iWhat Works-i Recapturing an Interrupted Dream

Despite setbacks and a slew of crummy jobs, Kay Hughes go it together and followed her dream. Tom Terez tells her story, and reminds us that the time to realize your goals is now.

December 13, 2002
On a cold Ohio evening in March 1998, Kay Hughes walked across the campus ofColumbus State Community College, heading for her first class in highereducation. The walkways were filled with people, all of them starting a newquarter. But Kay felt different—about two decades different. She was 43 yearsold at the time, twice as old as most of her classmates.

Today, with just a few classes to go before she gets her degree in technicalcommunications, Kay could teach her own course on setting goals and takingaction. She’s the poster person for professional development. She even has thelooks and manner, with bookish glasses, brown hair styled in ready-to-workfashion, and a way of pausing before talking that conveys thoughtfulness. Herroller-coaster story is filled with lessons for anyone who wants to learn more,do more, and be more.

It all started 37 years ago with an assignment from her fifth-grade teacherat Eastgate Elementary School. "For homework, I want you to come up with astory using all your new spelling words," Mrs. Adams said. The kids groaned—exceptfor Kay. She hated the usual school favorites like gym, but she loved to write.The next day she proudly stood in front of the class and read her masterpiece.(Lesson #1: Know your deep interests and passions.)

Kay had a fairly typical entrance into the work world. She bussed tables at ahotel restaurant at 15. She served as a secretary at 16. She sold records at 17.Her earnings went for outings with high-school friends. Then all of a sudden,adulthood intervened. At 17, she had her first child and dropped out of school.She had a second child two years later. Bottles, diapers, and feedings filledthe daily routine; writing became a distant memory.

Deep down, Kay had a consuming ambition to continue her education. At 19, shefound time to take a few classes and soon passed the GED test. Theaccomplishment felt great. (Lesson #2: Have goals that are big enough to bemeaningful, yet small enough to be doable.)

For the next 23 years, Kay worked at all sorts of jobs. She installedelectrical outlets at construction sites. She served as the administrativemanager at a hospital for indigents and people with mental illness. She workedat an auditor’s office, balancing daily debits and credits for ageneral-relief welfare program. She sold Mary Kay cosmetics. She attendedcosmetology school, received a managing manicurist degree, and worked at fourbeauty salons. She served as a senior staff secretary at Wendy’sInternational.

It seemed like a lot of job-hopping, and it was. But along the way, Kay madea point of picking up every available life lesson. While at Wendy’s, forinstance, she was moved by the story of CEO Dave Thomas, who built his careerand founded the company with little more than a good idea and true grit. "Hewas a kind man and an average Joe," Kay says. "He didn’t receive his highschool diploma until the early 1990s. What I learned from him is that if youbelieve in yourself, if you really believe in yourself, nothing can deter you."(Lesson #3: Life is a school in itself. Show up and pay attention.)

Kay began to realize that to get a more fulfilling job, she needed to expandher knowledge and skills. And that meant going back to school to turn her loveof writing into a marketable skill.

Kay began to realize that to get a more fulfilling job, she needed to expandher knowledge and skills. And that meant going back to school to turn her loveof writing into a marketable skill. She started talking it up with her friendsand family, but many of them turned into what she calls Negative Nans andNegative Neds. "These are the people who want to hold you back," she says."They’re always saying, ‘It’s too late now. Just do your 9-to-5 and don’tworry about anything else.’" (Lesson #4: Be your own best advocate, becauseyou might be your only advocate.)

When looking for her next job, Kay took a different tack. Instead of simplypursuing a bigger paycheck, she sought a workplace that offered long-termopportunity and valued education and supported people who wanted to expand theirprofessional horizons. She found all three at the Ohio Environmental ProtectionAgency, and in 1998, she signed on as an office assistant.

Her job was, well, a job. For most of the workday, she took calls fromcitizens who had questions about the state’s auto-emissions inspectionprocess. Many of the calls involved complaints, and Kay soon felt like a verbalpunching bag. But the workplace had an exceptional benefit: a workforcedevelopment program, administered jointly by state government and the Ohio CivilService Employees Association, that would cover Kay’s tuition expense. She waseven able to tap the program for an interest-free computer loan. (Lesson #5: Don’tgo just anywhere. Find workplaces that will propel you toward your goals.)

Just two months after getting the job, Kay embarked on her first collegeexperience, beginning coursework toward a degree in technical writing. Shesensed that an important personal goal was within her grasp, and before long,she felt a lot like . . . Mary Tyler Moore. "You know that opening scene whereMary tosses her hat in the air? That was me. I felt like throwing my hat in theair and singing, ‘You’re Going to Make It After All.’"

A few months from now, she’ll be clutching a diploma and tossing hergraduation hat in celebration. And that takes us to the biggest lesson of all,the one about timing. Having gone to college at age 43, Kay has strong feelingsabout the best time to pursue your professional-development goals. "Now!"she says. "Do it now. Don’t keep putting it off."

Workforce, December 2002, pp. 24-26 -- Subscribe Now!