Women reinventing themselves in the workforce: Part 1


Jennifer Poff Cooper | Contributing writer

Whether they have stayed home to care for young children or aging parents, have been downsized out of jobs or have desired new challenges, there are women in the prime of their lives who are entering or reentering the workforce or switching careers.

In some cases, the change is necessary. Susan Harrison of Christiansburg, a Realtor with Coldwell Banker Townside, obtained a B.A. in English in 1984 because she loved to read and write.  Within a year, she was pulled into helping her brother start his flooring business in Christiansburg. She stayed there 25 years.

Her family business closed in January of 2009, she said, because the face of retail, particularly for specialty businesses, had changed so drastically due of the presence of big box stores and the Internet. But retail sales was all she had ever known.

“I was 46 and had never been on a professional job interview,” said Harrison.

As a single mother of two high-school aged daughters, sitting out the recession was not an option.

“It was absolutely terrifying,” Harrison said. “When I realized that I would have to figure out a second career, I went back to school at Mary Baldwin to get a master’s degree in education. My plan was to teach. After two classes, I knew that it wasn’t my calling. Even though the economy and real estate market had crashed, I knew that, if I was going to go broke, I would rather do it selling houses rather than teaching.”

She chose real estate because she had always had an interest in houses — buying, selling, investing, plus she already had some experience with rental properties.

“I followed my instincts, took a real estate class, and passed the exam, one of the most difficult I’ve ever taken,” she said.

Harrison was soon hired by Coldwell Banker Townside and has been an award-winning producer there.

The biggest challenge switching careers was that Harrison had to go “so far outside my introverted comfort zone — putting myself out there, meeting new people, going to professional and social functions, trying to learn everything so quickly,” she said.  “And, oh yeah, not knowing when I’d have a paycheck.”

Harrison found that her different jobs suited her in different phases of life.

“I really appreciate that my first career afforded me the regular schedule and regular paycheck that I needed while I was raising my children. I am, by nature, a person who needs routine and consistency. My first career was full of both,” she said.

“I am really thankful now for my second career, because my lifestyle and needs have evolved.  I have learned to adapt. And I make at least twice the money I ever made in retail sales. That has saved me as my children have been going through college.”

Harrison said that the most fulfilling part of beginning a new career at 46 was discovering that she could do whatever she needed to do, and that she could do it well. Also, after years of being safely entrenched in a family business, she loved being her own boss.

“For the first time in my life, I was totally independent of my family. I am much more confident,” Harrison said. “I would like to think that my successful second career has made me a better person, a better mother, a better partner, because my self-esteem is so improved.”

With her love of learning not extinguished, Harrison is now pursuing (she will graduate this spring) her master’s in liberal studies from Hollins University. While it will not advance her career per se, the degree has brought her a great deal of personal fulfillment.

“My girls and I get to discuss our classes, they are so proud of me, I have had to stretch myself, and I have learned so much,” Harrison said.

Blacksburg’s Julia Marin also switched careers in her mid-forties, but for different reasons. It simply took her a while to find her true calling.

Marin graduated from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and from Virginia Tech with a master’s degree in English.

“I enjoyed writing and thought journalism would be a practical degree, specifically public relations,” said Marin. “I went back to school because I was bored with the job I was in and wanted a change of pace. During the master’s program, I taught freshman composition classes as a GTA (graduate teaching assistant) and enjoyed that experience more than I was expecting.”

She worked as a writer for a lifestyle magazine for several years and then worked for several companies in a corporate communications capacity.  After earning the master’s degree in English, she and her husband moved to Iowa and she taught English and journalism at a community college.

“I really enjoyed that experience, particularly working with non-traditional students,” Marin said.

After her two children were born, she enjoyed staying home with them for 13 years, during which time she volunteered and worked part-time as a substitute teacher. Marin “started to feel restless” and was beginning to anticipate the empty nest, or at least a time when her children would not need her as much. She wanted to figure out a path that would be “challenging and significant.”

Given her previous trend toward working with children, Marin decided to enroll in the counseling program at Radford University with the intent to become a school counselor.

“I really enjoyed the challenge and the perspective of being an older student,” she said.

However, entering school again was not without its difficulties.

“It definitely took a few months to get back into the swing of attending classes and writing papers,” said Marin. “But probably the hardest part was convincing myself that I could do it. It was daunting to think about all that needed to be done: passing classes, completing internships, passing a comprehensive exam, updating an out-of-date resume, looking for work as an older employee. I just had to go step by step to not feel overwhelmed and keep an optimistic outlook.”

After she graduated, Marin entered the job market but was not able to find a school-counseling job in the area. However, she landed a position as a school-based clinician through NRVCS (New River Valley Community Services), the local community services board. She started in September 2014 and has been working with the agency since then.

Her favorite part of her new career is learning new things every day and feeling more focused and purposeful.

“I am much more satisfied with my current career,” Marin said. “I realized I did not enjoy writing as much as I thought. What I most enjoyed about journalism was talking to different people and hearing their stories. What I enjoyed about teaching was getting to know the individual students, not grading writing assignments. So, counseling has been a logical next step.”

Surprisingly, Marin said, many of the skills she learned for journalism and volunteer work have been valuable in her new job.

She does miss, though, activities she used to do during the days, like errands, tennis, and lunches with friends – things she now has to cram into her weekends that are already busy with her kids’ sports.

Marin sees her career trajectory as not so much ‘reinventing’ herself but as “continually assessing what I’ve found interesting in other jobs and then building on previous skills to find a new path. Every step has seemed like the next right thing to do at the time, and all of my previous experiences are coming into play now.”


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