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After working in many countries, architect returns to church

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Susan Swain's life has been an adventure since before she was born.

Her mother, Helen Morris, went into labor with Swain during what would seem like the middle of winter in Salt Lake City, although it was actually April 16. A blizzard dumped snow so deep that her father, Paul Morris, had to shovel the sidewalk to St. Mark's Hospital while Helen walked behind him in order to arrive at the hospital for the delivery.

Since then, Swain has spent her life paving her own sidewalk for others to follow. And although her sidewalk has circled around the world and involved different languages, people and cultures, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was not a part of it for 42 years. But she said she always knew something was missing.

Swain's long path began when she enrolled to study architecture at the University of Utah in 1966. At the end of her first year, the department's dean and his wife invited Swain and three other female architecture students to lunch, and advised them that women don't fit into the architecture world.

"They said, 'It's really not a woman's place to be an architect, and we really recommend that you change your education and go somewhere else because you're taking up a really important position a man should have,"' Swain said.

Seven years later, however, three of the four women had graduated — Swain with a bachelor of fine arts and a master's in architecture. Twenty-five years later, Swain said, the three female architects reunited in Salt Lake City, where they invited the dean and his wife to lunch and demonstrated to him that they were all successful architects, each running their own practices.

Swain was the fourth female in Utah to be a registered architect.

She now is the director of Architectural Design Studio (WA) in Perth, Australia, where she moved in 1993. But that was not the first time Swain lived outside of the United States.

In 1975, Swain joined the Peace Corps and headed to El Jadida, Morocco, working as a city architect, against the advice of those arranging the country assignments.

"A young, single American female moving to a Muslim country to work as an architect in a male-dominated society was not the best fit for the position," Swain said. But she went anyway and dealt with the consequences.

"I was targeted as being a prostitute, and I would walk down the street and get stones thrown at me the size of softballs, just for being there," Swain said. "It was pretty tough going."

In fact, of the original 14 volunteers who went to Morocco for the Peace Corps with Swain, only three stayed the full two years of service. Swain stayed because the only other option was coming back to Salt Lake City, and she "felt that there was something better out there; she just hadn't found it yet."

After completing the Peace Corps assignment, Swain landed a job in Kenya, East Africa, as an architect. There she discovered her passion for climbing.

Being "young, enthusiastic and somewhat reckless," Swain and two other climbers took on a dare to climb Mt. Kenya — the highest mountain in Kenya at 17,058 feet — during the club's annual "Christmas in July" party.

After hiking for nearly 12 hours through an icy storm of horizontal snow and hail, wearing only running shoes, shorts and T-shirts, the team made it to the other side of the mountain, just in time to celebrate with a feast and something else that Swain was not expecting.

"I was so tired, I ate the first course, and then I just sat there. I couldn't eat anymore," Swain said. After the dinner was a dance, but Swain, being worn out from the hike, only sat listening to the music, until someone approached her.

"I was sitting in the corner, and this guy walked up to me and asked me if I wanted to dance," she said. "I said, ' ... Can't you see how tired I am?"'

This man's name was Chris Swain, and he was working as a geophysicist and lecturer at Nairobi University. Chris and Susan married a few years later, in 1980. They lived in Kenya for 7 1/2 years, and had Kate, the first of two daughters. Their second daughter, Tessa, was born in Zimbabwe.

While in Kenya, Swain went on to lead the first all-woman ascent of Mt. Kenya and became president of the Mountain Club of Kenya.

With the help of the club, Swain designed "Sue's Loo," the high-altitude toilet she built to ensure that the drinking water remained pure in the tarn lake high on Mt. Kenya.

After Kenya, the Swains lived in Zimbabwe and England before settling in Australia, where they currently reside. In Perth, Swain joined the Rotary Club of Melville, where she eventually served as the second female club president. Working with the Rotary International, she helped raise funds for a stroke rehabilitation center in Ipoh, Malaysia.

Swain has continued paving the way for people even in the most remote places of the earth.

Her company in Australia is working with a team of consultants in creating the Ngaanyatjarra Media and Communication Centre, a multimedia and recording studio for the Aboriginals to help broadcast over the airwaves in indigenous languages to 20 percent of inland indigenous communities.

"They play their own local garage-band music, which is just fantastic," Swain said.

