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Spring 2003

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Change is good
Daring, and planning, to make that big career switch

by Kathryn Gallien

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” Ben Franklin—who at various times worked as a printer, bookkeeper, author, inventor, postmaster, congressman, and diplomat—clearly lived up to his own maxim. So does the average American worker, who will hold ten to twelve jobs and change careers three to five times. Your grandfather, who worked fifty years at the same company and retired with a gold watch, would be aghast. Maybe your parents would too.
     “My father thought I was crazy, and my mother thought I was out of my mind,” says Michael Weisman ’85, when he quit as sales and marketing VP with a chemical company to go into the computer field. He explains, “My first love was computers, and I became too far removed from it.”

     For countless career changers, it’s about figuring out what you want to do when you grow up, no matter how old you are. “People don’t just want to keep busy at work,” says Dick Bolles, author of the venerable job-hunting and career-changing guide What Color Is Your Parachute? “They want a sense of mission.” Bolles cites a recent survey finding that 45 percent of all U.S. workers would change careers if they could. About 10 percent actually do each year.
     When Diane Gardner ’85 was downsized from her consulting position with Sapient, she developed her knack for baking into serious work as a pastry chef. Later she returned to school to pursue a master’s in social work. “Being laid off was the best thing that happened to me,” she says now. “I might not be making the money I was before, but my quality of life is so much better.”
     Plenty of other Skidmore alumni (including the hundreds of “nontraditional” graduates of the college’s University Without Walls and master’s program in liberal studies) have taken similar forks in the road. Here are just three examples.

“One step at a time—just try it”

     “I still can’t believe I did it,” says Kerry Haley Morris ’81, who after sixteen years managing Scallions, a popular Saratoga eatery, became a schoolteacher. “Not a day goes by when I don’t question how I managed to go back to school, earn good grades, be involved with the restaurant, and most importantly, be there for Haley and Taylor,” her school-aged children.

Then: Proud owners of Scallions. Now: First-grade teacher

     Morris is fond of quoting John Lennon: “Life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” She is a planner all right, but no one will ever accuse her of just letting life happen in the meantime. She also says, “Rewards go to the risk-takers.” That sounds more like it.
     A native of Schuylerville, N.Y., Morris enrolled at Skidmore after two years at Cazenovia College. She had always earned her way—paper route, babysitting, waiting tables—and her business major was a natural choice. After graduation, she opened an antique business in her hometown, and soon she and husband Jim began looking for a bed-and-breakfast opportunity, well ahead of the curve in what is now a thriving industry. But what they found was a restaurant. The couple sold their house in 1984 in order to buy C’est Cheese in downtown Saratoga Springs.

     C’est Cheese soon metamorphosed into Scallions, on the energy and sheer hard work of the plucky young owners. “In the first five years,” says Morris, “we worked day in, day out. I did just about all the cooking and baking.” Over the years, Morris implemented a series of innovations: a children’s menu (the Morrises by then had two kids of their own), patio dining, box lunches for bus tours. “I remembered Professor Elwood Stitzel’s class, doing those business plans,” she says with a laugh. “Now I got it.”
     Scallions, still a fixture on Broadway, is “something we created from scratch,” says Morris fondly. But by 1999, she reports, “I had decided to go into teaching. I wanted a career change.”
     Just a few years later, Morris reminisces while seated at a tiny table in her first-grade classroom at Greenfield Elementary School. Construction-paper penguins hang from one part of the ceiling; in another, green streamers, snakes, and birds constitute a rainforest. Tomorrow’s lesson plan is ready and Morris is eager for her students to return.
     Like many successful career changes, this one dovetails with major life objectives. “My goal was always to be a good mom,” says Morris unapologetically. “Being with my kids for their first five years fulfilled me in every way. When they started grade school, I really felt the empty nest!” Some of her friends were looking forward to having more time for themselves, to shop and clean out closets. Not her. She gathered up her transcripts, sought out a New York State teacher certification officer, and said, “I want to be a teacher. Where do I go?”
     Morris started by taking prerequisites in math, language, and literature at Adirondack Community College. Then she applied to the College of St. Rose, where she was met by a dismissive professor who sniffed, “Career change, huh?” Undaunted—in fact, energized by his remark—she forged ahead, studying part-time and ultimately full-time. “St. Rose worked us hard,” she recalls with gratitude. She worked herself hard, graduating with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. “It’s easy if you’re motivated. That’s what I think about all the time while I’m teaching: how to motivate the kids.”
     Morris did some practice-teaching and substituting in nearby Greenfield and soon interviewed for a permanent position. Now in her second year, she has a first-grade classroom. “This age group is adorable,” she says. “They’re assertive, sweet, and loyal.”
     She clearly loves teaching, but she’s already thinking about a school administration certificate, which she sees as an excellent fit with her business background. “I still love the focus of business, making the hard decisions,” she says. “All the books on my nightstand are business books. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit.”
     No one knows better than Morris how challenging it is to go to school while working and parenting. But her family is supportive, and she can always start small, maybe with one course. “That’s what I’d like to tell people, especially other women: If I could do it, you could. One step at a time. Just try it.”

