Prepared to Pivot
Four alumnae talk about the sometimes unexpected turns in their career paths
Perhaps, like many parents, you put your career on hold to raise a family. Or an economic downturn wreaked havoc on your field and forced you to change jobs. Maybe careers not open to women only a few decades ago are now possible for you to explore. Or perhaps you’re feeling burned out in your current job and have a desire to do something more fulfilling, something different, something new.
Whatever your reason for changing jobs, you’re not alone. According to 2014 data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical American worker stays in a job for just four-and-a-half years. And while some of those workers will stay in the same field for most, if not all, of their working lives, for many the change is more dramatic—what’s commonly known as a “career pivot.”
In 2015, the Mount Holyoke Career Development Center sent a survey to alumnae asking about personal career pivots. More than two hundred of you responded, answering questions about how your professional paths have changed course, what prompted those changes, what was most difficult about pivoting, and how you made it work (or, in some cases, didn’t—leading to yet another pivot). Many of you acknowledged that you’re still figuring it all out, trying your hands at various jobs in search of the right one—or, at least, the right one for right now. A handful of you shared stories at a panel discussion, “Career Pivots: Catalysts, Challenges, and Dividends,” at Reunion 2015.
Here, we share the journeys of four MHC alumnae, each of whom pivoted at one point—or more—in her career. Their unique stories show us that when it comes time to pivot, perhaps the most important indicator of success is feeling prepared to take on change.
Finding a Place to Land
Liz Murphy Fenwick ’85 isn’t sure she’d describe herself as a “career pivoter”; rather, she says with a laugh, “I kind of spun continuously.”
At Mount Holyoke, Fenwick majored in English literature, with a minor in creative writing and medieval studies—‘“which my parents, quite rightly, called ‘pre-unemployment.’” But she did land a job after graduation, writing a history of Oyster Harbors, a small private island off Massachusetts, not far from where she grew up. The experience, she says, taught her a valuable lesson: “That I never wanted to write for a committee again.” So, she says, “I left my dream of writing behind at that point and went off to earn a living.” Fenwick followed her father into the insurance business, becoming a broker, and in 1989 moved to England, where she met her now-husband, Chris.
For the next couple of decades, Fenwick assumed a role she calls “trailing spouse.” Chris’s career in the oil business necessitated frequent relocations, taking the couple around the globe—from London to Calgary, back to London, then Moscow, Houston, Jakarta, Dubai, and, in November 2016, back to London. Along the way, the couple had three children.
“Trailing spouse” is not a job for the faint of heart. Chris’s job transfers came with little warning, leaving the family, in some cases, just weeks to prepare for an international move; at one point, Fenwick found herself moving from Moscow to Houston with a newborn. As her kids got older, the biggest challenge was changing schools, especially for her older son, who, like Fenwick, has dyslexia.
While in Moscow, Fenwick became head of the corporation’s spouses’ association, a volunteer group that supported families as they navigated both the typical tasks of moving and the deeper challenges of adjusting to a profoundly different culture. She relished her role as an advocate for the families and found that the position also had personal benefits: “It reminded me I still had a brain,” she says. Fenwick began writing again, nonfiction pieces about traveling with children, raising “third-culture kids,” and “the whole expat experience, because I’d become something of an expat expert.”
In 2004—almost twenty years after she graduated with her creative writing minor—Fenwick turned back to fiction. In 2012 she published her first novel, The Cornish House, which was shortlisted for a new writers’ award by the Romantic Novelists’ Association. Since then, she’s made up for lost time, publishing three more successful novels and a novella. The fifth book in her series, The Returning Tide, was published in March. (The books are all set in Cornwall, where her family spends half the year.) Fittingly for an author who describes herself as a “global nomad,” her books have been translated into a dozen languages.
Fenwick has come a long way from the “painfully shy” student she was in college. Mount Holyoke, she says, “gave me the courage to be different, to take a step outside the boundaries. . . . I think of the timid person who went into Mount Holyoke and the still somewhat timid person who came out, and it’s only later that I’m able to call on that strength that was seeded when I was there.”
Fenwick doesn’t regret the detours that led her to postpone a professional writing career. Although she never expected to become a “traditional mum,” she says, being with her children full time when they were young “was a blessing.” And, she adds, her later-in-life career is proof that a woman can devote part of her life to parenting and then go on to other meaningful work.
Besides, Fenwick notes, while her twenty-two-year-old self dreamed of being a writer, she had neither the life experience nor the courage to do it. That came after a couple of decades traveling the world. “The world is very different depending on where you sit, and to judge it from only one place limits you and limits the world,” she says.
