The Johns Hopkins Gazette: December 7, 1998
Dec. 7, 1998
VOL. 28, NO. 14


Setting Sights On New Careers

More and more people are discovering it's never too late to follow your dreams

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

In a study room in Homewood's Ames Hall, Don Franklin pores over notes from a recent class. A slightly imposing figure, Franklin stands over his notebook with his tall, sturdy build and conspicuously bald head.

All around him are fellow Psychology Department first-year graduate students, who, although they are half his age, seem right at home with the 47-year-old man with the just-noticeable Canadian accent in their midst.

"I had been outside every day, 365 days a year. Now I'm stuck in tiny rooms, some with no windows."
--Former guide/trapper Don Franklin, Psychology Department graduate student

However, it's not his age or his nationality that sets Franklin apart from most of his classmates; rather, it's his background.

Not so many years ago, Franklin would wake up in his Ontario home just before sunrise. If the nearby lake was not yet frozen, he would row out into the water and land at several points on the shore to check traps that he had previously laid for some indigenous fur-bearing animals. On other days he would act as a fishing or hunting guide, perhaps trudging some 40 miles per day on snowshoes through the Canadian wilderness. He worked a seven-day week, but this third-generation guide/trapper says the spiritual peacefulness of his time in the woods didn't make it seem like work.

"There is no better life. They were such quiet and peaceful surroundings," he says.

But these days, the onetime outdoorsman finds himself surrounded by white walls and chalkboards rather than lakes and evergreen forests. Franklin, who is pursuing a master's degree in psychology, is one of a growing number of people who are returning to school, not just to further their education but to drastically alter their lives by changing careers. Whether they are accountants becoming schoolteachers, lawyers becoming doctors, or fur trappers becoming psychologists, what they've made-- especially for someone who is closer to the age of retirement than to that of an average college student--is a major life decision.

Although Hopkins doesn't track the number of "career changers" enrolled in each school, admissions officials say there has been a marked increase in the number of students who are looking to enter into a new field.

The reasons for the change vary. For some individuals it is the opportunity to fulfill a lifelong dream; others, who fear the instability of their current career, see it as a necessity; while still others just want a new life.

Mary Somers, director of the Career and Life Planning Center at the School of Continuing Studies, says she talks with many people who think of changing careers.

"They are changing their work roles for lots of different reasons," Somers says. "I've noticed that, in general, as we get older we seem to have a better perception of what is most important to us. We are more willing to do what is necessary to achieve our personal and career goals."

Somers adds that many recite the same question when they first approach the idea of a new career--something along the lines of: I've been successful, but my job is not as satisfying as it once was. Do I want to continue to do this, or do I want to take this leap of faith and make a change?'

* * * * *

A few years ago Marian Sue Grant was the associate director of worldwide strategic planning for the cosmetics division of Proctor and Gamble, a company with which she had been for 20 years. From the division's Hunt Valley headquarters, Grant coordinated all regional offices to make sure the company was properly positioned in the world marketplace. Some of her concerns back then were whether the brand image was being conveyed consistently around the world, that there was some continuity in all the offices and that practices applied successfully in one office could be reapplied in another.

"I was very comfortably paid at Proctor and Gamble. I had profit seemed risky."
--Former corporate executive Marian Sue Grant, nursing student

Earning a top corporate salary, Grant was a lifetime away from the young broadcasting major who had had trouble getting a job in her home of Cincinnati. In 1977, she joined the media department of Proctor and Gamble and, at the time, called her new position "just a steady job."

"I thought in the back of my mind that I would go back to broadcasting and this would just pay the bills until then," Grant says. "But it turned out I was really comfortable in the corporate environment. It started to dawn on me that if I made the right effort, I could really have a career doing this type of work."

And indeed she did.

But about four years ago that comfort level started to diminish. Proctor and Gamble began to downsize, and although Grant didn't feel too threatened about losing her job, she didn't like having "all my eggs in one basket," and she had no backup plan if indeed she was phased out.

That same year Grant began to do volunteer work at the Don Miller AIDS House, a hospice and group home in Baltimore that she had learned of through her company's United Way campaign. Grant's recent experience with her father, who had suffered a severe stroke, had given her an appreciation for the work associated with caring for the terminally ill.

Grant would visit the Don Miller AIDS House and talk with the residents, run errands for them or venture into town with some of them to go shopping or to a movie. "Sometimes it was just to hang out. They wanted someone to be with them," Grant says. "It was very satisfying and meaningful for me. "

But Grant says it also felt incomplete.

