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From down under, to on top

You know Kaitlin Jempson came a long way to attend Ohio Northern University when Google can’t even calculate a way to get from her hometown to here. But fortunately for ONU, the plucky freshman musical theatre and French double major from Melbourne, Australia, managed what the tech titan could not and made her way not only to Ada, but also onto the Freed Center stage as a performer in the 20th edition of The ONU Holiday Spectacular.

ONU boasts a diverse student body with current representatives from 38 states and 25 foreign countries. Until Jempson’s enrollment, however, the University had never attracted a native Australian. Were it not for the University’s signature blend of liberal arts and professional education, its strong musical theatre program, and, above all, Jempson’s unrelenting desire to pursue her dream, ONU would still be waiting.

“I have had an incredible passion for the performing arts ever since the glorious moment at age 10 when I discovered I could combine my love of singing, dancing and acting on stage through musical theatre,” she says. “Now, I have the chance to do what I love all day, every day, whilst experiencing a new culture and learning environment.”

Jempson decided to attend college in the United States because of superior educational opportunities within the field of musical theatre. In Australia, there are essentially only two institutions that offer a degree in musical theatre and, between them, only 20 spots available to new female students each year. To make matters worse, she finds the conservatory-style education system for the fine arts in Australia lacking.

“In Australia, all you can study is theatre and absolutely nothing else. I loved the fact that, here at ONU, there were options for liberal arts studies. I prefer to get a broader education and not become a person who’s completely absorbed in one field of study. I believe performers need to be informed and have considered the world around us in order to best approach our work,” she says.

Once she decided to enroll in an American college, Jempson began researching schools online. As someone who enjoys singing, dancing and acting equally, she was drawn to colleges and universities with strength in all three areas. ONU was one of about a dozen schools that met her criteria. Unable to visit these schools in person, she relied heavily on online resources like College Confidential, higher education ranking sites, and the colleges’ own websites and social media profiles to learn more about them.

“I was emailing the faculty and admissions departments with lots of questions. I saw that ONU offered a dance minor, which was something I was looking for, and I also got an impression of a general feeling of community here as well,” she says. “I grow a lot in environments where you know everyone and you have relationships with your professors and your classmates and that kind of thing. I liked that feeling of community as opposed to being a really tiny fish in a massive pond.”

Jempson was able to apply to ONU online from her home in Melbourne and audition via video through Acceptd, an online network of college and university fine-arts programs. ONU was the third school to partner with Acceptd, which now boasts affiliations with more than 5,000 programs.

“It’s a new way of thinking of the admissions process for the arts that makes it easier for talented students to find their way into the right programs, regardless of where they live.” says Kirsten Osbun Manley, resident artist in music and co-director of the ONU musical theatre program. “Some schools only use video auditions for prescreening applicants. We don’t. Students can, and do, get accepted into our program from video auditions. It happens every year.”

This year, Jempson was one of three students accepted into ONU’s musical theatre program from an online audition. She arrived on campus a week prior to the start of school, just in time for international students orientation. Due to the travel involved, international students rarely attend summer orientation, so for four days before the rest of the incoming class arrives, students from all over the world get a crash-course introduction to life at ONU.

“I enjoyed the four days of orientation, because it meant that I could get to know the other international students,” says Jempson. “It’s been nice having other familiar faces around campus who are also a little bit confused.”

Jempson needs only one word to describe her first semester at Ohio Northern.

“Busy,” she says. “I love getting involved in all sorts of things. I’m in the World Student Organization. I joined Alpha Zi Delta sorority. I’ve tried to expose myself to as many different groups as possible, especially outside of my major because I think it’s very easy to get completely absorbed in your own major. I’ve loved being part of a culture where everyone is sort of exploring this sort of stuff together.”

Since being cast as a dancer in The ONU Holiday Spectacular, Jempson has had less time for exploration, but the trade-off has been well worth it. After all, having an opportunity to be on stage is the reason she’s here. Even the ridiculous demands of tech-week have her excited.

“My weakness is that I love tech-week. A lot of people call it ‘Hell-week’ because you are just absolutely pummeled to death with work. But I love it because you’re completely immersed in the theatre, and you get see the progression from where you’ve been in rehearsals to adding the costumes, the lights, the sets, the sound, the band and all of that stuff, which is really, really exciting,” she says.

Rehearsals for The ONU Holiday Spectacular began at the end of October, and, while she’s loved every second of it, Jempson admits that there’s been a bit of a learning curve. Apart from learning the American theatre lingo, (in Australia you say “chookas” for good luck, never “break a leg”) the pace of rehearsals has been more intense than what she’s used to back home.

“At times it’s been like ‘Oh my gosh!’ because I’ll get thrown a dance routine super, super quickly. But it’s been really great,” she says. “I prefer a challenge to being babied along and spoon-fed. It’s nice for them to be like, ‘All right, you’re adults. This is how it needs to be. Go and come back next time with it perfect.’ That is how professionals do it.”

When she takes the stage for the first time on Nov. 20 for the first of four performances at the Freed Center for the Performing Arts, Jempson will not only delight the audience with her talents, but also hold up her end of a bargain. To help pay for her education, she created “Catapault Kaitlin to College,” a campaign on the Australian crowd-funding website For each pledge of $50, she promised to send the donor a signed copy of the playbill from the first show she performs in at college. Interestingly, she listed the estimated delivery to be in March 2015. She’ll best her goal by four months.

“I was working six jobs to save up money for college, and one of my friends was like, ‘Okay, you’re killing yourself. There must be another way for you to find this amount of money. Why don’t you try crowd-funding?’” she says. “I didn’t feel completely comfortable with it at first, but I decided to give it a try. I don’t feel like I asked for too much, just enough to help make ends meet. So many people were incredibly generous with donations and recommending people to donate to me that I’d never met. It was amazing.”

Jempson receives a scholarship from ONU, and she is supported by Creative Partnerships Australia, a not-for-profit organization that enables Australians to make tax-deductable contributions to young performers, artists and writers.

Although Jempson’s Ohio Northern education is just beginning, when the lights come up and the band starts to play that opening night, her journey will officially come to an end.