“Something I actually enjoy doing every day”

     After graduation, George Goslee ’93 worked on petroleum-spill cleanups in Oklahoma. His job at Groundwater Technologies Inc. took him to contaminated gas stations and underground pipelines to sample water, air, and soil and supervise the drilling of monitoring wells. Back in the office, he wrote up reports to state agencies and clients. “It was a good first work experience,” says Goslee, “but I was never interested in making a career of it.”
Then: Environmental remediaton geologist.
Now: Financial analyst at Silicon Graphics

     He figured he’d work in environmental cleanup for a few years and then return to school for a career in teaching and research, much like the Skidmore geology professors he admired as a student. It was a career plan he thought carefully about, but, he says, “I didn’t agonize over it.”
     But by the time he left Groundwater Technologies, Goslee was having doubts about his next steps. In the time-honored tradition of those with more career questions than answers, he took a year off to travel. He then took a laboratory job in Cleveland “just to buy some time.” Two years, in fact. And this time, he admits, “I did agonize over what my career would be.”

     Finally he decided to pursue a master’s in business administration. “I believed it would open up the most options,” says Goslee. Friends and family were supportive, though somewhat surprised, since he had been so focused on geology. For himself, says Goslee, he had to “get over an antibusiness attitude” he had nurtured as a student. He did that, and completed the M.B.A. at Ohio State in 1999.
     Goslee now works in financial planning and analysis at Silicon Graphics Inc., the computer giant best known for creating thrilling special effects in the movies. He oversees financial forecasting and reporting for SGI executives, explaining in sophisticated technical detail just how well the business is doing.
     Today Goslee looks back on his career transition as a fairly natural process. “My goal was to find something that I actually enjoyed doing every day,” he says. And he has. Oh, he can envision migrating from corporate finance to areas such as marketing or operations or investing. And perhaps some day he’ll start a business of his own. But, he says, “I doubt that I will ever shift completely out of business.”

“Opportunity fell in my lap”

     Susan Leferson ’67 always knew she would be a nurse when she grew up. What she didn’t know was how many other things she would be.
     The daughter of a volunteer firefighter and ambulance driver, Leferson came to Skidmore “for its fantastic nursing program.” She didn’t waste one college minute worrying about other career choices.
     She served in the Navy nursing corps after graduation and then took a job at Hahnemann Hospital in Philadelphia, where she became head nurse in pediatrics. After several years, says the soft-hearted Leferson, “I’d get attached to many of the kids with chronic diseases, who eventually died. We also saw a lot of battered children. It was becoming more and more difficult.”

Then: Scuba-diving instructor on St. Thomas
Now: Airline safety manager in D.C.

     She enjoyed regular scuba-diving vacations in Tobago, and knew the head of the Canadian Marine Biology School on the island of Carriacou. “I asked him if Carriacou was a good place to vacation,” she recalls, “and as a P.S., if anyone was looking for a dive instructor in the Caribbean.” He cabled her to come immediately, and soon she resigned from Hahnemann and let go of her New Jersey apartment. “I never gave it a second thought,” says Leferson.
     She quickly found work as a scuba instructor at the Virgin Islands Diving Schools in St. Thomas, and within months she was manager of the largest dive facility in the Caribbean. “On a busy day,” says Leferson, “we put 200 to 300 people in the water.” On off days she hopped rides on the company’s single-engine Cherokee for shopping in Puerto Rico. In the air one day, the next career switch came on suddenly and powerfully. “The flight instructor put me in the left seat, and as we rolled down the runway he told me to pull back on the yoke. I did, the airplane took off, and I was hooked.” Just three months later she had her private pilot’s license, followed in quick succession by seaplane, multi-engine, instrument, and commercial ratings.
     Now a professional pilot, Leferson flew charters for Virgin Air while holding down a “regular job” as a ship’s chandler for cruise ships docking in St. Thomas. To get in more flying hours, she says, “I flew newspapers from St. Thomas to St. Croix at 0500 every morning—and earned my airline transport pilot rating.”
     Soon she piloted for Eastern Metro Express on St. Croix, where she was promoted to captain. When she was hired by Air Wisconsin in 1992, she sold off the possessions she’d accumulated during seventeen years in the Caribbean and returned to the States. “Didn’t shed a tear,” she says.
     And no, her peripatetic career didn’t stop there. Leferson hasn’t flown since 1995, when she was grounded for medical reasons, but she still loves aviation. She’s currently manager of safety for the 130 aircraft and 5,000 employees of Atlantic Coast Airlines, the regional line that operates as United Express and Delta Connection, headquartered in Washington, D.C.
     Looking back, Leferson sees her career changes as a logical progression. “Nursing to diving may sound like a right turn, but I taught CPR, first aid, and water safety classes while I was nursing. And flying really is just like diving, only in the opposite direction.”
     Key factors were the freedom to pick up and go, enthusiasm for new challenges, and the gumption to respond to serendipity. “Opportunities kept falling in my lap, and I couldn’t turn them down,” she says simply. And today Leferson is as gung-ho as ever. “I’m always open to what might come my way.” In fact, she recently added an M.B.A. to her credentials, although she is quick to add, “I love my current position.”
     And that’s the biggest factor of all. “I have always loved what I was doing while I was doing it.”

Kathryn Gallien recently ended her ten-year stint as Skidmore publications manager to focus on the writing career she always wanted.


© 2003 Skidmore College