Lorna Hale’s Journey from Texas to Turkey Led to Columbia and Beyond

May 15, 2017
Lorna Hale

When Lorna Hale was in seventh grade, she and her parents decided that she wouldn’t go to the local school in Bremond, Texas, population 918, where they had their family farm and Hale did livestock exhibition, training animals to pose and walk in front of judges.

Instead, she began commuting 45 miles away to the Harmony Public School in Bryan/College Station, a member of one of the largest network of charter schools in Texas, formed nearly two decades ago by a group of Turkish educators and businessmen.

The school—which is so small that Hale was one of 12 in her graduating class—gave her educational opportunities that the closest public school couldn’t offer, such as an intense focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). She took Turkish as a second language, and did so well her teachers encouraged her to compete in a Turkish Regional Olympiad, an international competition and exchange program where students from around the world compete in reciting Turkish poetry, speech, singing and folk dance.

Hale won the regional and in 2012 went to the International Olympiad in Turkey where, wearing a glittering red gown and standing in the glare of a spotlight, she won a gold medal for speech and a silver for poetry for her recitation of a romantic poem in fluent Turkish to a crowd of 5,000. “I was very glad that I had put myself out there, and I felt that I grew through the experience.”

As to why she applied to Columbia, “I thought an Ivy League school would be great, and I wanted a change of pace. I got exactly what I thought I wanted,” she said. “I don’t think that if I had stayed in a regular school that I would have ended up where I am today.”

Columbia was a huge change of pace. It’s quiet at her parents’ house, where she might hear the lambs on the farm bleating or an occasional passing train. “It took some adjusting to where I could sleep peacefully here,” she said. “The background noise of the city is an entirely different timbre.” It didn’t help that her dorm was directly across from the St. Luke’s Hospital emergency room.

As a sophomore, she volunteered with Columbia Health Exchange, a program that educates underserved high school students about health. This past semester, she worked with America Reads, a literacy program that helps students at Ralph Bunche School, a public school on West 123rd Street. “It is so fulfilling to see children who are happy to see you and you’re helping them grow as people,” she said. “I just find that personally rewarding.”

A Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies major, Hale spent her junior year in Istanbul, where she studied that country’s history, language and culture. She was there in a time of turmoil, the run up to a failed coup attempt against the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. To add to the stress, her apartment caught fire on Valentine’s Day, nearly killing her cat.

Now, as Hale prepares to graduate from Columbia College, she’s reflecting on the lessons she’s learned and how they will serve he as she moves onto her next challenge: a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa. Hale is looking forward to being of service to a community in Zambia, where she’ll teach English as a foreign language and provide HIV and AIDS awareness education.

“Columbia has granted me the ability to withstand and cope with a rigorous, stressful environment—living in New York, so far away from my family has been so good for my independence and functioning as an autonomous unit,” she said. “That’s really necessary in the Peace Corps. In New York I’ve learned to operate on a completely different level than what I did in Texas, I’m hoping it will prepare me for my next living situation.”

—By Acacia O'Connor