With her first Minnesota winter freshly behind her, freshman Chelsea Balthazar still does not know what a parka is.
"'A parka?' What is that? Is it like a coat?" she responds, when asked if she owns one.
Her puzzlement isn't so off kilter once she explains she is from Fond St. Jean, a tiny village on Dominica, a small island in the eastern Caribbean Sea where the temperature doesn't stray far from the upper 70s in early April.
She is St. Thomas' only student to hail from Dominica, though the university has hosted over a dozen Caribbean students over the years.
Here on a full scholarship, Balthazar, 21, earned an associate's degree in biology from Dominica State College. After completing her degree, she worked as a shipping assistant for her grandfather's business, Balthazar Shipping Agency. But after two years, she became restless – plagued by the feeling that her associate's degree wasn't enough, for neither her nor her parents, whom she described as "very strict when it comes to education." They expected straight A's, which she delivered.
So what did it take for a small-town girl from the tropics – and blissfully so – to enroll in a Catholic university tucked between two urban centers in a boreal state known for its long, dark winters and two-dog nights?
A stellar education. A lifelong Catholic schoolgirl, Balthazar also had considered a public university in Texas, where average temps would've required less weather-acclimation chops. In the end, she went with her gut, which was reinforced by Cardinal Kelvin Felix, her then parish priest, who recommended St. Thomas. (Felix, a friend of former St. Thomas president Father Dennis Dease, is now archbishop emeritus of Castries, St. Lucia.)
She was so impressed by the curriculum that she decided to come to St. Thomas sight unseen.
"I'm glad to be at St. Thomas, but I did not know that it snows here!" she said, half laughing, half sighing in resignation. "I got the student handbook and read that about the negative temperatures and thought, 'I'm going to die.'"
While, fortunately, she retained her good health, Balthazar didn't exactly warm up to winter. "This place is the coldest place ever, and I have complained every day since," she said.
Balthazar arrived in Minnesota – her first foray north of Miami, where her older brother works as a chef – last August with a suitcase stuffed with only tropical clothing and sandals.
"My roommates took me to Rosedale mall so I could buy boots, thick socks and a scarf," she recalled of St. Paul's first blustery week last fall. "I thought fall was a warm season."
Although she remembers seeing her first snowfall and thinking it "beautiful," and her breath appear in front of her face like an apparition, she balked at waxing nostalgic.
Balthazar is this month's CultureLink Tea speaker. From 2:30-3:30 p.m. Monday, April 13, in Koch Commons, she'll talk about growing up in Dominica, but don't expect her to regale with tales from her first winter.
A self-proclaimed sea and sun addict, she spent much of her free time swimming in the pool in Anderson Athletic and Recreational Center.
"I didn't go outside to play once. Just to class and back," she said. "But I still managed to get a cold – four times."