- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 16, 2001

A tear slid down Pat Collins-Wolff's cheek and quickly was brushed away. Sitting in her kitchen, the 46-year-old Oak Hill, Va., mother of three recalled the dilemma of being two people.

"I was the student from Monday through Friday, and I had to come home and be mother. That was really very difficult," she says. "There were many Monday mornings that I left crying."

In addition to the stress of being away from her family, there was the pressure of a vigorous academic environment at the University of Virginia, where she was pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology. She proudly mentions being one of five psychology students out of 300 who were singled out with an "excellence in research" award by the psychology department.

Making a career change involves sacrifice, hard work, perseverance and a leap of faith. It often means getting additional training or acquiring new skills. The process initially can involve a cut in income and status while one starts at the bottom in a new profession.

There is no hard data on the number of career changers; the Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates there is no way to quantify this information.

The financial impact on the family is the biggest consideration for most career changers. Fear of the unknown also can be a strong deterrent, but those who have succeeded say the rewards of doing something they love have far outweighed the challenges.

Although Mrs. Collins-Wolff started college at 18, she dropped out and went to work for Macy's department stores in New York for 10 years. When she married and had her son 16-year-old Chris she decided to stay home.

While she was attending classes at Northern Virginia Community College's Loudoun County campus, where she earned an associate of arts degree in psychology in 1998, one of her professors suggested she apply to UVa. Her husband, Bill, said "go for it." Retired from Mobil, he was amenable to becoming "Mr. Mom."

"We looked at it as an investment for the family," Mrs. Collins-Wolff says. "Bill had worked 29 years at Mobil, and so it was time for me to step out."

There were positive benefits for the family, she adds. The children learned that if you want something, you have to work hard to get it, and if you put your mind to it, you can accomplish it. It also showed "how we could pull together as a family," she says. "I think the children are a little more mature and self-reliant. They know their schedules and their responsibilities and how to keep things running."

For Mrs. Collins-Wolff's graduation last May, 14-year-old Caitlin wrote in her mother's card, "This experience has taught us to go to school the first time."

After graduation, Mrs. Collins-Wolff spent the next six months reconnecting with her family. She is now entering the job market, where she hopes to use her degree in a related field. She also has decided to pursue a master's degree in psychology.

Seeing their father in a nontraditional role was good for the children, Mrs. Collins-Wolff says although Chris had some discomfort filling out school forms that asked parents' occupations. One year, he gave his father a different profession for each class and used the fax-machine number for his father's office number.

Chris says he became more independent with his mother away. He also enjoyed attending UVa. football games and says, "I would like to go to UVa."

Mr. Wolff took his role seriously and became president of his youngest daughter's school's Parent-Teacher Association.

"It was a good experience," he says. "I think that helped with the elementary school and Erin." (She was 8 years old when her mother started UVa.)

A family affair

"I always felt that career change was a family concern," says Judith Grutter, a career counselor, career development trainer and author in Lake Tahoe, Calif. "It involves planning and financial planning. The roles in the family change, and the income changes."

One case of family and income changes occurred when Janice Coleman's 13-year marriage ended in 1996. The Fairfax mother of two had been a part-time teacher and stay-at-home mom.

"Teaching was fine, but to support myself and my children, I decided I wanted to do a business instead," she says. "The financial aspect was the most difficult aspect of changing careers," she adds.

Several years earlier, Ms. Coleman had lost weight through hypnosis, and in 1993, she started training as a hypnotist. Initially, she practiced on friends for free, but when she finished her internship, she started charging for her services.

Today, at 52, she is a successful entrepreneur with her own business Positive Changes Hypnosis and three employees. How did she do it?

"I had already acquired the skills. It was just a matter of taking it to a larger scale," Ms. Coleman says.

That involved moving out of her home into an office and eventually moving into an office suite. She started her business "with no capital but a lot of guts," she says.

The first year, she continued with part-time teaching.

"For a few years, it was scary on my own with the two kids," she says.

She also gave up the security of a 401(k) plan and dental and health insurance.

Her 16-year-old son, Michael Bridge, has shown an interest in hypnosis and has taken training. She says it has given Michael self-confidence and helped him do better in his schoolwork.

Her 14-year-old daughter, Mary Bridge, has worked in Ms. Coleman's office.

"She also interviewed me for career day," Ms. Coleman says. "I think I am a great role model, especially for my daughter, so she can see that is one option she has of having her own business."

Ms. Coleman's business has enabled her to be home when her children come home from school and to attend school events during the day. Being a single mother, however, she says the biggest challenge is "trying to balance dinner time with my clients."

She says her new profession is very similar to teaching in that it's a helping profession.

