Last year this time Robin was wearing a hardhat and boots and dreading the onset of another Michigan winter.
As a network manager for a small construction company, she had to set up remote offices on construction sites. Before she started making the offices wireless, she had to install cable from trailer to trailer.
It was an important job, without her the engineers would not have had the basic tools they needed to work—telephones, PDAs, or computers—but it was sometimes an uncomfortable one.
Without regard for cold, wind, rain, or snow Robin had to make the rounds servicing her customers, her co-workers.
This year she won't have to gaze anxiously at the sky to gauge the weather as she plans her day. There will be no heavy lifting. There will be no stampede for the coffee truck as it hurtles by.
As she sits in her warm, dry cubicle in the high tech offices nestled amidst the vivid fall foliage New England is famous for, she muses about the biggest perk of her new job.
"Management actually cares about their employees," she says still somewhat stunned after two months on the job. She was tapped to join the company before she had even officially graduated.
"I can actually tell them what I'm thinking and I won't be fired." She deems the corporate culture of her new employer, "a very progressive environment."
"Everyone sits in some sort of cubicle—the president sits in a cubicle—and everyone works in teams."
As a technical support engineer, teamwork is key. Sometimes it takes several layers of teams to solve the problem a customer has.
Her typical day is separated into equal blocks. She spends four hours taking incoming calls and answering e-mails from software developers. The other four hours she spends in team meetings, interfacing with other tech support engineers, and researching questions for which there were no immediate resolutions.
It's a far cry from her work with the construction company. And so far from where she started out, that her first job must seem like a lifetime ago.
Robin used to work as a laborer in a sewage treatment plant. "Going into a factory is what people did," she explains. In 1986 it was called a 'good job.'"
She worked in what was affectionately known as "the poo-poo palace." "Doo-Dooville," another endearing name for the place where waste is separated from water by adding polymer to the big drums, was her workspace for over a decade.
Robin ran the presses that vacuumed the water out so that the dried sludge could be dropped onto a belt and incinerated or conveyed to a lagoon.
The smell made her sick. But then, everyone gets sick during the first two weeks, she explains.
It takes two weeks for the system to acclimate she recalls being told. Her work clothes were too contaminated to bring home; she stored everything in her assigned locker and went home hating her job every day. She knew it was time for a change.
"I knew I was wasting my potential," she says candidly.
"My partner knew it, too. She got tired of listening to me talk about it; and gave me the push (as in kick) I needed at what appears to have been the right time in my life."
After high school she had gone to college to major in communication. But soon she found herself "more concerned about a job and getting money."
"I lost my motivation," she says of her early school career.
A shift in paradigm was necessary for her to succeed. She started out believing that she was supposed to go to school so she could get money.
That is where her original logic broke down. "I already had money," she says. "I could support myself."
Then her thinking shifted. She realized she could back to school to develop her mind to be able to do work that actually interested her.
A community-based initiative provided the means. At first they were just marketing job training for machinists.
"But I thought, I gotta get out of here," she says recalling the frustration she felt about her job at the plant. So she signed up anyway.
"Then they started telling me about computers. I'd always wanted to know about the Information Superhighway," she remembers.
She enrolled in the most basic of classes, "How to turn it on," she quips.
That led to her earning her first specialty certification. Then she took another class to earn her second certification. Suddenly, leaving the plant became an attainable goal.
She enrolled at the now defunct Computer Learning Centers where she was told that there were two routes to a career in technology. Either she would have to hold a bachelor's degree or earn certifications.
"It was a two-year program crammed into seven months. The classes were 19 days each."
Despite the grueling schedule of full-time work coupled with night school, she managed to earn nine certifications; she studied and sat for six Microsoft tests, two Novell tests, and A+ certification.
It was an investment of $15,000 that drained her savings and forced her to take out loans, but it changed the course of her life.
" 'You took the reins on your life. I'm so proud of you,' a friend told me."
Robin was able to leave her dead-end job behind. She became a network technician for a hospice.
She realized some time later that she still had more schooling ahead of her.
"Those certs got me in the door, but the thing that would allow me to move up would be a degree."
That realization brought her to a crossroads. She needed only two classes to earn her associate's degree.
After a little soul-searching, she decided it would be in her best interest long-term to pursue a bachelor's. She had a decision to make.
"Am I going to finish the degree I started in mass communications? Or am I going to go for the degree that would allow me to have a better living, lifestyle, interest, stability and potential?" she recalls asking herself.
Continuing on the IT path was a simple decision. Deciding where to go to school was another.
Robin considered two land-based schools, but ultimately decided upon Capella University based upon her own research, and its reputation among her colleagues.
The application process was seamless. "Capella had online registration, sent me reminders, got my transcripts, had a link to the FAFSA form."
Attending school online has been just as painless. "It eliminated running and [wasted] time," she marvels still at the simplicity of it all. "All I had to do was turn on the computer. It was on all day anyway."
Her online experience has been such a positive one, she has no plans to return to campus-based education in the near future.
"Online is different. You can do it anywhere. It gives you more freedom to do the things you need to do. You can use whatever time you have available. You're not as constrained as in a traditional classroom."
Some assignments are complex, but they have real-world relevance. One of her favorite classes was web development.
"Each week you built a portion of the site using Dreamweaver. There was reading. An assignment. The instructor would look at it and respond. Mine was Motorcycle Touring for Women. When I took that class I was able to go in and make changes to the company website. I immediately put it [what I'd learned] into practice."
She cites Intellectual Property, Ethics, Project Management, and Managing People as other courses that were particularly relevant.
She likes online learning so much she just can't stay away. The recent grad will begin coursework for her MBA in November 2006.
"I like tech, but I like management and team-building better. If I'm going [to school] now I might as well keep going. Why stop now? I might get a Ph.D., too."
"Education is about developing critical thinking skills no matter what level," she affirms. "Education is about giving you legitimacy in the world."