How six Mawrters followed their bliss and soared into unexplored territory.
The COVID-19 pandemic changed not only our lives, but also how we thought about our lives. Suddenly it seems, we were all reflecting on our priorities and our life’s purpose. And many of us were either quitting our jobs or dramatically changing our work lives.
Of course, doing a career 180 is hardly a new phenomenon. For as long as people have had jobs, they have gotten itchy feet, become curious about a different path, pursued a lifelong dream, or simply realized that life is too short not to give it a go.
Here are a few stories about Mawrters who changed trajectory mid-flight.
Archaeologist to IT Professional
Lanita Collette ’84 says she inherited her interest in archaeology from her mother. “She was a nurse but would have loved to study art, history, or archaeology,” says Collette. “The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum in my hometown of Brunswick, Maine, was a favorite place of ours to visit, so perhaps it wasn’t surprising that I was caught up in the vortex that was [anthropology professor] Richard Jordan at Bryn Mawr.”
After “an amazing experience” working with Jordan at Bryn Mawr, Collette headed off to graduate school at Arizona State University to get a taste of Southwest archaeology. She continued to work with Jordan and crew during summer excavation sessions while also gaining field experience in the Southwest.
When she had finished her master’s degree, Collette was hired by the Navajo Nation Archaeology Department as a field crew chief and then later as laboratory director for the archaeological training program at Northern Arizona University. “Our mission was to train Navajo students to provide skilled graduates for the Nation’s archaeology and cultural resource management needs,” says Collette.
After many years working as an archaeologist for the Navajo Nation, Collette shifted her focus to technology, serving as the first chief information security officer at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff before moving to Tucson to build a new information security program for the University of Arizona.
To Collette, this change in direction looked more like a natural evolution, leveraging her on-the-job experience, than a dramatic turnaround. “As laboratory director I was called upon to provide all things technical support for the department—local area network, database administration, hardware and software support,” she says. “During the early to mid-’90s if you had an aptitude for tech, you pretty much were the go-to for everything.”
And the more tech she did, the more she loved it. “I decided two things: I wanted to continue to focus my career on the mission of education, and I wanted to see how far I could go with a career in higher ed tech.”
Clinical Research Coordinator to Fashion Retailer
Lisa Lamprou’s future seemed clear when she graduated from Bryn Mawr in 2010. The biology major even had a job waiting for her.
A Science Horizons Fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania in the summer prior to her senior year had morphed into a job as a clinical research coordinator running large-scale studies that enrolled pregnant women experiencing psychiatric disorders.
“It was a means to an end,” says Lamprou. “I wanted to have research under my belt because I was thinking that I was on the MD track.” But while she loved the patient interaction, Lamprou found the competitive environment—with researchers all vying for the same funding—off-putting, and she also struggled with being in an environment with people in severe distress on a daily basis.
Lamprou, who grew up in a close-knit Greek family, also began to have second thoughts about the lifestyle sacrifices she would have to make as a medical doctor. “If you’re an MD, that is your life,” says Lamprou.
“That was a very harsh realization,” she says, “to realize you devoted your college career, your work life for four years, to something that you really didn’t want to do.”
With a heavy heart, Lamprou wrapped up her research job and waited tables while she waited for inspiration. Meanwhile, her sister, Laura Anne, had graduated from Boston University and moved down to Philadelphia to work in marketing. The two lived together, and one night when Lisa asked her sister what she would do if she could do anything she wanted, Laura Anne replied, “I’d open a boutique.”
Though both sisters lacked fashion or retail experience, Lamprou felt confident that she had the organizational skills to run the back end of such a business. Starting out small, the pair began to acquire inventory and find their niche.
“We love European brands, and there’s not a ton of access for them in the United States,” Lamprou says. “We knew we couldn’t compete with Bloomingdale's or Nordstrom, so we found some brands that we love that we wore when we were in high school in Greece and became their representatives in the United States.”
They began the business as an online endeavor, but after realizing they were being lost in the shuffle, they began experimenting with pop-up shops, first on the Main Line and then in Manayunk. Buoyed by their success, the two signed a two-year lease on a building in Manayunk and LILA Philadelphia was officially born.
