Alumnae Bulletin
August 2010

Strategies for successful second careers

Parat 2 of 4
By Dorothy Lehman Hoerr

When a Renaissance scholar teaches film, students find themselves on the cutting edge of research

Although choosing and embarking on a career path straight out of college has its challenges, doing so again 10 or 20 years later may not be much easier. Most people will change careers a number of times in their life, and this may mean using their skills in a new way or entering a whole new professional field. Bryn Mawr alumnae have done both with equal success.

"It's not at all uncommon," says Debbie Becker of the Bryn Mawr Career Development Office, for alumnae to change careers. "Bryn Mawr women tend to have so many interests," she points out. "This leads to the notion: ‘I think I could be doing something else that taps into my skills and interests'."

Getting on the right path

Sometimes the "something else" is an alternate path that the alumna rejected earlier in life. "When I was ready to go to graduate school," recalls Leslie Hunter '75, "I toyed between becoming a therapist, going to law school, or getting a degree in international relations." She chose the degree, from the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins, and embarked on a 20-year career in international development. She worked for the Central American Institute of Business Administration (INCAE) in Nicaragua, and as a consultant for the World Bank, The U.S. Agency for International Development, and the International Monetary Fund. In the midst of this successful career, however, she says, "The desire to become a therapist never quite left my mind."

Like many Bryn Mawr women, Hunter was not afraid of changing careers. She was more afraid of not changing. "When I turned 50," she recalls, "I realized that it was now or never, and that I did not want to look back five years later and regret not having done it." In 2004, she enrolled part-time at Catholic University's National Catholic School of Social Service. "I found going back to school at 50 to be a wonderful experience, " she says. "I was no longer the insecure young woman I was when I was at Bryn Mawr. My life experience enriched my academic experience at Catholic." She says that the quality writing instruction she received at Bryn Mawr, added to her experience as a freelance writer, made term papers a breeze.

But Hunter's interest in international affairs didn't vanish in her new career any more than her desire to be a therapist had dissipated in her old one. What she sought was a way to combine the two. She found it at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where she now works with combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. She says of her career transition, "People have different interests, and I have been lucky enough to follow mine. It's silly to not do something that you're interested in."

Becker agrees. "What a person does in her avocational life may reflect what her true interests are."

Jenna Mulhall Brereton '96 feels she has at last found just that, but her path to career fulfillment wasn't exactly a linear one. She says that finding her passion "probably took a little longer than I thought it was going to when I was at Bryn Mawr." After majoring in French and Spanish, she went on to teach languages and work as a freelance writer and photographer. But Brereton sensed that what she really wanted was a career in international development. "Little by little," she says, "it's the books you read, it's the films you see. You start to realize: what are the things I'm responding to? Even my writing and photography became centered on the idea of international development."

Brereton planned carefully for the career transition, taking classes at Arcadia University and the School of Advanced International Studies in Geneva. But when the new career path finally emerged, it was by serendipity. At a conference on Women's Global Issues at Bryn Mawr, she happened to meet the CEO of an international philanthropic research and consulting firm. She now serves Geneva Global as program director for their HIV/AIDS program with the New Partners Initiative of the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and heads their Haiti Earthquake Recovery Fund. "I didn't know when this opportunity was going to cross my path," she says, "but I still worked on preparing myself for when it would come along."

Brereton feels good about her new career path. She says, "This is a place where all the skills I've acquired over time and all the passions I have really come to bear."

Carin Ewing '97 feels much the same way about her new career in organic farming. A philosophy major at Bryn Mawr, Ewing says she never had a solid idea of her future career path. "I don't think I had a sense of what I wanted to do. It was always kind of open for me."

This openness led her to try several avenues of work. She began as a paralegal for the Department of Justice, did policy research for a small company in Washington, D.C., and went on to work for Merrill Lynch doing philanthropic research. Eventually she pursued a doctorate in philosophy at Georgetown, but Ewing came to feel that a life in academia wasn't the best fit for her. "I didn't have balance in my life," she says of her research and writing. "It's so cerebral. There were a lot of other parts of me that were atrophying."