Trading a Lab for the Law
A happy accident landed Rinda Yust Allison ’60 her first job in chemistry. One day not long after she graduated from Mount Holyoke, she went to meet her then-fiancé at the University of Chicago, where he was a law student. Accidentally getting off the bus at the wrong stop, she found herself in front of a science lab. Allison, who’d majored in chemistry with minors in math and physics, was looking for a job, so she went inside to see if the department had any openings.
“They interviewed me on the spot,” recalls Allison, who ended up landing a job in a chemistry lab, working on light transmission research for the United States Department of Defense.
Allison was the only woman in the lab, and she earned less than her male colleagues. “I didn’t complain,” she remembers; indeed, she was pleased to be earning more than was typical for the wives of law students, most of whom worked as support staff at the university. “I felt lucky—which is crazy,” she says.
Allison spent many productive years in the science field, as a researcher and an environmental journalist. When she started a family, she shifted to a part-time schedule. And as her three children grew, she became involved with the League of Women Voters in her hometown of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, outside of Chicago.
“I found I just loved government, particularly local government,” says Allison. She served on the Glen Ellyn Village Board, then ran for village president, losing by a narrow margin. “I thought, ‘I’ll show them. I’ll do the hardest thing I can think of: go to law school. Then they’ll be sorry.’
“They weren’t sorry,” Allison says with a laugh. “But I did go to law school, and I was very happy.”
In 1989, when Allison entered law school, she was fifty, the oldest student in her class. “It’s funny, because when I was forty I felt I was too old to do it. But when I was fifty, I didn’t feel I was too old at all,” she says.
In part, that may have been due to the fact that her children were older and more independent. And in part, she says, it was due to timing. “In the [1980s], opportunities for women were opening so much, and so rapidly, that I felt this was something I could do.”
While Allison explored different areas of law in school, in the end her passion remained the workings of local government, where, she says, “You meet the Constitution up and down, back and forth, every day.” After graduating, she joined a firm and spent seventeen years working with local school boards, libraries, planning commissions, and zoning boards. Now retired, she’s returned to her volunteer work with the League of Women Voters.
Allison credits Mount Holyoke with preparing her to take on new challenges with the confidence that she could master them. “A liberal arts education is learning to learn from learned men,” she recalls a dean telling a class. “Today we would say, ‘from learned people.’ But we did learn how to learn. . . . If you’ve gone to Mount Holyoke, you can learn anything.”
Returning to Art
“Some of my friends said that when they were eight years old, they knew they were going to be a lawyer,” says Sarah Sharer Curley ’71. “But I never dreamed that I would be in the legal field.”
Curley, in fact, had a long and successful legal career, specializing in bankruptcy law and litigation in Manhattan and, later, Milwaukee. In 1986 she was appointed the first woman federal bankruptcy judge for the District of Arizona, and in 2009 she became an adjunct professor at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University (ASU).
But at eight years old, Curley was roaming her suburban Chicago neighborhood with her beloved camera and spending her Saturdays in art classes at a local studio. When she got older, she mastered the elevated train (the “El”) so she could visit the Art Institute in downtown Chicago. Though she majored in history at Mount Holyoke, she filled the free spots in her schedule with art and art history classes.
Curley expected to work in the art field after graduation, perhaps at a museum or as a buyer for a department store that sold art. But when her then-husband entered law school, she needed to find a job that would support them both. She took a position as office manager at a law firm, then, later, as an administrative assistant at a nonprofit.
At home, listening to her husband talk about his courses, she became increasingly intrigued by the law. So in the fall of 1974, as her husband entered his final year of law school, Curley entered her first, at New York Law School. The summer after her second year, she landed an internship with a bankruptcy judge. “And I never looked back,” she says.
Curley loved the diversity and problem-solving aspects of the bankruptcy field. One day, she says, “it’s taking individuals who are struggling—they’ve made some unwise decisions in their lives, or they’ve had medical issues or other setbacks—and through bankruptcy laws you can help them get on the right path.” Other days, she’d find herself working with major corporations that had filed bankruptcy petitions seeking to restructure complex debt obligations. “Those were the sophisticated transactions that, quite frankly, were intellectually exciting,” she says.
Much as she loved the work, after forty years in the legal field, Curley was ready for a change. In 2014 she retired and turned her attention back to an old love: art.
Over the years, Curley had taken classes in photography, painting, and sculpture at local art museums and community colleges. “It was always important to me,” she says. “I would get to the point, intellectually, where I would say: I just can’t focus only on logic and legal issues anymore. I need to explore my imagination and visual arts and channel my creativity.” As she transitioned into retirement, she wanted to make art a bigger part of her life—not as a hobby, but as a second career.
