At her college graduation earlier this month, Katie Caulder had no idea she was about to be handed one of Charleston Southern University's biggest awards.
The 22-year-old Beaufort resident had not looked through the entire program so she didn't realize she was to be honored with the Myrtle K. Hamrick Award. Named after the mother of the Christian university's first president, the award has been given every year for the past 40 years to a female CSU graduate who possesses the highest virtues of Christian womanhood.
When CSU President Dr. Jairy Hunter Jr. called her name at the ceremony, Caulder thought he had said someone else's name. It took her a second to realize she needed to get up on the stage.
"I was honored," Caulder said. "I try to live every day like it's my last, and I just try to keep my morals and values at the top of my priority list. ... It makes me feel good that other people can look at my life and see that."
Caulder graduated May 8 with a degree in criminal justice and communications. A soprano in the school's music ministry team, The New Vision Contemporary Christian Ensemble, Caulder spent almost every weekend of her four years of college singing her heart out at churches throughout South Carolina and sometimes beyond. A few years ago the group went on a weeklong tour up the eastern coast of the U.S., singing at several churches and Christian schools. They also made a trip to Mexico City in January, where they worked with international missionaries for a week, singing in Spanish once or twice a day for the people of the area.
The 2006 Battery Creek High School graduate also volunteered a lot of her time in the community -- working at the federal probation office in Charleston and with the Department of Natural Resources in Florence and Darlington. She organized a yard sale and raised about $1,800 for a 13-year-old burn victim and his family in March 2009. She turned in more than 450 hours of community service as a contestant in the Miss Charleston Southern Pageant in November 2009. She was the pageant's third runner-up.
But Caulder's busy schedule began much earlier than her college years. In high school she was active with her hometown church, Grays Hill Baptist Church, where she spent much of her time singing with the choir, participating in youth group activities, attending and later teaching Vacation Bible School, playing on the church softball team and going on mission trips. Aside from her church involvement, she also played soccer throughout high school and spent two years as captain of the Battery Creek soccer team.
"I feel like I'm bragging on myself, and I don't like that," Caulder said with a chuckle.
Even though she doesn't particularly like tooting her own horn, faculty members of Charleston Southern have no problem boasting about Caulder's accomplishments. CSU assistant professor and New Vision director Allen Hendricks worked with Caulder for the past four years in the school's vocal ensemble. He said when he was asked to nominate a student for the Hamrick award, there was no doubt in his mind who it should be.
"Katie is just one of those people that is driven to help and serve other people," Caulder said.
Hendricks said after his vocal group sang to inmates at the Broad River Correctional Institute last fall, Caulder came up with a plan to raise money to buy Bibles for inmates and their families for Christmas.
"Katie is a student that challenges ... me as a professor to be a better professor," Hendricks said. "She's 30 years younger than me, and yet her maturity in her faith challenges me to be more mature in my faith. ... The future's not as bleak as so many people make it out to be."
CSU vice president for student affairs and athletics Dr. Rick Brewer said he has known Caulder since she was a freshman at the school. He said she has an incredible work ethic, doesn't back down to any challenge and leads by example and service.
"That really exemplifies our vision for the university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving," Brewer said. "And it's clear with Katie that her faith, her commitment to Christ is what ... drives her purpose and her passion in life."
Now that school is over, Caulder is getting ready for the next stage in her life. She is finalizing plans for her Oct. 23 wedding to Beaufort native Andrew Godowns and she's looking for a job as a probation officer in the Florence area. She's looking forward to married life, raising a family and a career in criminal justice.
Although Caulder has always dreamed of being a country singer, she said her true dream job is to be a federal probation officer. She thinks it's important to help people and believes a career in criminal justice will fulfill that goal. Rather than just throwing people in jail, she wants to help rehabilitate them.
"I was always taught to give and to help people because there's always somebody out there whose needs are higher than my needs," Caulder said.