Graduate Burns Down Barriers to a Non-traditional Career

Tammy Haywood and Jennifer Higgs

Tammy Haywood is not a traditional college student. She’s a 48-year-old mom working on a second career. She has seven children, although now most of them are grown and out of the house.

Tammy’s story is not unusual for someone from Montgomery County. She grew up in Star, dropped out of high school, earned her GED®, and then worked full-time in a mill. When the textile industry, for the most part, went overseas, Tammy was laid off.
Tammy went back to school to become a nursing assistant. She worked in home health care for awhile, worked as a parts store manager, and worked other part-time jobs, but her primary job was raising her seven children. Her husband is a full-time truck driver, and Tammy's jobs helped make ends meet. When the children grew up, she needed something more to occupy her time. One day, a friend invited her to take HVAC classes with him.

Barrier #1: Woman in a man’s environment
Tammy's friend was enrolled in Montgomery Community College’s HVAC program. Tammy was unsure at first. Could she go back to school after so many years? How would she fit into a class full of guys? With her husband's encouragement, she took a chance and enrolled. She enjoyed her first class so much that she decided to continue with the rest of the program.
“The HVAC Electricity class was a challenge, but Ed (HVAC instructor) was very encouraging and helped us when we needed it. Plus, I was completely comfortable around the guys,” Tammy said. “I think because of my age, they thought of me like the Mama of the class,” she said. Having raised four boys also helped.

Barrier #2: Physical nature of the work
Tammy's age wasn’t a factor in taking classes, but she did wonder about doing the work on the job. She put her fears to rest when the class began working on heating and air conditioning units in the HVAC lab and on projects off-site.
“The hands-on part of the class was wonderful. We changed fan motors, capacitors, and thermostats in the lab. We made duct and then crawled under houses to hook it up on job sites. We did preventive maintenance - all kinds of things,” Tammy said. “Being 48 years old didn’t stop me from pursuing an interest, and now I know I can do this,” she said.

Barrier #3: Technology
Not all HVAC work is physical, and the class used computer software to simulate and troubleshoot problems students would find on the job. Tammy said Ed worked with students one-on-one when necessary.
“We used simulators in class and I’m not a computer person. Ed was very encouraging and worked with me until I could do it,” she said.

Barrier #4: Finances
Tammy also got help and support paying for classes through Continuing Education reimbursement scholarships.
“When I went to Jessica Hamilton in the Continuing Education department, she helped me register for my classes and helped me apply for scholarships,” Tammy said. Most Continuing Education scholarships are awarded after students complete classes, so there was an initial investment to start.
Despite the barriers that could have prevented Tammy from pursuing her goals, it was her persistence that made the difference.
“My husband was my biggest supporter. He told me to keep my head up and keep going. I reached my goal and I went farther than I ever thought I would,” said Tammy.
Tammy has this advice for anyone considering a non-traditional career: “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something. You can do this. I did,” she said.
Tammy is now employed as an HVAC technician with Deese Electric Heating & Cooling in Albemarle and says she loves her job.

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