Do what makes you happy

Jason Sanford entered Wallace State Community College’s welding program in 2016 after spending a decade in the banking industry as a loan lender. He is on track to graduate in May. (Photo: WSCC)

Stroll through Wallace State Community College programs like welding or nursing and it’s not unusual to stumble upon a student with an advanced degree who has returned to college.

Welding sophomore Jason Sanford and nursing freshman Nicole Stoddard are among the current Wallace State students in that category who have come back to college for a new career path.

Sanford, 36, graduated with a finance degree from Southern Mississippi in 2004 and worked in the banking industry for 10 years, primarily serving as a small franchise business lender between stops in Mississippi and Atlanta. At one point in his previous career, Sanford’s lending territory stretched across 13 states.

When Sanford and his wife – an Alabama native – moved to Somerville a little more than two years ago, he was searching for a career change in his new state.

“It was to the point where I didn’t enjoy my job anymore. The money was good, but it just wasn’t my thing. In my spare time, I found myself working with my hands, whether it was with working with metal or a woodworking project,” Sanford said. “I knew working in the banking industry wasn’t something I wanted to do forever. I got zero sense of accomplishment. I was glad I got the deal completed because I got paid, but it was on to the next job.”

Upon moving to Alabama, one of Sanford’s friends had earned a welding degree from Wallace State and encouraged Sanford to check it out for himself. Sanford enrolled in the welding program in January 2016 and is on track to graduate with an associate degree from the department in May.

“There was no better time to make a change than when we moved to Alabama. It was just a matter of making that jump,” said Sanford, a father to three. “I’m absolutely thrilled with my decision. … With welding, I get great accomplishment. Welding is a lucrative field for those who can develop the proper skills set, and that’s exciting.”

In the right place

According to a 2015 study by the American Association of Community Colleges, approximately one of every 14 people who attend community college have already earned a bachelor’s degree.

Nicole Stoddard entered the nursing program in the fall after earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree.

Nicole Stoddard, 33, recently completed her first semester in the Wallace State nursing department after serving in the U.S. Air Force and earning a bachelor and master’s degrees while stationed on the West Coast.

Stoddard, an Elkmont graduate, has a baccalaureate in human resources and a master’s in organizational management with a specialization in human resources from Ashford University in San Diego.

After earning her degrees, Stoddard worked various jobs in her chosen fields, while also volunteering with Hospice Care. Not long after earning her degrees, Stoddard moved back to Alabama from South Dakota and her volunteer work with Hospice sparked an interest to return to college and pursue a nursing degree.

She enrolled at Wallace State last January and entered the nursing program in August.

“It’s a totally different path in life and I love it. It’s one of those things where I feel like I’m in the right place in life. I wish I would have realized it a long time ago, but I’m thankful I have the background I do. I don’t regret my previous decisions. In all honesty, having previous degrees has made me a better student and keeps me grounded,” Stoddard said. “Nursing is definitely a different cup of tea. I’m better prepared for it now than I would have been right out of high school.”

Overcoming anxiety

Both Sanford and Stoddard agree they were anxious upon enrolling at Wallace State.

“I figured it was going to be weird because I was going to be the oldest guy in the room by years,” he said. That hasn’t been the case. “We’ve got 17-year-old freshmen right out of high school and some post-military guys in their 60s. It’s a great collection of students,” Sanford said.

He added: “I do get questions from younger guys asking about college fraternities or asking me about my banking career. They want to know how much money I made or why I chose to come back to school.”

Stoddard had similar feelings.

“I was terrified to go back as far as me giving up a good-paying job and benefits to go back to college for something I wasn’t even 100 percent sure I could do. I told myself if I can get through boot camp and earn a master’s degree, I can do anything,” Stoddard said. “Some of my classmates ask why I’ve come back to college, and I tell them I was unhappy. You don’t need to do something just for the money. You need to be happy and enjoy what you are doing or you’re going to be miserable. I learned that the hard way.”

Sanford said he is appreciative of the experiences he gained from his finance degree, and added he was encouraged at his high school to pursue a four-year path. Since he’s been enrolled at Wallace State, Sanford has also worked a second-shift welding job at Pro-Fab Machine in Hartselle.

“I’m making more money now as welder while I’m in school than I did with my first degree. My degrees are going to be at totally different ends of the spectrum. I’ve learned you’ve got to do what you love. You can only do what you hate for so long regardless of the money. If you don’t like your job, your heart isn’t going to be in it,” Sanford said.

About the Author

Russell Moore
is a staff writer at Wallace State Community College in Alabama.