Ms. Grutter explains, "They have to back up and take stock of the things in their life that have been satisfying and the things that haven't been satisfying, reframing their lives and doing what is most satisfying. That's really an important lesson."

A lesson learned

It's a lesson that was not lost on Art Jackson of Woodbridge, Va. The West Point graduate has undergone several career changes.

He went into the Army in 1977. After seven years as a commissioned officer, he decided he really enjoyed program management. Because there was no career path for that in the military, he left on a Friday and started work for General Dynamics as a program manager the following Monday.

After stints at several corporations, Mr. Jackson found himself giving briefings several times a week to management as well as making presentations to clients.

"I really started to enjoy doing the presentations," he says. "One of the things I've always been good at is leadership-type activities."

He plays an active role in his church he is a licensed minister speaking and counseling teens.

To get closer to family, the Richmond native moved his family to Woodbridge seven years ago. He continued program-management work for the next three years as a consultant with Arthur D. Little, doing work for the Federal Aviation Administration.

"I still had a yen to get up and speak in front of people. I ended up doing a lot of that at my church and community organizations, but nothing for my career path," he says.

The catalyst for change came when his wife, Kim, bought an airline ticket to Los Angeles for him to attend a seminar by Les Brown, a motivational speaker.

"What I didn't know when I got there was that the class had a contest," Mr. Jackson says. "Everyone in the class would present four to five times, and at the formal program, 15 people out of the 275 attendees were selected to speak as contestants. I made it into the finals. You were given one hour to prepare a speech and then deliver it. I got third out of the 15 speakers."

At the end of the session, Mr. Brown told Mr. Jackson, "You are gifted, and you should really pursue this."

Mr. Jackson started his speaking profession part time while continuing his consulting work. A year and a half ago, he took a leap of faith and went full time with speaking. He had booked enough business for the first year. In the second year, however, his income dropped because he had to do speaking plus marketing.

"Even with the loss of income, I am still able to get up every morning and do exactly what I want to do. I get so much joy out of speaking in front of an audience it's almost addictive," Mr. Jackson says.

Fortunately, Mrs. Jackson has a good income and saw her husband's career change as an investment.

"We are a team, so it doesn't matter whose income it is. It's been real good for him," she says. "We were glad when he was able to concentrate full time on his speaking. He has a lot to offer."

The Jacksons say they feel his career change has been positive for their daughter, Jennifer, 15.

"She knows and understands that you're happiest when you are going after those things you want in life. She also knows it's a struggle," Mr. Jackson says.

"I like that he goes out and meets all these people and then I get to meet them," Jennifer says.

Both Jacksons travel extensively, but they arrange their schedules so one of them is home at all times.

A woman with a mission

Meeting people and empowering them is Sandra Strauss' mission. The Oakton mother of two teen-age daughters is full of energy, a positive attitude and can-do enthusiasm.

She runs a home-based business Dynamic Options as a public-relations consultant, speaker and writer.

Mrs. Strauss left a full-time job as a consumer-affairs professional in 1985 to start a home-based business. Both she and her husband, Richard, decided to leave the corporate world and work from home after their youngest daughter was born.

"The thinking was to try to devote our energies to the family putting family first," Mr. Strauss says. "It was a very scary time."

The change had positive benefits for the family, Mrs. Strauss says.

"I was available; I had the flexibility to do all the things that I wanted to do as a mom and to be the type of parent that I wanted to be," she says.

Mrs. Strauss was actively involved in her daughters' school activities, such as Girl Scouts and sports, and taught Sunday School classes. Today at 4 p.m., Mr. Strauss will be working the concession stand at Oakton High School, where 15-year-old Stacy plays basketball.

As a result of a recent volunteer experience working with women at the Fairfax County Detention Center, Mrs. Strauss has found a new purpose.

"In my case, there was a new awareness of what I wanted to do," she says.

This experience led her to create a program, "Building a Successful Life," for teens and young adults. She is hoping to get the program out to as many teens as she can reach.

"We need to emphasize to kids the possibilities in their lives," Mrs. Strauss says.

The women she worked with in detention told her this should be a mandatory class for everyone in jail. One woman wouldn't participate, but in the fourth session, she unloaded and talked about how the concepts had changed the way she saw herself, Mrs. Strauss says.

The benefits of her career change are that she is happy, she has flexibility, and she is doing exactly what she wants to do, she says.

Mrs. Strauss also says her daughters Stacy and 18-year-old Stephanie have benefited the most in relationship-building skills.

"I always make a point to go and connect," Mrs. Strauss says. "They have always been very open about sharing what goes on because I have worked hard to establish that communication."

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