The radio programs are written and played by the Aboriginals, and the broadcast recordings will create an audio history of the language and the music of the traditional owners of the land.

"What (the multimedia center) is doing is creating an original archive," Swain said.

Unfortunately, Swain said, the traditional Aboriginal ways are being lost, as the older generations are dying out and the younger generation is shifting to the cities.

"In Queensland and New South Wales, the Indigenous people no longer communicate in their native languages because those who spoke the dialects have now passed on. But in Western Australia, Northern Territory and South Australia, about 20 languages are still being used. So, the Media Center is helping to preserve and disseminate the language to a wider audience."

The center also teaches the Indigenous women how to use computers and do Internet banking.

"Can you imagine living 800 miles over rough dirt roads from the nearest bank? And getting paid every two weeks? Internet banking is changing the whole financial culture of the Aboriginal communities, and the women now can have access to their funds without having to leave their communities," Swain said.

In order to work with the Aboriginals, Swain had to be granted a permit to work in their government-assigned land. Getting that permit was not easy, she said.

Swain said she and a colleague had to present themselves to the Aboriginal all-male Council of Elders meeting to apply for her permit.

"The meeting took place in the morning, and all the men gathered in a circle, to discuss the men's business, while the women and the dogs gathered in a separate circle, away from the men," Swain said.

Swain and her colleague didn't have time to eat before the meeting, and the Aboriginals were eating a traditional kangaroo tail breakfast when they arrived. Swain declined their offer to share.

"By noon I was starving," she said. So she went to the local shop and tried to figure out what to buy for lunch

"I thought, 'There's 50 women out here and all those men. How can I, the white person, sit and eat lunch in front of them?"'

She decided to buy some crackers, Velveeta cheese and a cucumber. She went back and sat down, got out her Swiss Army Knife, cut a slice of cheese and cucumber and put it on a cracker. She passed it to the woman next to her, who passed it down the circle, until it went to the men's circle. After all the men had a cracker, the women each took one. By the time every person had one, there was one cracker left for Swain.

"Everyone had eaten. And I'm sure that's why I got the permit to stay."

Other architects have come to work with the Aboriginals, Swain said, but they were often fired after only a couple of months because they were not "culturally sensitive." You need to have an understanding of the relationship with "mother earth" that the Aboriginals have, she said.

"For instance, that tree by the dry river bed could have a spirit in it. And it has a real cultural significance to them. And you don't walk near it or do anything to it."

Swain said her previous experiences with different cultures helped prepare her to do this work.

"Because I've lived and worked in many African countries, I've had to learn to understand different cultures, that that's really stood me in good stead."

But, throughout all of her life experiences, Swain said she was always looking for something more.

Although she was baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints at 8 years old, she stopped practicing the religion when she went to college and eventually left the church altogether for 42 years.

But in her search for "that something more" in her life, she said she began attending non-denominational church services when she was at business seminars. She said that listening to people at the services talk about their own conversions and strong beliefs motivated her to seek more information for herself.

"Over a period of two years, I went to many different churches, but they did not resonate with me," she said.

In May 2007, Swain visited her LDS parents and family in Salt Lake City. During this visit, she said she felt her family had that "something more" in their lives, which she had never noticed.

On the last day of her visit, her parents invited her to attend church with them, and, she agreed to go to the sacrament meeting.

The meeting was the missionary homecoming for one of the recently returned missionaries in the ward.

"He got up and spoke, and what he said really touched me," she said.

When Swain went back to Perth, she decided to have a closer look at the LDS Church. She called the mission home and arranged to meet the sister missionaries at church. She went to sacrament meeting and felt very uncomfortable. At the close of the meeting, she raced out of the building and jumped into her car. She did not attend church again for a few weeks but did allow the missionaries to visit and teach in her home.

"As they spoke, it was kind of like a black cloth being lifted off," Swain said. "It was like a memory you had blotted out because you wanted to wipe out the memory and meaning. The more (we) studied, the higher the cloth was lifted off, a bit at a time."

Soon, "it all just fell into place for me," she said.

Swain has been active in the church for a year and returned to Utah in May to attend the Jordan River Temple with her family.

Swain said the church has given a new meaning to each of her life experiences.

"I don't think God ever makes a mistake," she said. "Where I'm at now, and everything I've gone through to be here now, has been for a reason."

Maddie Wilson's husband is a nephew of Susan Swain.