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Chapter Two

Returning to School for a Second Career

Story by
Nancy Joseph

From an early age, Idalia Diaz seemed destined for a law career. She loved the art of debate. She was intrigued by rules and structures. She was driven. She earned a law degree from Harvard University and became a successful attorney. 

So why is Diaz back in school 16 years later, working toward a degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences at the UW? 

“Life got in the way,” she says with a shrug. 

Idalia Diaz

Idalia Diaz

It certainly did. First Diaz discovered that her second child has Asperger’s syndrome, a form of higher-functioning autism. She began dedicating many hours each day to working with him. Then the unthinkable happened: she suffered a stroke. Her ability to communicate and her memory were significantly affected. 

Diaz’s ordeal has led her down a new path, toward a career in speech pathology. Given her own recent struggles with language, she believes she can help others facing similar challenges. That belief brought her back to school. 

As an older UW student preparing for a second career, Diaz is in good company. A surprising number of students come to the University with similar goals. They’ve switched from computer to drama, from medicine to English, from firefighting to teaching. Their reasons vary, but at some point each asked the question, “What do I want to do with the rest of my life?”

Picking Up the Pieces and Moving On

Diaz thought she knew how her life would unfold. After graduating from Harvard Law, she joined a large law firm in Connecticut with a substantial health care practice. She left full-time practice to return to school—this time Columbia University—to earn a master’s in public health. “I felt that in order to fully represent health care organizations, I needed more of a background in health administration,” she explains. With her multiple degrees, she joined another large firm in New York. 

Then came her son’s diagnosis with Asperger’s syndrome and her debilitating stroke. 

“The stroke was caused by a benign tumor in a bad place,” she explains. “I was in pretty bad shape. My speech has slowly improved, but I still have memory problems and difficulty with word retrieval. I have spent a lot of the last two years trying to re-input vocabulary.” 

Diaz credits her father with speeding up her rehabilitation. “He was retired and I became his focus,” she says with a laugh. “He kept on pushing me. I’m really where I am today because of my dad.” 

After the stroke, Diaz—still determined to return to law—attended many bar courses. That’s when she realized law was no longer an option. “With my memory and speech problems, it would be very difficult to go back to litigation,” she says. “I don’t think I would be able to live with not measuring up to what I was before.” 

But Diaz knew she wanted a career. And she wanted it to be as compelling as her previous one. She soon realized that speech pathology was the perfect choice. “Having been through what I’ve been through, I understand the frustration that comes with the loss of communication skills,” she says. “I think I can be helpful to others in that way.” 

But first Diaz must finish school and earn her degrees. What came easily at Harvard and Columbia is now a challenge. “Studying is a new experience,” she says. “I have to find ways to accommodate for my losses. I take notes, rewrite them, review them, tape them, and listen to them over and over in the hope that using most of my senses will help me remember the information. I’m hoping, in time, more memory pathways will develop.” 

It helps that her department has an acute understanding of her challenges. “Speech and Hearing is a very special place,” she says. “The people here not only work well together but are very intuitive. They are supportive, yet they allow me the room to figure out how to accomplish this goal. Of all the schools I’ve been to, this is the first one that really lives up to its reputation. I feel very lucky to be here.” 

Although Diaz would not wish her recent travails on anyone, she insists that there is a silver lining. “I consider myself blessed, because a lot of good things have come of this,” she says. “It has helped me to better understand my son and the challenges he faces. And it has led me to a field that I probably should have considered in the first place. Experiences like this give you a completely different perspective about life.” 

From Firehouse to Schoolhouse 

Like Diaz, Byron Braden’s first career was cut short due to an injury. But that’s where the similarity ends. 

Braden was at the UW in the early 1970s, studying history. After three years, he decided to call it quits. “I just wasn’t happy as a student,” he recalls. “I needed to be in the real world for a while. I needed to get my hands dirty.” 

Byron Braden during his firefighting days.

Byron Braden during his firefighting days.

A fire near Braden’s University District apartment led him to join the Seattle Fire Department, where he remained for the next 25 years. “I watched the firefighters working and it got me thinking,” he says. “I liked that fire fighting is very hands-on and there are clear results. I also liked the idea of being part of a team.” 

