Change for the Better
The road to success has its share of unexpected detours, but as your stories of switching careers and majors make clear, Penn Staters find ways to adapt.
In the spring of 1967, I was about to graduate with a B.S. in food science. I had nearly completed four years of Air Force ROTC and had been accepted into their officers’ training program. I had also accepted an offer from the Carnation Company as a management trainee, which I was to start after officers’ training. My Air Force duty was to begin later that year.
Walking through the HUB one morning, I was attracted to the photos set up by a Peace Corps recruiting station. Two of the former volunteers there struck up a conversation, and I told them I’d meet them that evening for a beer to hear more about their experiences. We met, and 24 hours later I decided to apply. Understandably, my ROTC commanding officer wasn’t very happy.
On Oct. 17, I left for Hawaii for training as part of the first group of Peace Corps volunteers to Fiji. I completed my service in January 1970, and Carnation held my job until the end of the year. Toward the end of that year, I wrote a letter to my boss there, thanking him but telling him that I would be moving to Hawaii. I accepted a job with a retail chain in their management training program. In 2006, I retired after 33 years with them—a great company and a very rewarding career.
Robert Firestone ’67 Agr
Pearl City, Hawaii
I was a psychology major in 2012 when I started at Penn State Harrisburg as a transfer student. I had a demanding career in retail management, and I wasn’t able to keep up with in-person classes, so I withdrew and continued down the retail path. Seven years and two layoffs later, I needed a change. I enrolled at World Campus, switching my major to security and risk analysis with a concentration in cybersecurity. My second semester coincided with COVID-19 lockdowns, so I doubled up my class load to get it done while the world had stopped. I completed two and a half years’ worth of credits in just under two years. One month after graduation, I was hired as a security operations center analyst. I have since been promoted to lead SOC analyst, heading up a team of six gifted security analysts and technicians. My work-life balance has improved tenfold since the career switch.
Curtis McPherson ’21 IST WC
When I enrolled in the Division of Undergraduate Studies as a freshman in 1988, I had no idea just how undecided I was. Once sophomore year rolled around, I thought I’d give the College of Business a try. That fall, I learned that I hated econ, accounting, and finance. So, back to DUS I went in the spring of ’90, and I couldn’t have felt more at home among the undecided. However, I had 15 weeks to figure out my future before course selection for junior year.
I had no idea what I wanted to do as my life’s work. I thought of the classes I had taken that really piqued my interest, as well as the things that have consistently held my attention outside of school. Over and over, I came back to the fact that I’ve always watched a hell of a lot of TV, especially sports. So I became a broadcast/cable major in the School of Communications and devoted all of those business credits toward a minor.
Two weeks after graduation, I moved to Atlanta for an internship at CNN/Turner Sports, which led to 20-plus years as a video editor and, eventually, as a writer/producer with CNN Creative Marketing and On-Air Promotion.
Jason Lipton ’92 Com
Penn State’s College of Engineering was my dream. Math and science were easy for me, and I knew engineers made good money. But I also knew several engineers who no longer loved the field, and I could see myself there in a decade.
The church had always been important in my life. My grandfather was a pastor, and the ministry of the Lutheran Student Parish at University Park was instrumental in getting me through some difficult times. I wanted to be able to help people like they did. So, in my junior year, I switched to religious studies. I needed more liberal arts credits, and I had to take a foreign language. I flunked French spectacularly; I was so pathetic that the French Interest House in East Halls took me on as a project. (I didn’t mind; it was an all-female dorm.)
After graduating, I went through a master’s program at Lutheran Theological Seminary, and became a U.S. Army chaplain three years after ordination. My greatest accomplishment in the Army was the development of what became the suicide prevention and intervention program for the Army in Europe. I started in this field by working a suicide hotline while at Penn State!
Craig A. Lantz ’73 Lib
I graduated in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics. My professor, Arnold Shapiro, taught me actuarial science. I passed five of the actuary exams, worked for two pension plan consulting firms—and then left the field after five years to become a mathematics teacher. I’ve been teaching for 26 years now, mostly at Ridgewood High School in Ridgewood, N.J.