As the business has grown (the sisters purchased a building in 2018) so has Lamprou’s family. Married now with two children under 5, Lamprou appreciates being able to spend time with them and is gratified to be a part of the Manayunk community.
Has it been easy? Absolutely not, says Lamprou. “It’s a competitive industry. Customer service is not easy. Problem solving is not easy. Marketing and advertising a retail store, cutting out a niche for yourself, none of it is easy. But it’s so much fun, and it’s very liberating. And at the end of the day, I come home with my cup full enough to give to my husband, to give to my kids, to give to my parents.”
Middle School Principal to Pharmacy Student
Alice Goldsberry ’07 is not a fan of change. Perhaps, she muses, that’s why her two-year Teach for America placement in the Arkansas Delta turned into an 11-year teaching stint. By that point, she had earned a master’s in public school education, worked her way up to being a middle school principal, and had her sights on a future school superintendent role.
Something didn’t feel right though.
“One day,” says Goldsberry, “I was outside walking my dog, and it hit me. ‘I want to do something different.’ I felt my career was taking a toll on me physically and mentally.”
Pondering what direction to take, she remembered escorting a group of eighth-grade girls to a STEM conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, seven years earlier. “One of the panelists was a pharmacist, and just listening to her path, I was more intrigued than all the kids. I was asking question after question.”
Knowing that she had an affinity for math and science and loved helping people and interacting with members of her community, Goldsberry felt this could be her path.
“I called my dad on that walk, and I said, ‘If I were to leave my job and go back to school full time to pursue pharmacy, would you support me in that?’ And my dad said, ‘Absolutely!’ That was all I needed to hear.”
Now that she has completed a postbac program at Jefferson University to shore up her science credits, Goldsberry is applying to pharmacy school and working as a pharmacy technician.
“It was scary in the beginning,” Goldsberry acknowledges, “and I definitely had many conversations with my therapist about it.” She has struggled with the shift from being financially independent and working full time to becoming a student again, and there have been times when she has questioned her decision. “In the back of my mind also, I’m thinking, ‘Oh my gosh, when I finish, I’ll be 43.’”
Her leap of faith has paid off so far, though, she says, in terms of her overall well-being. She is invigorated, too, at the thought of building partnerships with local school districts and continuing to involve high school and middle school girls in STEM fields, “because I still have that passion for education and for interacting with young people.” It gives her comfort, she says, knowing she can intertwine her interests.
Global Public Health VP to Seminary
Carolyn Hart ’79 began her big life change during the pandemic, but it was politics rather than COVID-19 that led to her decision to move on from a long career in global public health consulting and enter seminary.
“Since about 2015, I’d been feeling worn down to the nub of my being, mostly by politics,” says Hart. “That got me thinking about the world and the failure of institutions that had previously served us, including academia, the media, politics, the marketplace, and the church.”
A lifelong churchgoer, Hart had come to feel that the church as an institution was “significantly underperforming” and that perhaps she could play a role in revitalizing it. “I thought I wanted to do it at a wider than congregational level,” says Hart. “And I wanted to study religion among people of faith, not purely in an academic way, so I enrolled in a seminary.”
Hart is now in her second year at Virginia Theological Seminary, and already her experience is leading her in unexpected directions. “I went in with my management-slash-advocacy cap on,” she says. “Public health is all about both of those things, so I thought that’s what the church needs. Instead, she has found herself considering “more of a pastoral kind of relationship-based way of taking this to action.” This fall, Hart started an internship in hospital chaplaincy.
Working on a personal level to advance institutional objectives is not new to Hart, and many of the attributes she developed as a manager, such as listening and being attuned to another person’s path, should transfer well to a pastoral counseling role, she feels. “I think I’m going to be able to apply some of those skills in a new way, probably more quietly and in a more one-on-one rather than front-of-the-room kind of way,” she says.
Studying the Bible has been a treat, she says. While Hart considers herself a “robust person of faith,” she had never studied religion before and is embracing this aspect of the three-year program.
