Her cheery smile and bubbly hello dispel any preconceived notions you might have of a typical computer geek. In fact, Deborah Rhodes, a network engineer whose job is to solve problems for Sentara Health Network’s offices across Virginia, has a personality more akin to that of a teacher, a nurse, or an inspirational speaker: kind, helpful, and nurturing. It must be because she’s tapped into her diverse talents and interests while growing into a career that suits her perfectly. But the path to Deborah’s current job wasn’t straightforward and predetermined.
Career specialists say the average person changes careers—not just jobs—several times during a lifetime. Sociologists report that the factors that make people satisfied with their jobs are also likely to change as they age. Despite a challenging economy, women in Tidewater are stepping through doors of opportunity—with support from local colleges and universities—changing their jobs, their careers, and their lives. The motivation to change is not always based on income, but more often by a desire to turn personal goals into reality.
TRAINING FOR A HIGH-TECH WORLD
“You don’t have to have a college degree to change your life,” said Deborah Rhodes, whose career has taken several interesting turns. Initially, she wanted to own a flower shop. Then, as a young mom, she applied to the police academy in St. Petersburg, Florida, and was accepted. While she waited for the next group of recruits to begin training, a friend referred her to a position with a local hospital, which had opened an urgent care center. This job seemed a better match for a mom with a son in elementary school and two little girls in day care, so she took it.
Deborah worked in the urgent care center, admitting patients. Then she moved into the in-patient services department at the hospital and eventually landed a job helping Florida seniors comprehend their medical bills. She was a natural in the world of health care.
Next came a move to Virginia Beach. “My youngest was going into middle school,” Deborah said. “I thought I might try something different, especially when the company my former husband worked for stopped paying his insurance.” She took a temporary position at Sentara that became full time and turned her stained-glass making hobby into another income stream as well.
At the time her stepdaughter, Laura, who had just graduated from high school, was uncertain about her future. Deborah nudged her along by suggesting that they both enroll in some classes at Tidewater Community College. After taking a “returning woman” class and discovering hidden talents, Deborah thought she might become an architect or even a nurse. But as she continued working with Sentara, she grew more familiar with the world of technology, taking care of software, supporting nurses with new laptops, and gaining competence in the Novell computer system.
Soon, one of Deborah’s co-workers suggested a new direction. “He said, ‘You really need to be in IT. Just go to TCC and take these classes so you can get certified to be a Novell engineer.’ And I did,” she recalled. Meanwhile, the company began transitioning to another system, and Deborah was in the right place to switch positions. She went from a job as a systems administrator to a role in LAN desktop support for Sentara Virginia Beach General. After doing desktop work for several years, Deborah applied for an opening as a network engineer and got it, finally able to apply the skills she’d obtained from the certificate program at TCC.
“Sentara is such a fabulous place to work, and people tend to stay in their jobs,” she explained. Now a single woman, Deborah believes her children have learned a lot from watching her journey—especially because she had difficulty with math in high school. When she returned to school, she got it—even doing math problems in her sleep.
“I just loved it! I told them: Algebra is about how to look at problems differently,” she said. Deborah feels certain that she’s responded to her own life challenges by being open to learning more, being ready for the next move. And she does feel she’s breaking a gender stereotype in her job.“We have a hard time attracting women to this field, maybe because people think you have to have a lot of math skills,” said Deborah. “You do have to have an analytical mind and be a problem solver to want to do this job, but for any math problem solving, I have a calculator.”
One of the best features of Deborah’s career shifts is the fact that her income has climbed along the way—without a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. And Sentara has paid for her education, including classes that help Deborah respond to the rapid changes in technology.
In April 2009, TCC’s “Women Can” conference featured Deborah as one of the speakers.“There was a young woman who was studying medical billing and she told [conference organizer] Sally Daniels she was changing her program to IT,” Deborah said. “She told Sally, ‘When I grow up, I want to be Deborah Rhodes.’” “I am who I want to be,” Deborah said.
WILLING TO CHANGE & GROW
The phrase “Necessity is the mother of invention” is a perfect fit for DeeEllen Jennings, another Tidewater woman who has responded to the call to change her career path and connect to a lifelong passion. Since she was a young girl, DeeEllen 48, has always loved sewing. Growing up with a trio of sisters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, she watched her mom make all their clothes and learned to create her own. In the early 1980s, she owned a sewing company in Dallas.
DeeEllen’s college degree in business led to a career in the fields of human resources and professional recruiting. As she delved deeper into the corporate world, DeeEllen learned the value of people skills and gained a professionalism that defines her today. In 1998, she built her own recruiting business in Dallas and, when the economy dipped, began hiring herself out as a contract recruiter for various corporations. Yet she wanted to learn more and was willing to change and grow.
Three years ago, DeeEllen moved to Tidewater to attend Regent University’s MBA program with a focus on global leadership and entrepreneurship. She speaks glowingly of the program.“We get a lot of work and do research on understanding different cultures and how the leaders operate in different countries compared to how business leaders work here in America,” she said.
While she completes the final requirements for her MBA at Regent, she recently landed a full-time job as a staffing representative for Northrop Grumman in Newport News."I was actually not looking for work, but they found me on LinkedIn and learned that I am connected to lots of social networks. And in my field, things change everyday, so you have to be flexible.” she said, smiling.
