Your full name: Tali Sulcas
Your nationality: South African (US citizen)
Your university: Arizona State University
Your degree: Communications (B.S) & Global Health (B.A)
Tell us about your background growing up, your ambitions when you were younger,
and what motivated you to study abroad.
I grew up in the beautiful seaside city of Cape Town, South Africa, with one younger brother. My dad was born and raised in Cape Town, and my mom is Canadian-American. I suppose part of my life story is the true wanderlust that brought my parents together, and in fact, they ran game lodges in the South African Lowveld for 7 years before I was born. In my childhood, my brother and I spent typically 3 months of every year just “in the bush” as we all called it- essentially an extended safari where we camped wild, homeschooled ourselves, and journaled our animal sightings. When I learned how to cook at 10, it was cooking on a tiny little propane stove.
Sadly, our extended bush trips became more scarce as we grew up, and particularly as I became more serious about my tennis. By the time I was 14, I was training almost 20 hours a week and working towards my international ranking. My parents made it very clear that I would get a tertiary education before I was allowed to pursue a professional career, so I began planning to work for a D1 tennis scholarship in the United States. That’s where the idea to study in the US came from. Just before I turned 17 I ended up having to have my hip reconstructed due to drastic overtraining and made the decision to walk away from tennis. I was blessed that my parents still were able to financially support my desire to study here in the US, but I take seriously my responsibility to work hard and build a life for myself.
What do you remember about your arrival in Arizona? What were your feelings when you first started your degree at ASU?
I first came to Arizona for orientation in April 2019 and stayed in a hotel just off campus. I had committed to ASU sight-unseen and desperately hoped that I was making the right choice- I was not disappointed! I remember people warning me how hot it was going to be and arriving thinking, “Wow, this is so beautiful!.” By chance, someone, who I had connected with on Instagram who was in my freshman class, was also in Tempe, and we made arrangements to meet up and go to the Botanical Gardens in Phoenix. It was a gorgeous experience- we watched a psychedelic light show accompanied by music and a pleasant evening temperature. I still haven’t been back to the Botanical Gardens but would love to see the show again.
When I moved into Manzanita Hall and first started my degree, I was studying Neuroscience and was taking a heavy course load, three credits more than was recommended for a first year student. Additionally, 75% of my classes had labs associated with them and I had also gotten a job at the campus gym. Very soon, I realized that I had taken on too much commitment and decided to dial back my class load, and change my major to a degree with lower chemistry requirements. Despite these challenges, there was not a moment where I wished to be somewhere else and have had a great first year experience.
What attracted you to ASU, and what made it the right university for you?
When I was picking my university, I had a set of criteria that I wanted to meet in the university choice I made. I wanted that classic US college experience with all the fraternity parties and massive lecture halls, long walks to classes and 16 different dining halls. I also wanted to know that, if I decided to change my major, there were plenty of other opportunities to take alternative courses. I know many people who pick their university based on its speciality in a particular area; I was keenly aware when I committed that ASU would be able to offer me opportunities in areas of study across the board. I am certainly glad I did that because I ended up switching my major to a totally different path.
Now that you are at university, what have been the highlights and challenges so far?
I love thinking about highlights and lowlights in my life because I suppose I’m quite a sentimental person. I know this is a cliche across the board but making new friends at ASU has been an incredible experience. I always felt a little bit like an outsider in high school because I was so eager to do adult things, like (bizarrely) have a job and become financially independent, because I grew up in a beautiful but small, sleepy town where generations of families would live, marry and die in Fish Hoek valley. I was very blessed to grow up where I did, but finding people in university who share my wanderlust, my drive to do great things and engage their passion for learning, has been a fantastic experience. I have become much more comfortable expressing my drive and desire to build an amazing life.
I feel that a lowlight for any international student is the distance away from one’s support system. Although it is true I have support from my community, there is nothing that can replace the feeling of knowing that people have known you your whole life, and know where you’ve come from and the progress you have made. The time change, which limits my ability to be in touch with my family and friends at home is particularly challenging.
What was the best thing about your overall experience of studying in the US, and what have you learned?
The best thing about my experience studying here, has, for sure, been the everyday experience, and knowledge, of the possibilities out there and available to me. Growing up in South Africa, a third world country, there were so many dreams I had where I would end up halting my fantasy halfway through because I had to recognize that the economy, the industry, or the logistics, or the location, or the politics and racial issues, of South Africa simply could not offer facilitation for the goals and aspirations that I had. Waking up in my college dorm for the first time and knowing that if I work hard, I will be rewarded with everything that I dreamed of. This was not the case in South Africa- I always worked hard but that never guaranteed me opportunities to see the biggest stages in the scientific world, or be a part of the WHO, or interview the most influential people in the world.
In my experiences so far, I have learned that I am capable of more than I expected. I have proven to myself that I can face adversity and survive it, despite having battled mental health challenges in the past. I would recommend studying overseas to anyone and everyone who is brave enough to take that leap of faith. Nothing will teach you more about yourself.
What are your ambitions for the future? How is your study abroad experience helping you on this path?
As I mentioned before, I have always had aspirations to live an extraordinary life. When I was a tennis player I saw my sport as my vehicle to a lifestyle of extraordinary events, and perhaps growing up in a small town at the tip of Africa poured fuel on the fire of my ambition, but I have realized now that, in truth, tennis is never what my heart truly wanted. It represented my desire to prove to myself that I could succeed against odds. My greatest dream, born out of my passion for performing in musicals and singing from the age of 6, is to perform my own music at London’s O2 arena, but, if I were to pick a less unusual career path, it would be presenting on radio and television. I have always loved interacting with interesting people and would love the chance to interview the most extraordinary people in the world. I added global health to my fields of study because I have a keen awareness of the importance of knowing my community, and knowing the plight of people who don’t share my lifestyle, culture, economic standing, race or heritage. Health is a central tenet to the wellbeing of world peace and stability, so I feel that my education in this area could never be redundant. It would be incredible to work on a project one day that addressed the struggles of hardworking but marginalized South African women. To me, that would represent “paying it forward”.
Thinking about YOUR personal experience and YOUR path so far, what advice would you give to students thinking about studying abroad?
GO FOR IT! It will be simultaneously the scariest and most liberating decision you ever make, and you will doubt your decisions in the low moments, but so far I have not regretted it for one second. Also, don’t confine yourself and your experience to your expectations. You will be surprised by people, often in a pleasant way. Many times your gut will tell you things before your experiences teach those lessons to you- trust yourself. And if you can’t hear your inner voice, lean on people. College is a group effort and everyone surrounding you, especially at an amazing place like ASU, knows that there are hills and valleys to college life- so don’t hesitate to reach out, and ask for help. Study in a group and get help with homework. Email TAs and professors with questions. You are not alone, and you CAN thrive.