The hierarchy of the student-professor relationship at her seminary has been a bit more of an adjustment for Hart, who spent her career with a company that prided itself on its flat and non-hierarchical culture.
Most people who enroll in a seminary program plan to be ordained, but that is not necessarily Hart’s goal. “If you want to be legitimate in an ecclesiastical setting, that’s the credential that people expect you to have,” she says, “So I don’t rule it out, but I’m not pursuing it right now.”
Construction Manager to Software Engineer
After working for nearly a decade in construction project management for a major fashion retailer, Shakila Muhammad ’01 knew she had to quit.
“When you hit that 10-year mark, you go up a pay grade,” she says. “So, I knew if I didn’t leave then, I probably never would.”
For a while, she says, the job had been fun. It paid well, and Muhammad had found it exciting to work on store openings and remodels, interacting with construction contractors and in-house designers throughout the U.S. and Canada. As she rose in the company, though, her enthusiasm waned as her expertise grew. It got to the point, she says, where “it only took me a day and a half to finish my work for the week, and then I was just waiting for something to happen at a store and for there to be an emergency construction project.”
In what she calls her “come to Shakila moment,” she realized that her biggest nightmare “was for my legacy to be that I’d worked for this company
for nine years.”
When she asked herself, “What would I be really upset with myself if I hadn’t tried?” she landed on teaching and tech. A fine arts and art history major at Bryn Mawr, Muhammad had taught art briefly in a public middle school, and she wanted to try teaching again as a more mature person.
Since living abroad was also on her list, she spent two years teaching English in China and Saudi Arabia. “It was a great adventure, and I learned that I could kind of vibe wherever I landed,” says Muhammad. The itch to try technology, however, had only grown stronger, so she signed up for a tech bootcamp.
That experience, says Muhammad, was brutal, but she came out of it knowing she could work as a “full stack” developer. As she explains it: “In development, there are two big areas—the backend that deals with the database, and then the front end, which is what you see when you log into a website or an app. Most developers specialize in either the back or front end. Some consider themselves full stack, which means they can do both.”
Muhammad now works as a software engineer for a renewable energy company in Philadelphia, happily using, as she puts it, “both my right and left brain.” Technology as a field appeals to Muhammad because there is always something new to learn.
“Every month, there are new products, new languages, upgrades, updates, but there are also all of these historical languages that programs and applications are written in,” she says. “So, if I ever know all the new things, I still can go back and look at those historical languages and learn something there.”
Scientist to Lunch Cook
After majoring in philosophy at Bryn Mawr, science took center stage for Kathi Atkinson ’72, who headed up to the Bronx for a Ph.D. program in genetics followed by a postdoc position at University of California Berkeley. Twenty years on the science faculty at University of California Riverside was followed by a similar stretch as a high school science teacher in California and then in Iowa.
Atkinson had made the switch from academia to secondary education because she recognized that her love of teaching outweighed her love of research.
When it was time to leave her high-energy high school teaching job, Atkinson, who was solo by then, decided to move back across the country from Iowa to Flagstaff, Arizona, to be near one of her sons. She worked for two months at what she calls “a very high-stress grill kitchen” and then got picked up by a Catholic school in town as their new lunch cook.
“It’s just over half-time, involves a generous measure of creativity, and I love the kids,” says Atkinson. “The switch was not surprising to those who knew me as a teacher. For my science lessons, I brought lesson-related food to class from time to time. During my last year, my students said they knew what was developing because I brought food nearly every week!”
Changing careers at the age of 69 may seem odd, she says, but she is thrilled with her new life. “One of the cool things about being a school lunch lady is that I am living on the academic calendar, like I have for most of my life, with generous vacation time,” says Atkinson. “I’ve resumed interesting travel with a vengeance since getting out of COVID restrictions.”
She has even become a role model for career- switching to her children. “My younger son says he has watched my example and is just this month beginning a really big career shift, with gusto, knowing he would always regret it if he did not try! That’s what a mom really wants to hear!”