All the while, DeeEllen was raising a daughter, DeEtta, now 27, an aspiring actress and singer, and graduate of Indiana University. As a parent, DeeEllen shared with her daughter—and all women of color—the responsibility to care for their hair in a healthy way.“Our hair is a different texture, so one of the things we are all advised is to sleep in a silk scarf to keep the moisture in,” DeeEllen explained. “But how do you keep silk on your hair all night?”
This challenge caused DeeEllen to return to her first love: sewing. After many mock ups, she came upon a unique solution: a silk scarf with an innovative patented design that keeps the scarf on your head at night. She made a few samples and began to test-market them here in Virginia Beach and in Dallas. “I sent out about 50 products and asked the women to sleep in it for about a week, to wash it, to give me a call back to let me know what they thought about it. Every one absolutely loved it,” she said.
Several months ago, DeeEllen found a seamstress to manufacture the scarves, and she has applied to the patent office for the official stamp on her invention. She has tested it with a few hair stylists at a local beauty college and a local salon and is ready to move her product into the marketplace. “So you can probably guess what my final project in entrepreneurship will be about!” DeeEllen said, laughing. Discovering a new product to market may be exciting, but DeeEllen knows it will take work to create success. She also remains committed to her job while she weaves a new strand into her business life.“I still have a very strong passion and desire to continue with professional staffing and plan to do this work for many more years,” she noted.
Over the long term, DeeEllen hopes that her education and MBA degree will open up more opportunities. She also hopes her experiences will empower other women who want to grow their own businesses. When women help each other, she believes, everyone benefits.
“In my first job I was an apprentice pipefitter,” said Santia Davis, wearing attractive business attire and a close-clipped professional haircut, a beautiful black leather purse at her feet. Today, it’s hard to imagine her as the girl who was always mechanically inclined, working on cars with her Dad and fixing things.
After graduating from Norcom High School in Portsmouth with a young daughter to support, Santia went to TCC’s Maritime Center to train with shipbuilders, doing overhauls on vessels at Norshipco, now known as BAE. She was part of the crew who helped build one of the Disney cruise ships in the 1990s.“We built it from hull all the way up,” she said. “We had it when it was only a flat piece of metal. It was really amazing to see it all come together.”
Santia had a brief stint in the U.S. Army, from 1997-99, and worked as a heavy-wheeled vehicle mechanic, overhauling engines on machines called PLS (Palletized Load Systems). When she left the military, still in her early twenties, she decided to go back to school.“I knew I didn’t want to jump right into a four-year program, so I went to TCC,” she said. “Luckily, I had all my credits. I started in the engineering program but was later introduced to CADD—Computer Drafting and Design, which was pretty much second nature to me because I took up drafting in high school all four years.”
One of her professors at TCC, Lorenz Drake, encouraged her to transition to ODU after finishing the CADD program in only 5 semesters. She feels that a community college background laid an excellent foundation for her academic life.“TCC helped me to get used to a college environment,” Santia said, “so when I came to ODU, the classes were a little bit bigger, but the people were basically the same.”
After graduating in 2005, Santia followed with a master’s in engineering management two years later. Her employer during that time, Northrop Grumman, paid for her classes. She’s still in school, working on a Ph.D. program through George Washington University and has a 3.5 average.
Now, at the age of 34, Santia works for NAVFAC Mid-Atlantic Capital Improvements, writing specifications for HVAC and plumbing systems on naval facilities and marine bases. She admits it was a learning curve to go from working on ships to buildings, but it only took her a few months to get acclimated.
Santia Davis is another woman working in a traditionally male field, and it has empowered her. “Mechanical engineering is usually a man’s world,” she explained. “I’ve been in meetings, classes, and workshops and often been the only woman, and sometimes the only black woman there,” she said.“They value my opinion a lot,” she added. “I know my job. If I say it, I know that it’s true and I can back it up.”
Santia’s fierce determination and willingness to work comes from her own early experience of parenting. Her daughter, Nitia, is in her third year at ODU, aiming for a career in medicine.
“I would say she was the driver that made me finish school,” Santia said. “There’s no way I could have brought her up without doing that. It was not an option.”
These days, Santia balances her work life by giving back, teaching a GED class once a week at her church, Holy Disciples Ministry in Chesapeake. She and her daughter like to spend down time shopping together. Santia admits she has two areas where she has to be careful: Home Depot, because she’s always renovating and working on her home, and shoe stores. “I have more than 200 pairs of pumps,” she said, chuckling.Then she added, “Those steel-toed boots just aren’t doing it for me anymore!”
Deborah, DeeEllen, and Santia may be employed in different fields, but what they all share is similar: the willingness to grow and change, to expand their basic skills and interests, and to instill in their children integrity and a healthy work ethic. “Every woman I talk to, I tell them, ‘You can do anything you want,’” said Santia Davis. “You know, sometimes it’s hard for women to leave what’s comfortable, what they know. But they just have to decide to do it, and the rest falls into place.”Kathleen Fogarty writes frequently for TW. She lives on a farm in Virginia Beach with her husband, John.