Susan Sekella ’87 Sci
Architectural engineering was my goal, but I ran into a bit of trouble with Math 141 (Calculus II)—both times I took it. Those were the first F’s I’d ever gotten. When a friend in HRIM invited me to his team’s lunch, I thought, There’s a major where you can take a lunch class, a dinner class, and a booze class (once you were 21)? Done.
I worked in restaurants and hotels for about eight years, all while volunteering for Penn State’s Undergraduate Admissions Office in Virginia. When they decided to create a regional recruiter position in the D.C. area, I was chosen to fill that role. After a few years there, I moved to University Park and worked on campus visits—which sort of brought me back to hospitality. But the real change came in 2014, when the university purchased a new student information system and I moved into Information Technology as a business analyst and project manager with LionPATH development and maintenance. That might seem far from engineering or hospitality, but my foundational education at Penn State allowed me to learn how to read situations, think critically and creatively, and adapt.
Lynn Koehler Yingling ’96 H&HD
I graduated in June of 1973 with a B.A. in journalism. Over the next few months I landed several job interviews with newspapers but received zero job offers. So I joined the Navy and entered their nuclear power program. In those six years, I learned how to operate nuclear reactors and electrical power systems. After my discharge, I spent 24 years doing the same job at a civilian power plant. So instead of spending my career worrying about article deadlines and editorial choices, I spent 30 years working on reactor theory, physics, chemistry, calculus, and power generation. Not exactly what I expected to be doing with a liberal arts degree.
Tom Witt ’73 Com
I was an administration of justice major, but like many other grads, I had little idea of where I wanted to go with my degree. I joined a financial institution as a security specialist, eventually becoming a vice president of risk management. After 18 years in banking, I’d had enough. I was at a crossroads. And we were in the beginning of a pandemic.
My wife suggested I become a consultant. Then I received a call about franchising, and the more I listened, the more intrigued I became. I researched different types of businesses, and the franchise that caught my eye was The Junkluggers, a junk hauling business. I looked at the financials and found they were successful during the pandemic. I liked their mission of donating, recycling, and upcycling before taking items to the dump, and that they were big on community service. I invested and have been successfully operating since March 2022. I’ve never been so happy about a career decision.
Jack DaSilva ’95 Lib
I began as an English major and stuck with it. My goal was to go on to grad school at Penn State—I’d been accepted into the English program—and then either work for a magazine or teach at the college level. But I graduated early and instead took a substitute teaching job. My parents were livid when I opted out of grad school.
I taught high school English for two years—and then made a total career switch by applying for a job as a trainee with an insurance company. I spent the rest of my career working for that company. Ironically, late in my career I moved from the position of underwriting supervisor in the commercial insurance department to instructor in the training department, teaching commercial insurance underwriting to our employees from all over the country. I never regretted being an English major, having developed my skills at verbal and written communication.
Sherry W. Sauerwine ’69 Lib
I majored in accounting with the intention of going to law school. I went so far as to take the LSAT and did well enough, but I could not shake the call to pastoral ministry I had sensed since I was 14 years old.
Young women didn’t pursue that path lightly at the time, but in the fall of my senior year, I applied to seminary and was accepted. I finished my bachelor’s degree in accounting, then completed a master of divinity degree. I got a call to be pastor of a congregation and served for 39 years until I retired from active ministry.
Earning my business degree was demanding, and the discipline I learned from that served me well in my seminary studies. The business degree also served me well as pastor of a church and in governing bodies of the church, particularly as a woman. It gave me credibility with the trustees, many of whom were men in the early years. It also prepared me for the administrative work of the church—work that is easily overlooked when done well but can lead to chaos when it is not. I am grateful to Penn State for the education I received there.
Mary Marks King ’76 Bus
I enjoyed drawing building plans and just knew I was born to be an architect, another Frank Lloyd Wright traveling the globe designing awe-inspiring buildings. But halfway through freshman year, my dreams collided with the reality of all-nighters in the studio, intricate model building, and math. Once my GPA recovered, I switched my major to geography. My original plan was to work in urban/city planning. In fact, I interned at the Allegheny County Planning Commission in Pittsburgh the summer between my junior and senior years. But I was hired by the CIA right out of Penn State and instead embarked on a 35-year career there. I started during the height of the Cold War, saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and the demise of the Soviet Union, the rise of global terrorism, and the increasing importance of environmental and energy issues. Even though no buildings have my name on them, I had a great and fulfilling career, helped protect our country, and still got to travel all over the globe!
