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A Laid Off Human Resources Director Changes Career Paths

Fifty-one-year-old Zephia Reese enjoyed a life-long career in the petroleum chemical industry in Houston, Texas. Even though she had not gone to college or obtained a degree, Reese was successful. She rose to high management levels in the human resources and safety departments at the companies she worked for.

But it never seemed like her success lasted for long. "A reoccurring theme in my career has been the training of my predecessor, and that's always irked me," said Reese.  "Throughout the years, because I haven't had a degree, it seems that once I've reached a pinnacle or a certain pay level, they'd bring in someone else to replace me and start over."

In May of 2009, Reese was working as a human resource director and had to lay off many people. Then it was her turn. "Once I was laid off and saw how bad the economy was I decided it would be a good time to finally get that degree," said Reese. 

Her decision would help her chart a new path in life. "When I started school I realized, 'I'm over 50 why would I want to train to go back to the same old grind?'  I've always worked 200 percent of my time.  I've had to schedule appointments to have family time.  I didn't want to do that anymore."

Realizing that she was now free to pursue any field of learning she desired, Reese met with Kaye Moon Winters, founder of San Jacinto College's "Never Too Late/Nunca Es Muy Tarde" program.  Winters helped Reese explore her options and map out the steps necessary to pursue her new dream.

"I've always loved literature and so I decided to switch my major from business. I'm now pursing a degree in English with a teaching certification," said Reese. "I'll be eligible for my Associates Degree at the end of this (2010) summer and will then move over to the University of Houston-Clearlake. I would never have had the courage to attend the University had it not been for taking that first step with San Jacinto College."

Despite her previous career success and experience, Reese says that at first it was daunting to walk into a room full of students that were young enough to be her grandchildren.

"I've even had quite a few classes where I'm much older than my professors," said Reese. "But to be honest, my age serves me well. I have a lot of experience under my belt so my perspective is usually a lot different than theirs. Students kind of look at me funny at the beginning of each semester, and then by the end they have a tendency to gravitate toward me."

One of Reese's biggest challenges with returning to school has been learning how to study. "My days of thinking I can just read something once and then go take a test are over," said Reese. "I'll admit it is very daunting to this day. But it is so rewarding to walk in and ace a test.  You just want to shout 'whioooo'! It's a wonderful feeling."

Reese hasn't been the only one who has made adjustments to her life with her return to school, but she says her family has adjusted well to her new path in life.

"At first my kids  (ages 25, 27 and 32) were like, 'Excuse me?' But they've adjusted really well to it.  They were used to me working really long hours anyhow.  It's been a bigger adjustment for my husband. He's had to take up golf again so he won't be so lonely."

Reese admits to having to make occasional sacrifices on her educational journey.  Recently, for example, while on a vacation with her family, she had to stay in the cabin and study for an Algebra test while her family went to play on the river. But Reese maintains the benefits far outweigh any sacrifices required.

When asked what she would tell someone considering going back to school, Reese replies without hesitation, "Don't consider going back to school, do it. It's really rewarding once you have some life experience because you know how to enjoy it and keep it all in perspective."