When I finished my undergrad program in 2008, I was ready to immerse myself in a career. I thought that climbing the corporate ladder would mean “success” for me. I thought that at each stage in my career, with each raise and increase in responsibility, I would love what I was doing. On the outside, I was the poster child for military spouse employment. I was working on some amazing projects in the military community and creating a legacy of work to be very proud of. I had a great salary, a strong marriage and was managing multiple PCS moves, deployments – all while raising two beautiful teenage boys. I’d had everything I’d ever hoped for, right?
But on the inside, while my husband was on deployment in 2014, I was hanging on by a thread. At work, I was constantly torn between deadlines, the needs of my employees and the client. I didn’t enjoy many aspects of management and I felt guilty about it. I’d worked so hard for so long to get where I was, but I dreaded the dedication I felt it took to be successful in that role. I was missing band concerts and lacrosse games for work, and it got to the point that the kids literally hated my computer, phone and everything else about my job. So, after many sleepless nights and lots of spotty phone calls between Iraq (where my husband was) and North Carolina, I made the difficult decision to leave my dream job.
While I fought to figure out why I wasn’t happy professionally, my husband was incredibly patient and supportive. When he returned from deployment and we PCS’d to California, I tried everything. I opened a photography business, which had been a well-paying side hustle for many years. Unfortunately, in our new town, photographers were a dime a dozen. I decided to take a class in e-learning design, thinking moving into another field might make me happy, but it wasn’t for me. I even explored a program to become a high school English teacher, but I didn’t get in and took that as a sign that high school teaching was not for me.
Then, in 2015, my oldest son passed away unexpectedly at 17, and it changed everything. I’d written a personal blog over the years as a means of telling funny stories about my boys or ranting about whatever tickled my fancy. But after he passed, that blog became my lifeline. I wrote nearly every day in the first few weeks after he left us. What started as a way for me to tell stories about our family became a place for me to share the truest parts of myself, and in the process something magical happened.
Over the course of several months, I began to receive messages of encouragement from strangers about my writing. They would say things like, “you have a gift,” or “you’re helping others through your words.” It was a comfort to me in my darkest hours of grief. Those words of encouragement and the healing power of writing began to steer my professional journey in a new direction. I started to realize and accept that writing was a natural talent of mine. It brought me tremendous joy to know that I could use it to help others.
I started looking into graduate programs that would help me become a better story teller. Once the momentum started, things happened quickly. My son passed in June, and by November I had started my graduate program in English and Creative Writing. I took it seriously, devoted myself to it, and poured my energy and my soul into honing my craft. While I was in school, I was learning how to perfect my personal writing and start to find my professional voice.
I was discovering (through part-time gigs, term papers and grieving the loss of my son) that deep down I didn’t want to be on the corporate ladder at all. What I cared about was making a difference in people’s lives through words and mentorship. While I was in my graduate program, it occurred to me that when I was done, I would also be qualified to teach writing at the collegiate level. That’s when I decided to trade the corporate ladder for the classroom.
This past July, I graduated. In January, I will start my first semester as an adjunct professor of English at the local community college near our installation. My new boss has been kind enough to let me shadow other English professors as they teach classes this semester, and the classrooms are filled with all kinds of amazing people. High school graduates like my surviving son, now 18 and suffering through freshman English like every other undergraduate. Spouses like me who started at community college after having a baby and getting married. A grandmother. A single mom starting school for the first time in her 30’s. Service members trying to squeeze in college classes between field ops and deployments. They were all there, starting their journey, trying to find their way in the world.
Every time I walk across the campus to my car, I feel like I’m home, like I’m meant to be there. Am I scared? I’m terrified! What if I screw it up? What if I forget to teach that one important thing that these students will need to start their journey? But I am comforted by what I have learned from this journey to a new career. I learned to listen to my heart when I knew I wasn’t happy in my job. I found the courage to leave and try new things, to take chances and to fail with grace. I learned that the corporate ladder does not always define success and it’s okay to do something different. Most importantly, I learned when I’m doing something that feels like home, it means I’m doing something right. If you are struggling to find what success looks like for you in your career path, don’t be afraid to try something different. It just might be what leads you to where you were truly meant to be.