Tom Bright ’82 EMS
I graduated in 2022 after changing my major nine times. Five colleges, nine majors—hospitality, business, security and risk analysis, advertising, political science, you name it and I probably majored in it. I am an absolute master of What-if reports, DUS Advising, and LionPATH. Whenever I tell people that I changed my major nine times, they look at me like I am crazy. And maybe I am, but I also learned a lot through my years of indecision and anxiety. Being in so many different types of classes truly gave me a well-rounded education.
I used to be embarrassed by my lack of knowing what I wanted to do. I finally landed in Human Development and Family Studies—one of the best things to ever happen to me. Now I am a full-time Catholic missionary with FOCUS at West Virginia University. In HDFS, there was a lot of talk about the “helping hearts” of our students, and that is my whole job—to bring authentic friendship, joy, and the hope and formation of faith to them. On a more practical note, communication, organization, leadership, and people skills are heavily emphasized in the HDFS major, and that is the majority of my job. HDFS prepared me so well.
Mary Burke ’22 H&HD
My Penn State application listed my major as architectural engineering, but during my first meeting with my adviser, he explained I was placed in the College of Engineering and it was too late to pursue architectural engineering. Sadly, I accepted his “fact” and enrolled in civil engineering. I would build bridges, roads, and dams, not buildings. But by my second year it was obvious civil engineering was not for me. I spent the next two years switching to accounting, then mineral economics, and finally graduated with a degree in mining engineering. My journey covered five years and five majors, and 25 surplus credits.
My first job was in coal mine health and safety, and it felt right since I had a grandfather and uncle killed in mine explosions. But I was still interested in construction, so I invested in several rental properties. I started doing renovations, expanded my business, and eventually left the mining field in favor of remodeling and renovating distressed properties.
I think that five years and 25 surplus credits could have gotten me that architectural engineering degree. But I feel very good about the roads taken—and an extra year at Penn State was a bonus. Today, architectural engineering is a five-year program in the College of Engineering. Seems I was just 55 years too early.
John Kost ’72 EMS
In 1970 I was a first-year engineering student, Eagle Scout, and actual Norman Rockwell model, and in high school I had given a pro-war speech. But two weeks after Kent State, I was appalled to find my campus in chaos. I soon found myself volunteering to speak to the University Faculty Senate. My message was simple: Both sides needed to take a step back, lower the volume, and talk to one another. I typed my speech, put on my three-piece suit, and arrived at the packed meeting in The Forum just as the last speaker was sitting down.
I began, “My name is Steve Disenhof. I’m a third-term engineering student and am speaking on behalf of the Student Strike Committee.” The laughter started in front of me, in a row of men dressed in ROTC uniforms. It quickly enveloped the room, with all heads clearly turning to one man whose face had turned apoplectic, with eyes full of daggers directed at me. After my speech, I asked, “Who was that?!” A colleague said, “That was the dean of engineering, the speaker before you. He’d declared the strike was being run by liberal arts grad students and none of his engineers would have anything to do with it.” Two weeks later I was a social welfare and psychology double major.
Steve Disenhof ’73 Lib, ’73 Lib
San Francisco, Calif.
I was accepted to University Park as a chemical engineering major, but by sophomore year I was bored with chemistry and engineering in general. I switched to the Division of Undergraduate Studies and loved that; I took all kinds of courses in biology, agriculture, geology, meteorology, and oceanography that looked interesting. Midway through my junior year, I had plenty of credits but no major; then I found Environmental Resource Management. All of my accumulated credits counted, and I needed only a few courses to finish my degree. A month before I graduated, I accepted a job with a consultant engineer who was starting a practice in California, and I moved the week after commencement. I did that for four years before moving into project and business management roles with GE and then Siemens.
Chip Williams ’77 Agr
Morgan Hill, Calif.
My wife and I both changed majors and careers. I majored in history, earning a B.A., M.Ed., and Ph.D., and began teaching as an adjunct. But living as an adjunct is not a long-term plan, so I did another master’s in educational leadership and spent 30 years as a school superintendent on Long Island.
