Forging a New Career Path

By Beacon Staff

Being a seasonal employee has its drawbacks, primarily surviving the financial pinch of the offseason.

Becca Wheeler spent six years clearing trail and breaking a sweat in the mountains. Spending her summers in the outdoors was everything she had hoped for when she moved here after college in Minnesota.

But the challenges of seasonal work persisted.

So Wheeler decided to take a risk and forge a new sustainable career path.

“It was probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve had to make, leaving an ideal live-outside-kind-of-job,” she said. “But I was also at a point where I knew I had more to offer and wanted to be more involved in the community.”

Wheeler’s situation was similar to many nontraditional students who decide on a career change by enrolling at Flathead Valley Community College. The college has in recent years added programs and degrees in specific fields that are in high demand locally, like nursing, welding and web technology.

Wheeler, in her late 20s when she enrolled in Kalispell, already had two bachelor’s degrees — in history and anthropology. But looking at the valley’s economic landscape, she saw most businesses were seeking employees with computer skills. In fact, several local companies were outsourcing jobs to other places where trained workers could be found.

Why not her?

“I looked at all the skills you need — computer skills, web technology skills — and I said, ‘OK I need to learn how to do those if that’s the kind of work I want to get into,’” Wheeler said. “That was one of the reasons why I came to FVCC is because I knew I wanted to stay around here.”

She signed up for the school’s unique graphic design program, which integrates traditional visual arts education with current technology.

Following the advice of program advisor Dawn Rauscher, Wheeler also took web technology, which dives headfirst into the complex world of code writing and computer technology systems.

At first, it all seemed like a foreign language.

“It was very challenging. But you sit down long enough and some things start to make sense,” she said.

For the last two years she has pursued two associate degrees, taking five classes a semester as well as summer courses.
As part of the college’s curriculum, she took an internship at a business in the valley, putting her new skills to the test outside the classroom.

That same company had a job waiting for Wheeler when she graduated last Friday.

“I’m excited to be done with homework and just focus on doing it now,” she said last week.

She expressed gratitude for Rauscher and the other staff who helped her make this big transition possible, and who allowed her to explore the mountains while making a year-round living in the Flathead.

“Now I get to go hiking where I want to instead of being told where to go,” she said.

The 46th class in the history of Flathead Valley Community College celebrated its graduation last week. In an exciting and emotional commencement ceremony, a total of 422 graduates took the stage at the Flathead County Fairgrounds to accept their diplomas and toss their caps into the air. There were 365 associate degrees and 66 certificates awarded to those who completed the summer and fall of 2013 and spring 2014 semesters.

The latest class of local graduates was as diversified as it was determined. It featured nurses and entrepreneurs, welders and foresters — all rooted in their motivation to pursue higher education and expand their abilities two years ago in the wake of the recession.

Here are four graduates emerging from FVCC with exemplary stories to share.

Jonathan McKeffick: Sparking a Bright Future

Becca Wheeler: Forging a New Career Path

Hannah Brinton: The Final Bow

Ryan Pitts: From the Firehouse to the Classroom

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