Career transitions are never easy, but the days of working for one company—and even in one field—are long gone. In fact, as our alumni can attest, change can inspire new, invigorating challenges and lead to previously unimagined opportunities.
Forging New Paths
Amelia Plunk, Career Launcher
As a standout PhD student in Northwestern’s materials science program, Amelia Plunk always knew science liked her. But after two unfulfilling years working in labs, she was beginning to wonder how much she liked science.
“I wasn’t getting into the research,” Plunk recalled of those years, beginning in 2012. “I was generally miserable, and I felt like I had lost direction in where I wanted to go.”
Then she started a gig as a teaching assistant and found she preferred the classroom to the laboratory.
“All of a sudden, life was so much better,” said Plunk, who enjoyed running workshops and homework sessions. “What I really love is sharing science, and helping people come up with their own answers and understanding.”
With the help of a supportive materials science adviser, Plunk decided in 2015 to make the switch to SESP’s Master’s of Science in Education program, a move she said felt like “a coming-out process.”
Plunk, now a student teacher in the physics department of Evanston Township High School, felt the difference immediately.
“In the last six months, I’ve learned more about science than I did in a PhD program,” Plunk said. “I feel free to explore, as opposed to having to fit into a narrow set of PhD knowledge.”
She believes her current path will help make her a strong role model for girls as a “female physics person.” She hopes to teach honors physics at a high school somewhere in the Midwest.
“I always thought my only path was a PhD program,” said Plunk, who is on track to graduate this summer. “I’m so thankful I found another option.”
David Sanchez , Career Launcher
Growing up, David Sanchez didn’t talk about his stutter with anyone, not even his parents. Stuttering made him anxious and self-conscious. It was a problem that needed fixing.
But after his freshman year at Northwestern, Sanchez spent nine months backpacking alone around the U.S. The journey challenged Sanchez to talk to strangers—taking him out of his comfort zone—and stirred up something larger: a desire to live more openly with his stutter. “I was still stuttering when I came back, and I was still anxious; I hadn’t met my goals,” Sanchez said. “But for the first time, I wasn’t willing to keep it all inside.”
The 23-year-old Sanchez, on track to get his degree in learning and organizational change, is now an integral part of the community and is building much-needed support for children. In addition to working as programming director for The Stuttering Association for the Young’s (SAY) Camp SAY, a New York-based summer camp for kids and teens who stutter, Sanchez also is launching the first SAY chapter in Chicago and the Midwest, providing children with the type of role models he never had.
“There is virtually nothing in terms of support for kids in Chicago,” said speech-language pathologist Katie Gore, who runs a support group for adults and worked with Sanchez during his SESP practicum. “If I could have custom-ordered him, he could not have been a better fit. He really can connect and relate to kids.”
In 2014, after Sanchez returned to Northwestern from his travels, he worked as a counselor and basketball coach for preteen boys at Camp SAY, a summer that changed his life.
“Training at Camp SAY was an emotional roller coaster when it came to stuttering,” Sanchez said. “But when the kids came, it was amazing how little I talked to them about stuttering. That’s the power of camp. Being able to be cool with who you are and where you are.”
In Chicago, Sanchez has organized outings with children who stutter. So far, the group ice skated in Millennium Park, cheered on the Chicago White Sox, and lost themselves in a corn maze.
After the corn maze event, a 9-year-old girl sent her mom a text. “I wanted him to stutter more, and it made me feel proud to stutter,” she wrote.
The girl’s words melted Sanchez’s heart and affirmed the direction his life has taken. “I hope it will be the first of many things that blow her mind,” said Sanchez. “That’s what excites me.”
April Bowman, Career Changer
April Bowman (MS12), the first in her family to graduate from college, landed her dream job when she was hired as the first director of Alumni Programs at Uplift Education, the largest charter school network in North Texas.
There, and through her volunteerism, she often talked to groups of underserved youth about going to college. But she often found herself gazing into a sea of blank stares.
“Having once been one of them, I knew I could do better,” Bowman said. “Talking to young people about how to get into college does not motivate them. So I said, ‘Let’s talk about your dreams. What kind of life do you want? What legacy will you leave?’ That’s what gets their wheels turning.”
By the summer of 2016, Bowman was thinking about her own legacy, so she founded Bold Believers United, a youth empowerment organi- zation, which recently signed a consulting contract with a Pennsylvania school system. In five years, she hopes Bold Believers United will impact lives around the globe through education as well as ministry.
“It became a bit unsettling that I was doing really great work at Uplift, but I wasn’t reaching the peak of what I know I’m meant to contribute to the world,” Bowman said.
Of leaving a secure, fulfilling career for the risks of an entrepreneurial life? Bowman has no regrets.
“Most people are on the hamster wheel of life,” she said. “I refuse to live life just going through the motions and settling for the status quo. I am on a mission towards finding my higher purpose and liberating others to do the same. That is how we change the world for the better.”
Alexandra Sims, Career Changer
Every year, Alexandra Sims (BS10) and her family travel to the Buckingham, Va., plantation where, several generations ago, her relatives toiled as slaves.
“It’s an important reminder of where I came from,” Sims said of the pilgrimage, which can include up to 300 cousins, aunts and uncles.
The trips helped the 28-year-old Sims, a senior adviser to Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers, realize the difference an education can make in the life of a young African-American like herself. Using her past as inspiration, she first threw herself into grassroots organizing and politics before segueing into her job with Summers as director of inter-governmental affairs and programs.
“Around age 13, I realized my life was not like my cousins’,” said Sims, whose grandfather was the first in his family to go to college and whose father is an executive at Ford Motor Co. in Detroit.
Inspired by former President Barack Obama’s education policies, Sims headed his 2012 campaign’s Missouri region re-election effort after receiving her degree in social policy. That’s when she more fully recognized the importance of voting rights, which led to a job as executive director of a group that promoted voting equality.
But then another transition loomed. Realizing that “economic equality is everything,” Sims volunteered for Summers’ 2015 campaign for city treasurer. She believed the candidate had the right combination of investment smarts and compassion for underserved communities.
In the two years with Summers, the office has not only doubled the city’s revenue through savvy investments, but pushed for a transparency- in-lending policy 30 years in the making, Sims said.
Under the new ordinance, neighborhood banks must reveal to the treasurer’s office whether they are investing in local small businesses and homeowners. The loans, Sims said, boost a community’s stability and economic health.
Despite the accomplishments, Sims remains restless for the next move.
“My strength is moving the conversation forward,” said Sims, who hints she’s interested in pursuing political consulting for an issue-oriented campaign. “I can see myself transitioning again soon.”