My wife, Marilyn Williams Price ’66 Edu, ’71 MEd Sci, did her undergraduate and master’s work in botany. She was working on a Ph.D. when her adviser left the university. Since they were doing joint research, she gave up the program and became a researcher at Materials Research Lab working on a grant from the Navy. After we moved to N.Y., she completed an MBA and retired as a vice president at Goldman Sachs Investment Bankers.
You never know where life will take you, but our time at Penn State served us well as we made career changes.
Edward Price ’66 Edu, ’69 MA, ’73 PhD Lib
Cold Spring Harbor, N.Y.
I began my freshman year in chemical engineering, but a fatal weakness in calculus convinced me I needed to try something else. I switched to geological sciences but gradually became disillusioned with geology as well. I noticed, though, that in the writing courses that all technical students had to take (and generally seemed to dislike), I excelled. So in my senior year I concentrated on electives in science writing and spent an extra term taking a graduate-level technical writing course that the English department had just established. After graduation I went to work for a major computer corporation as a technical writer and publications planner, and spent a very enjoyable 35 years in that capacity.
Dave Owens ’66 EMS
With a love of language and a dream to be a reporter, I never questioned that I’d major in English. Upon graduation, I went to Taiwan to hone the Mandarin learned in three years of electives and to offer up my clippings from the Collegian to gain a toehold in journalism. After a year on the island, I returned to the States, landing reporting jobs at newspapers in Virginia and New Jersey, where I covered every beat from cops to local government.
Journalism educated me in the ways of the world, but after more than a decade, it was myself I yearned to understand better. Why did I behave as I did, and could I change, if I wanted to? I hadn’t taken even one psychology class at Penn State, but I made up for that in my off-hours, enrolling in psychology courses at local colleges. I sensed I had found a new calling, and soon I was sending applications to clinical psychology programs. I had just turned 35 when Hofstra University offered me a slot. I’ve been licensed now for 22 years, working in private practice mostly with older people and veterans.
I am always learning and striving to help others, and I can’t imagine a more suitable career path. If circumstances allow, I’ll never retire!
Eve Markowitz Preston ’78 Lib
New York City
My first chosen career was teaching. However, in the spring of 2020, during the height of the pandemic and just before my fifth year of teaching, I decided to go back to school. I began working toward my certificate in geographic information sciences (GIS) at Penn State while teaching remotely and living the life of a digital nomad. I earned my certificate and my master’s in spatial data science. When the 2021 school year ended, I jumped straight into my current job as a GIS analyst. I look forward to seeing where else my career switch will take me!
Brittany Luke ’20, ’22 MS EMS
When I came to Penn State, I loved math, and I loved theater. Math won out. I majored in quantitative business analysis, affectionately known as QBA, but I wasn’t exactly sure what I could do with that major. After three years in human resources and employee relations, I went back to school for a degree in arts administration. This time, theater won out: In August, I’ll celebrate 25 years as the sole proprietor of Center Stage Marketing, working with Broadway tours and regional theaters as a marketing and press rep. When I applied to my MBA program, George Heitmann, my former QBA professor, provided a letter of recommendation. Upon my acceptance to the program, he shared (with a wink) that he looked forward to excellent seats at future productions. In 2013, I worked on the pre-Broadway tryout of If/Then and invited Dr. Heitmann to the show—a musical about probabilities, of all things. It was a delightful full-circle moment!
Deb Fiscella ’85 Bus
In 1968 I was deciding between majoring in art or science. When my father, Robert Stewart Bell ’63 Edu, suggested that I “look into computers,” I envisioned boxes of punch cards and big machines in the basement of Old Main. That was not appealing. Ultimately, my decision was influenced largely by the times. After all, it was the Age of Aquarius. However, I did choose one of the more “scientific” artistic mediums as my field of study: ceramics. After receiving my BFA, I earned an MFA at Michigan State. While searching for a teaching position, I took a temporary typing job in a hospital billing department. We used a computer terminal that was more like a floor-standing printer with a keyboard. We typed commands and queries, and the results were printed on green-bar paper.