"It was frustrating to be spending time there in the sense that I wanted to help them feel better by providing them physical comfort as well as [emotional] support," Grant says. "There were medical topics I was interested in talking with them about. I wanted to do more than just counseling."

Grant says she wanted to be on the "front lines"--more personally involved with people who were in need--so she began to consider going to nursing school, a topic she had discussed with her husband, friends and some colleagues at the AIDS house.

"I told them I was thinking of making this change, and they were very supportive," Grant says of her AIDS house colleagues. "And these were people I respected. If they thought I would be good at this line of work, that really meant something."

Her first choice of schools was the Hopkins School of Nursing, but Grant wasn't sure of her chances of getting in. She was, however, encouraged by her husband, Dale Keiger, a senior writer at the Johns Hopkins Magazine and visiting associate professor in The Writing Seminars, and by a telephone conversation she had with the school's Office of Admissions.

"They said they were very interested in me being a student there," Grant says. "They told me they liked my business background in that health care was moving toward business, and they wanted Hopkins nurses to be leaders in the industry."

Grant was accepted in February for the September 1998 semester. The next issue she faced was paying the bill: $35,500 for the two-year bachelor's degree program in which many of the students, like her, are career changers.

Jeannine Ruof, director of Student Financial Services at the School of Nursing, says, "Some of our students are financing their education with federal loans and loans from private lending institutions; they'll be in debt when they come out of school, but that is the trade-off. They will also be well prepared to walk into a job right away. Our employment rate is nearly perfect."

Grant says she knew from the beginning that a return to school would certainly affect the life to which she had grown accustomed.

"I was very comfortably paid at Proctor and Gamble. I had profit sharing, stock options, executive perks," Grant says. "I knew I was going from one extreme to another. This would be no cheap affair. Even just taking a few months off seemed risky."

Grant is eligible for partial tuition remission due to her husband's Hopkins affiliation, and she also received a scholarship from the state of Maryland. Yet even with the financial aid, Grant still has to come up with more than $14,000 per year.

"I knew it would be lean, but I felt that with no children to support, our savings and Dale's salary that we would be able to make it," Grant says. "Instead of going to the Lyric to see Rent, now we might stay in and watch a video."

Grant, who now has three months of school under her belt, says that she has no regrets.

"I absolutely love it," Grant says. "It's quite demanding, but it's not killing me. I really enjoy that they have high expectations of all the students here. They seem willing to throw us all in the deep end, but so far no one is drowning."

As for the learning process of becoming a nurse, Grant wonders how she is going to deal with what she calls the "gicky things," like bed pans and injections, but she feels confident she will get through it. Following graduation, however, she is still unsure of what health care environment she will find herself in.

"I'm going through this with an open mind. I'm not sure where I'm going to go with medicine," Grant says. "Right now everything sounds interesting."

Everything seems familiar, too.

"It's funny that they recently launched the new Volkswagen Beetle, just like the one I had in college," Grant says. "It's all making me feel 20 years younger."

* * * * *

On the Homewood campus, Don Franklin realizes just how far away he is from the life he once knew. Gone are the wilderness and solitude of his days as trapper and guide. But gone also are the physical hardships and dangers that led him to making his career change.

Several years ago Franklin realized that his best days of endurance were behind him. His knees were starting to show wear and tear from all the bending and walking he had to do on a daily basis, and he recently had had surgery on his right knee.

"I sure can't snowshoe 40 miles a day anymore, especially in 15-below weather."

Franklin also relates the grim prospects of how he could have fallen through the ice, miles from another living soul, or simply frozen to death if he had hurt himself and couldn't get help.

Then there were the simple economics of life as a fur trapper. Franklin says he and his family lived simply and comfortably, but the market for furs fluctuated too much for his liking.

"I sure wasn't making the amount of any baseball player," he jokes.

Franklin decided to go to college to earn his bachelor's degree. He enrolled at Queens University in Ontario on a part-time basis while he continued to work and be a house husband.

Not quite sure what degree he wanted to pursue, Franklin picked three courses that fit into his schedule. So when it came time to choose a major, he chose cognitive science not so much because it interested him but because he had completed three requirements. He says it wasn't until a few years into his undergraduate career that he began to really enjoy the study of how the mind works.

But Franklin says that being back in class, 25 years removed from high school, was certainly not easy.

"It was hell at first," he says. "Most of the math I was studying just wasn't around when I was in high school. I realized I had a lot of catching up to do." He spent the next four years "catching up" and received his degree in 1997.