Among those parts were her love of animals and her interest in nutrition. So Ewing took a leave of absence from her doctoral program. "I started to follow all my other interests," she says, "just trying to allow myself to explore my loves, my passions, without a lot of pressure."

Gradually, her explorations led her from studying at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, to volunteer farming, and now to an organic farming apprenticeship. Next, Ewing and her boyfriend hope to start their own farming operation in Vermont.

"This is what brings everything together for me," she says, "doing the work of organic farming in a way that's a positive influence not only on the environment, but my own health, my community, and my family."

Unexpected change

Hunter recalls that her father once advised her to "take advantage of life's accidents." She says, "At those junctures, you can say: let me take a radical turn in a different direction."

That's exactly what happened for Joanne Malino '87. Formerly managing editor of CosmoGirl magazine, Malino was rendered unable to work by an injury she sustained in an accident. However, she saw her circumstances as fortuitous. The magazine publishing business, she says, means "long hours and a lot of pressure." Ready for a change, Malino used her time off to become certified in nutritional counseling. She and a partner had already been making plans to start an organic farm in New Jersey. Last year, they planted their first crops.

"Our vision," she explains, "is to have a farm stand with an educational component, a meeting room for educational seminars." Plans include showing educational films on the food industry and inviting school groups and the community to learn more about the connection between food production and health. This year, they're also branching out with their first livestock. "We don't want to be just a vegetable farm," she says, "But each thing takes so much learning."

A self-described "frequent career changer," Malino admits there is a lot to learn in going from publishing to farming. "I'm doing everything for the first time," she says. Malino is responsible for the farm's budget and administration. She does all the ordering, scheduling and cost tracking. Before beginning the venture, she and her partner did extensive research, interviewing farmers, asking for information and advice. Today, the learning still continues, with Malino attending conferences and trade shows. She says, "I'm doing all the things you do when you're trying to learn something new." Malino credits her liberal arts education for her ability to face this challenge. At Bryn Mawr, she says, "You can learn how to learn."

Becker feels this liberal arts grounding is what helps alumnae make such successful and sometimes radical transitions. "It's that sort of early training that comes to the fore when a person needs to make a change," she says. "I think that's what makes Bryn Mawr women not afraid to say: maybe this was a mistake. Maybe I should be doing something else."

Finding the "Next Thing"

For six years, Dawn Carson Stelts '91 ran a native plant landscaping business, where the installation was her favorite part of the job. But in returning to work full time now that her children are older, she finds she needs a different path. "I do not think age 40 is a good time to plan for a labor-intensive career," she says. She would prefer to develop her skills rather than her muscles. A biology major, she had worked in the pharmaceutical industry, but did not want to return to the bench. "I still wanted to work in science, and the days I spent consulting on schoolyard habitat construction I found very fulfilling."

Fortunately, she discovered that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation was looking for scientists to become teachers. With her fellowship she trained at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis to teach middle-school science. She says of her student teaching at an Indianapolis public school arts magnet, "The students are fabulous as is my mentor teacher, so I am really looking forward to getting my own class in the fall."

Becker says, "In order to even contemplate making a change, a person has to be flexible and adaptable." Cheryl Turner '87 is finding this to be the case. When her temporary appointment with the Peace Corps came to an end after eight years, she planned to travel for a while and consider her next move. But two months later, Peace Corps Cambodia called her back. "My replacement was delayed in arriving," she explains, "and they asked me to fill in doing my old job on a part-time consultancy basis."

Turner now hopes to continue part-time consulting work "until I find the Next Thing." She doesn't seem troubled by the uncertainty. "This part-time work," she says, "has eased a transition that I always knew would be difficult."

Hunter also isn't troubled by her non-linear career path. "I used to feel a little bit ashamed," she admits, asking herself, "why am I a perpetual beginner? Then I decided to calm down and relax about
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