A few years later, I took a one-night adult education BASIC programming class. I was hooked the first time I typed “PRINT HELLO” and my CRT screen was filled with the word “HELLO.” One thing led to another and eventually I became a programmer/analyst. In my 40-plus-year career I rarely mentioned my college major, but when I did, most of my colleagues were stunned. Dare I say, father knew best?
Susan Bell Stimpfle ’72 A&A
Like many small-town Pennsylvania kids in the late ’70s, I loved science and math, so mechanical engineering seemed like a good choice. But after graduating in 1985, engineering just wasn’t doing it for me. With many family members in medicine, I “abandoned” engineering (my family’s words—no guilt there…) to pursue a career in medicine. After medical school and dental school, followed by surgical residencies and fellowships, I started practicing medicine in 1999. I now practice craniofacial /maxillofacial surgery at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. I still use computer-aided design daily to plan facial surgeries, and we utilize computer-aided manufacturing to make implantable devices that allow far more precise results than even 10 years ago. So, engineering remains the central element of my practice in many ways. My engineering education is my “secret sauce” in terms of the way I approach patient care.
Christopher Viozzi ’85 Eng
As a 17-year-old at University Park, I had no idea what I wanted to study. I listened to others at first who said, “You should pursue business. You’ll make a lot of money.” As a sophomore, I was proud of the success I had in my business classes, but I was not happy. This was confirmed when I went to the College of Business career day at the HUB. I thought to myself, These are not my people.
Fortunately, I learned of an opportunity to volunteer at Park Forest Elementary School to see what teaching was all about. I loved it! I immediately changed my major and have often wondered if I am one of very few Penn State graduates with an elementary and kindergarten education major and business minor. After earning a master’s in counseling, I enrolled in the principal certification program at Penn State Great Valley. I had outstanding professors, the best being Diane Bechtold, who taught me: “When making decisions as a principal, close your eyes and picture the child you love the most. Make decisions with that child in mind.” I am currently in my 30th year in public education and serving as high school principal in a wonderful district with fantastic students, staff, and families. I can’t imagine a more rewarding career.
Heidi Rehm Capetola ’92 Edu
I wanted nothing better than to follow in my father’s, mother’s, and eldest brother’s footsteps with a career in chemistry, and I graduated with a bachelor’s in polymer science. My first career had me working in materials analysis and injection molding. After 20 years I became restless and considered becoming a chemistry teacher. I shadowed a few high school teachers but was intimidated by all those exuberant students and decided nursing might be a better option.
Memories from my second Penn State journey include: being required to take Freshman Seminar at age 43 to learn how to manage credit card debt; hearing a fellow nursing student in a geriatrics class say, “I never want to get old” (ha!); attending volleyball and wrestling matches for free with my student ID; and spending lots of time studying in Pattee and Paterno libraries. I earned a master’s in nursing with a certification as an adult nurse practitioner in 2010 and have been in a challenging and rewarding second career serving older adults in the Veterans Administration, nursing homes, and now in a nephrology clinic. From plastics to people, I was well served by a great education at Penn State.
Kathryn Ann Wilt ’82 EMS, ’08 H&HD, ’10 MS Nur
Kure Beach, N.C.
I graduated from Penn State as an aerospace engineer: yep, a rocket scientist. My dream was to design the next generation of fighter aircraft. Well, that wasn’t in the cards, as I found my calling in product management for IBM. But all the problem-solving and critical thinking skills I have come from my engineering degree. Thanks, Penn State.
Ahmed Osman ’92 Eng
I arrived wanting to study architecture in September 1961. That thought crumbled by the end of my first year. I floundered until my junior year, when I switched to history and took whatever classes were available in Asian studies. Upon graduation, the Vietnam War intervened, and I entered the Navy. While on R&R in Hong Kong in 1966, I fell in love with China and thought seriously of studying for a master’s in Chinese history/political science. But I stayed in the Navy for six years, then ended up with a 35-year career as a worldwide bunker broker (brokering/trading fuel for ships’ main engines). I owned a number of companies within the industry. There is no obvious correlation between the beginning of my studies and the resulting career, but my liberal arts education at Penn State kept me in good stead through all of the twists and turns of my life.
Ernest Janssen ’65 Lib
Colts Neck, N.J.