Braden first worked as a firefighter in downtown Seattle, then became a lieutenant with various neighborhood assignments. He later served as a captain, battalion chief, and chief of communications. He ended his career as the Department’s chief of training. 

After so many years, did fighting fires begin to feel routine? “Not at all,” says Braden. “A good firefighter never gets complacent. You shouldn’t. You can’t. Because all fires are different and every one is dangerous.”

While Braden never grew tired of his work, his body did. He injured his back in the late 1980s, and his condition continued to worsen. In 1998, he decided it was time to retire. “Firefighting is hard on the body,” he says. “It’s a young person’s job.” 

After retiring, Braden called the UW and was surprised to learn that the credits he had earned years earlier were still good. “That made up my mind,” he recalls. “I decided to return to the University to finish my history degree. I wanted to keep my mind active and see what might be next for me.” 

The second time around, Braden savored being at the UW. He took only a few courses each quarter, mostly in modern European and American history. “I was writing my own tuition checks this time around,” he says, “so I was getting every dime’s worth out of every class.” 

It was during one of those Department of History classes that Braden realized he might enjoy teaching, much as he enjoyed serving as a trainer for the Seattle Fire Department. One month after earning his B.A. in history—and watching his daughter graduate from high school—he entered the master’s program in the UW College of Education. He is now student teaching at Skyview Junior High School in Bothell. 

“I’m teaching seventh graders,” says Braden. “I have two teenage daughters, so I have some exposure to adolescents. But dealing with a large group of them is quite an experience. At that age they are becoming little adults, but at different rates and in different ways. That has impressed me.” 

Braden is eager to graduate and apply for teaching jobs in 2002. “I feel really good about it,” he says. “I can understand how a young person could hesitate to become a public school teacher, because the jobs don’t pay very much. But with my pension that’s not really an issue. I can do it because I want to. This has been a great opportunity for me.” 

Making Music a Priority 

Beth Antonopulos is also pursuing a career with low pay and little security: performing and teaching oboe. And she gave up a plum position as a NASA engineer to do it. 

Beth Antonopulos

Beth Antonopulos.

Antonopulos began playing the oboe and English horn in junior high school. She was quickly hooked, especially after performing with a large orchestra at a music festival in high school. 

“The sheer thrill of being part of that—of everyone working together—was not just an intellectual thrill but also a physical thrill,” Antonopulos recalls. “The feeling is like nothing else. It’s much like the euphoria an athlete feels.” 

She began thinking seriously about a career in music. But she also excelled in math and science. When it came time to choose a college, science won out. 

“I got a great deal of encouragement for doing well in the sciences,” she says. “The message I was getting from people was that I could still do music on the side. There was no reason I couldn’t do both.” 

She would later learn otherwise. After earning her B.S. at the University of Colorado, she spent four years as an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Space Center, designing a workstation that would gather and rapidly analyze data from a space satellite. She also was a team member on larger projects. As her responsibilities increased, she had less and less time for music. 

“I found I couldn’t keep playing at the level I had previously achieved—let alone improve—while doing my job,” she says. “It was a frustrating situation.”

Antonopulos explains that oboe is particularly difficult to master on a part-time basis because of the reeds required. “Everyone else takes their instrument out of the case and plays,” she says, “but instruments like bassoon and oboe use double reeds, which must be handmade by the player. As an oboist you can’t practice, let alone rehearse or play, without making reeds, and you are limited as a performer unless you continue to improve as a reed maker. I couldn’t keep up with that and my work at Goddard too. I decided oboe was not worth doing unless I could do it at a certain level.” 

Antonopulos left NASA and headed to Missoula, Montana to earn a bachelor’s degree in music at the University of Montana. When her husband started medical school at the UW, she entered the graduate program in the School of Music, working a variety of part-time jobs to pay for her education. The jobs have included developing database applications for the School of Music, giving private oboe lessons, and teaching at the Seattle Conservatory of Music, where she became academic director this year. Antonopulos also performs professionally whenever possible. 

