of overthinking things. But when it comes to preparing to serve a mission, I really don’t think there is such a thing as being over prepared. I’d always wanted to try it anyway, and now I had the prefect excuse. It’s been great to get those neurons firing again and I know I’ll feel more confident when I enter the MTC.
And I’ll say it again: I don’t think its possible to over prepare, and I know that effective preparation is vitally important to becoming a successful missionary. Serving a mission is a divine and sacred calling. Missionaries are trusted with the salvation of the children of God as it hangs in the balance; this work deserves all the respect and preparation that I can give it. Ronald A. Rasband described missionary work as “the lifeblood of the Church and the lifesaving blessing to all who accept its message.” I’d like to think I’ve done my best over these past few months to become worthy of this calling, and the rest will just have to rely on faith.
Throughout this process of deciding to serve and preparing to leave on my mission, it has never ceased to amaze me how the smallest actions and the briefest moments can send ripples through your life and change its course in what seems like the blink of an eye. But I know that if we strive to listen to the Spirit and are sensitive to its promptings, keeping an eternal perspective, we will always be guided in the right direction and blessed with that wonderful feeling of peace to know that our decisions are the correct ones and that the Lord is always there for us no matter what unexpected direction we find our life going.
As I have prepared to serve a mission, I have learned that our faith is increased proportionately to the amount of effort that we put in to building up our own testimonies. As Doctrine & Covenants 6:14 promises: as often as we will inquire of the Lord, we will receive instruction of the Spirit. I know this to be true, and I know that our Heavenly Father loves all of us, his children, and has a plan for each and every one of us. I know that we will find joy in this life as we follow the direction of the Spirit and the example of our Savior Jesus Christ.  I have a testimony that this Church contains the fullness of the gospel restored on this earth today, and that as we strive to live our lives in accordance with its teachings that we can return to live with our Father in Heaven once more.
I am so blessed to be given the opportunity share this wonderful message with the people of the Dominican Republic. I know that the next 18 months will bring some of the most challenging and beautiful experiences of my life thus far, and that the Lord will be there to help and strengthen me every step of the way.