Curley reached out to a fellow Mount Holyoke alumna, Betsy Fahlman ’73, an art history professor at ASU who connected Curley with other faculty members.
Making a career shift later in life, Curley says, “my big concern was I didn’t think people were going to take me seriously. . . . They’re going to think I’m a dilettante.” In fact, she’s continued to build on her skills—one of her newer interests is cyanotype, a photographic process developed in the late 1800s, which she uses in mixed-media projects, making prints directly on silk and cotton—and has developed a serious body of work, some of which has been in national juried art shows. (Her portfolio can be seen at sarahcurleyart.com.)
At first glance, law to art may not seem a natural career pivot. But to Curley, there’s a connection: “To do well in the bankruptcy field, you have to be creative. . . . People come in with problems for which there is no easy solution. One can check the statutes or case law, but there’s nothing there that an attorney may easily rely on to solve the problem or a judge may consider to rule on the issue. . . . Having that creative mind assists in coming up with a solution.”
As a student, Curley says, she was somewhat ambivalent about Mount Holyoke—specifically, about being at an all-women’s college. It wasn’t until years later that she came to appreciate the intellectual confidence that atmosphere gave her. “In classes, I had to speak up. I couldn’t defer to the guy next to me,” she says. “When I entered the bankruptcy field, which was then dominated by men, I had the confidence to say, as the only woman at boardroom discussions, ‘I disagree with your positions, and here’s why.’ I had the confidence to attend hearings and say, ‘Judge, I am here on behalf of this client. Here are my positions on the various legal issues that need to be determined—I request that you rule in my favor.’ And as a judge, I believe I was fair, able to render impartial rulings.”
Sarah Robbins Kelley ’02 describes herself as a “power networker.” It’s a skill that’s helped her change careers five times since graduating from Mount Holyoke, in diverse fields including yacht design, web development, sales and marketing, and research and development. Today, aptly enough, Kelley works for a recruiting firm, helping other people change careers.
More than once, Kelley left a job without a new one lined up, then promptly found a new opportunity. Several times, a chance encounter or an out-of-the-blue call to an old friend or a new acquaintance has led to a job. She believes her talent for forging professional connections is in part a function of personality and in part is due to the environment at Mount Holyoke, where professors were always accessible to students. “It made me feel comfortable approaching people and asking for help,” Kelley says. “That’s carried me so well through all my careers.” So has the breadth of classes she took: science, philosophy, education, sociology. “I was the poster child for taking advantage of the liberal arts education.”
Kelley had planned to go to medical school after college until an internship experience changed her mind. “I was graduating with this biology degree and knew I didn’t want to do anything with it. That was challenging—to my parents, too.” In the end, a senior semester with the Sea Education Association environmental studies program, sailing across the Pacific Ocean, led her into the sailing industry.
Over the years, Kelley has changed careers for a variety of reasons: after a few years managing yachts in Newport, she grew tired of the party life of a resort town and moved to Maine to work for a boat manufacturer. When the economy crashed in 2008, she lost that job but quickly found work as creative director of a start-up website. Not long after leaving that job, Kelley went on an Outward Bound course as part of a leadership-development program run by the state of Maine; by the end of the weekend, she’d been offered a job with Outward Bound, where she worked for several years.
Kelley believes that Mount Holyoke left her primed to seek out new opportunities. “I think that comes from [studying at] a women’s college. We didn’t have to compete for leadership positions, and so much was available to us that I’ve never thought: ‘well, that’s not for me.’”
Being part of an alumnae group full of so many high-powered, successful women, however “can be a double-edged sword,” Kelley says—the sharpness of which she’s felt since leaving her last job, a demanding position in research and development with a medical-device company. Her new job in recruiting is less stressful and allows her to work from home, a nice perk for her family, which includes two young daughters. Still, she says, “I hate the term, but I do feel like it was a downshift for me,” one that comes with both less responsibility and less money. “That’s working for my family, but I still feel some guilt. . . . I have this strong background, educational and professional, and I felt like I should honor that by holding a position that’s worthy of that background.”
Kelley has heard other alumnae express similarly conflicted feelings about subordinating career goals to family needs. “From the moment we stepped on campus we were told we were uncommon women. . . . We were prepared to change the world and be leaders. And are we doing that if we’re stepping off of the career track?” she asks.
It helps, she says, to hear about the sometimes-circuitous career paths other alumnae have taken. “It’s significant when we hear about women who came before us who are changing careers successfully in their fifties and sixties. It gives me comfort to know I can change careers, I can get off track, I can even mess up. . . . This will not be my last career pivot.”
—By Maureen Turner
Maureen Turner is a journalist from Northampton, Massachusetts.
This article appeared in the spring 2017 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.
April 7, 2017