If Antonopulos’s schedule sounds complicated, it is. And that’s the way she likes it. “I thrive on having a number of projects going on at one time,” she says. “The sheer variety of this field really appeals to me. I love doing classroom teaching and playing in ensembles and doing solo work. My schedule from week to week is never the same.” 

As she nears completion of her doctorate in music, Antonopulos feels certain that she made the right decision when she left engineering. 

“I still read Scientific American and enjoy it,” she says. “I did not run away from science. It’s just that music is much more fulfilling for me. Financially this was not the wisest choice. There’s no question about that. But when I’m playing oboe and things are going right—it’s an incredible feeling.” 

Listening to the “Actor Voice” That Never Stopped Whispering 

Ron Simons knows the feeling Antonopulos describes. He has experienced it as an actor. It is what pulled him back to the stage after a 20-year hiatus. 

Ron Simons

Ron Simons.

Simons’ start in theatre, back in high school, was less than inspiring. “I was cast in Finian’s Rainbow,” he recalls, cringing at the memory. “The school had few minority students, and I got the very politically incorrect role of first sharecropper. I was so bad that the director demoted me to regular sharecropper. But I did get better, and I started getting better roles. So in spite of that first experience, I developed a love for acting.” 

At Columbia University, Simons discovered that he also enjoyed computer science. “The two things that kept me up late at night in college were poring over scripts and poring over computer programs,” he says. He graduated in computer science and English (there was no drama major). Still unsure which path to take, Simons interviewed for a job with Hewlett-Packard but also requested an application for the Yale School of Drama. Soon he was offered the Hewlett-Packard job. The moment of reckoning had come. 

“I was the first in my family to go to college, and my mom was a single mom,” says Simons. “So when I got offered the job at Hewlett-Packard, I decided to take it. That was the beginning of my technology career.” 

Simons spent three years at Hewlett-Packard, then moved to IntelliCorp, a small startup focusing on artificial intelligence. The more he worked, the more Simons realized he enjoyed teaming up with other people to solve problems. So he returned to Columbia for an MBA in marketing and international business. His next stop was Microsoft, where he was hired as a product marketing manager. 

“Microsoft was an amazing experience,” he says. “It was rewarding and trying. The atmosphere there was nuts. We worked in triple overtime. I was always doing two or three things at the same time. But it was very exhilarating.” 

Still, after five years at Microsoft, Simons took time to reevaluate his life. “I decided to stick my head up out of the sand again and ask if this was what I really wanted to do,” he recalls. “I found that this little actor voice in my head had not stopped talking to me over the years and was still whispering.”After what he describes as “sleepless nights and the wringing of hands,” he decided to leave Microsoft and pursue acting more seriously.

“It had been years since I had been in a production,” Simons says. “I decided to start at the community level, to clear away some of the cobwebs. I was fortunate to have a nest egg, thanks to Microsoft, so I could do that.” 

After several years of community theatre, Simons was granted a general audition at Seattle Repertory Theatre for the play “Cider House Rules.” He got the part. “Suddenly I was able to get auditions at all the other Seattle theatres,” he says, earning roles at Bathhouse Theatre, Intiman, and Seattle Children’s Theatre. “That’s when I realized I should go back to school to hone my craft.” 

The School of Drama’s Professional Actor Training Program (PATP) was Simons’ first choice. “I knew it was one of the top five programs in the country, and I found that people both inside and outside the University spoke well of it,” he explains. Simons completed the three-year program in May. “PATP added more tools to my toolbox, so that now I can continue to grow and learn on the job,” he says. “It also gave me the ability to develop my own personal process for acting.” 

Simons is now splitting his time between New York and Seattle, auditioning for roles in both cities. In November, Seattleites can see him in Empty Space Theatre’s “Laramie Project.” Other roles are certain to follow. 

“My mother thought I was nuts when I said I was going to leave Microsoft to become an actor,” Simons says. “But it was the right decision. It was a dream deferred, and I just had to stop deferring the dream. It was the thing I was most passionate about. I didn’t want to wake up at 65 saying, ‘Shoulda, woulda, coulda.’ 

“I may succeed, I may fail, but at least I will have tried. Whatever happens, I’m having a great time.”