While at college Franklin had started to formulate a plan for what his next career would be. He says he thought of entering the corporate world, where he could apply his cognitive science background to marketing, but he knew he needed to advance his education. And he had come to the conclusion that his future meant leaving Ontario and the life he was used to.

At this time his wife, Betty, who was originally from Baltimore, made it known that she wanted to return to Maryland. Franklin says he knew of Hopkins' academic reputation, and it was his clear choice of graduate schools. In fact, it was the only school he applied to.

Franklin says the transition from life in the woods to being a student in the city has been a challenge.

"I had been outside every day, 365 days a year. Now I'm stuck in tiny rooms, some with no windows," Franklin says. "It's been stressful, not just for me but for my whole family. Being in a first-year graduate program takes up every second of your time. You're never not doing something, and you're never caught up."

To deal with the stress Franklin likes to take trips into the countryside and get away from the city noise, but he is finding it increasingly difficult to have the time.

Franklin says he plans on moving back to Canada with his family when he finishes school, but he's still not sure how he will put his degree to use. His ideal would be a job in a research facility, he says, but he's keeping his options open.

* * * * *

At a leadership conference in Charlottesville, Va., three years ago, Richard Iselin was asked where he saw himself in five years. At the time, Iselin was the director of facility management for the U.S. State Department, where he was responsible for the fluid operation of all the department's domestic properties, including the main 2.5 million-square-foot complex in Washington, which houses roughly 8,500 federal employees. The question was intended to address what people envisioned for the latter parts of their careers.

"I liked the idea of teaching the fifth grade. It's at the part of their lives when kids think they're top dog, and they are very willing to learn."
--Former administrator at the U.S. State Department Richard Iselin, Master of Arts in Teaching candidate

Iselin says he thought about the question for a moment, and then remembered something he had always wanted to do in his life.

"I've always wanted to be a teacher," Iselin says. "I thought I would be happy working with young children."

Iselin says he briefly considered teaching adults, but he wasn't sure that he was ready for that type of commitment. "I have to be realistic in that at my age I have neither the time or motivation to get a Ph.D. But I liked the idea of teaching the fifth grade. It's at the part of their lives when kids think they're top dog, and they are very willing to learn."

So when Iselin returned home from the conference he began to contact local universities about their graduate programs in teaching. He says the first few schools he contacted either did not accommodate his schedule, demanded too much of his time in his first year, or just didn't offer the type of program he was looking for. Then he contacted the Johns Hopkins School of Continuing Studies and discovered the Master of Arts in Teaching program.

"It was perfect for what I wanted," says Iselin, in that he would be able to take courses near his home at night and proceed at his own pace.

Linda Poole, director of the MAT program, says that many individuals like Iselin are attracted to Hopkins because of the program's flexibility.

"We have students going both full time and part time. They don't have to drop everything and spend all their time here," Poole says. "More than 90 percent of our students are career changers."

Iselin was accepted into the program in the summer of 1996, and during his first two years, when he was taking courses at the Columbia and Montgomery County campuses, he continued to work at the State Department. He admits that splitting time between work, school and his family was a major balancing act.

Since August Iselin has been student teaching at Germantown Elementary School. Of his experience, Iselin says all the classwork didn't fully prepare him for the first day of class in front of a group of children.

"That was something," Iselin laughs. "I quickly realized the hardest part of teaching is managing a classroom. I thought they would see me, an older man, and do what I told them. Well, that lasted for all of about 12 seconds."

Iselin, 53, says that choosing a career in teaching has allowed him to apply the "wealth of experience" he has gained over the years.

For example, Iselin is currently teaching a reading class, and the book he is using is titled The Fallen Space Man.

"I was alive when NASA landed a man on the moon; I've met John Glenn and toured the Kennedy Space Center. I'm able to relate these experiences in class," says Iselin, who lives in Potomac, Md., with his wife and two children. "The trick with these kids is keeping their attention and keeping them on task. You want to make sure they go where you want them to go."

* * * * *

SCS's Poole says the increased enrollment of people looking to change careers started for practical reasons several years ago, when companies began to downsize. Yet most of the students to whom she talks these days are doing it more for philosophical or emotional reasons.

Whatever the reason, Poole urges them to do their homework to make sure this new career will indeed be a good fit.

"We feel strongly that we want to support prospective students in making their decisions," Poole says. "But we also don't want to guide them into that decision if it's not for them. We're very conscious of the fact that our students are making a big commitment, both to us and this new career."

In a future issue, a onetime corporate attorney and a former elementary school teacher talk about their lives as first-year medical students.