Changing Tracks by Duane Beeson

Alumni find both joy and risk in taking new career direction

The last time the jobless rate in the United States was as high as it is now, Ronald Reagan was proposing the Strategic Defense Initiative, Michael Jackson was moonwalking through Billie Jean, and Bill Gates was just starting to make money from Microsoft Word.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 9.4 percent for May 2009—the highest since 1983. That means 14.5 million people are jobless.

As whole industries hemorrhage and jobs continue to be outsourced to other countries, many Americans have been forced to consider a career change. Others are contemplating a new direction because of a specific passion or family considerations.

Several Northwestern alumni have successfully changed career paths. We share their stories as encouragement that—whether you have to or want to—you can do it too.

Pursuing a Passion

A former research biochemist, Michael Swanson now uses his analytical skills—and his passion for genealogy and history—as an archivist at the University of North Dakota.

When pharmaceutical giant Pfizer purchased Pharmacia Corporation in 2003, it announced most  of Pharmacia’s research and development work in Kalamazoo, Mich., would cease. Michael Swanson ’82, a research biochemist, had a decision to make.

Swanson had been experiencing a declining sense of fulfillment in his job. Decisions affecting his infectious diseases research were being made for business and marketing—not scientific—reasons. Uncertainties regarding long-term support of projects were growing.

The year before, he had enjoyed a moving experience in Sweden, walking the land his ancestors had farmed. It was his seventh trip to Europe, most of which involved visiting Swedish and Dutch relatives and conducting genealogical research. Long interested in history, he found genealogy offered a new way to apply his analytical skills.

Part of his severance package included assistance from a career consulting company. With their help, Swanson chose to pursue a master’s degree specializing in archives and records management. Now completing his first year as an archivist at the University of North Dakota, he says, “It just seems to come naturally to me—probably because I have a passion for it. I really enjoy helping people more directly. We work hard but in a relaxing environment. It’s a lot less stressful.”

Stressed by the intense nature of many of his cases, John Liesveld left his law practice to become a morning radio talk show host in Lincoln, Neb. “I’m getting paid to do what I like: talk, read up on topics and make people laugh,” he says.

Stress is one of the reasons John Liesveld ’00 left his law practice in 2006. He loved some aspects of the work—analyzing, researching, writing, competing in the courtroom. But the intense nature of many of his cases, such as child-custody issues, took a toll on him.

“When a lawyer answers the phone, there’s a 99.9 percent chance the person on the other line isn’t happy. That wore me out,” says Liesveld. “I took it home with me a lot.”

Liesveld enjoyed listening to talk and sports radio and often thought that could be his dream job. When the general manager of KLIN in Lincoln, Neb., called and asked if he was interested in joining the morning team, saying he had always been intrigued by putting a lawyer on the show, Liesveld couldn’t refuse.

Now “Jack Mitchell” on “Jack and John in the Morning,” he talks about state politics, national issues and Husker sports every day from 6 to 9. Liesveld works longer hours than he did as a lawyer—there’s a lot more to his job than just his on-air time—but he says he’s having the time of his life.

Family Matters

A coffee lover for years—he got an espresso machine for Christmas in high school—Reed Friese is now the proud owner of a roaster that can produce 5,000 pounds of coffee per month. He left an aircraft painting business to start the Cherrybean Coffee Company.

Supper’s over at the home of Hope and Reed Friese ’95, and Elijah (7) and Iris (6) are helping dad at the family business in Parker, S.D. The kids make a good cleaning team for the Cherrybean Coffee Company: He sweeps, she mops while Reed roasts coffee.

The Frieses moved back to his hometown in 2007 after he had worked a dozen years in production and management at an aircraft painting company near Seattle. Friese wanted a quieter, more predictable environment for their four children—especially Elijah, who is autistic.

“Here we can let him go to the library,” Friese says. “He can get our mail from the post office. We can give him a lot more freedom and allow him to explore in a small town.”

Friese’s high-school obsession with coffee was stoked when he lived in Seattle. Returning home, it seemed natural to start a roasting company and coffee shop. Friese wanted it to be a true family business, so in addition to cleaning, the kids go along on deliveries and will have other responsibilities as they grow.

“I try to use all the flexibility I have as a small-business owner to be with the kids when other fathers might not be able to,” he says. “I work twice as many hours as before, but I’m more connected with my family.”

 Help Wanted
Thinking about a career change? Here’s advice from alumni who’ve been there.
“Surround yourself with people you trust who will ask the right questions.”
The Rev. Troy Van Beek ’00, from landscaping business to ministry
“Seek advice from mentors in both your current field and the field you’re considering.”
John Liesveld ’00, from law to talk radio
“Pray—and look for the signs the Lord puts in front of you.”
Karen Woudstra ’79, from education to real estate
“Be patient. Be willing to take a part-time job to get your foot in the door.”
Lou Bram ’96, from ministry to law enforcement
“Be committed. Once you decide, work hard toward your goal.”
Michael Swanson ’82, from biochemistry to archives

Exerting Influence

Working in public affairs for the Environmental Protection Agency for 10 years, Carie (Van Hook ’87) Jasperse enjoyed her responsibilities and supported the EPA’s mission. But she yearned for more.

“I wanted to be involved in substantive decision-making, but the people who did that were either scientists or lawyers. I wouldn’t be a good scientist,” says Jasperse, who majored in English and French at NWC, “so I became a lawyer.”

Today Jasperse is an attorney for the Food and Drug Administration. She has been involved in legal work behind FDA warnings to companies marketing products said to cure H1N1 and the consumer advisory regarding potential liver damage from Hydroxycut dietary supplements.

A variety of projects compete for Jasperse’s time, and her work is more challenging than before. But she says the fulfillment she derives from helping keep the public safe makes up for the stress.

Timing it Right

 Job Search 101
Bill Minnick, Northwestern’s director of career development, offers these tips for alumni who are seeking employment or considering a career change.
You have connections from the work you’ve been doing. Use that network, and don’t burn bridges.
Take advantage of Northwestern’s free services. The Career Development Center offers self-assessment tools, a resource library, job postings, resumé reviews and interview coaching. Visit, e-mail, or call 712-707-7225.
Update your resumé because formats and approaches have changed.
Learn about Internet job searching.

Sitting in a law school classroom a couple of years ago, Fawzy Simon ’90 couldn’t believe what he heard from the dean: “They tell me many of you have never failed.”

“I’ve failed,” says Simon. “My grades at Northwestern were abysmal; I’ve been fired. Failure is a distinct advantage because I’ve learned the sun will still rise and I’ll have another shot. Some of my 4.0 classmates couldn’t process failure.”

After working in theatre, restaurants, banking and inventory management, Simon became interested in law through a job as a title company clerk. Watching a lot of Law & Order also played a role.

In law school Simon vowed not to squander his second chance at higher education. “I was in a room full of really smart people who knew a ton about what I wanted to learn and were happy to talk it over with me. Being around people younger than me forced me to work harder.”

Now a public defender in Lebanon, Mo., Simon appreciates both the structured environment of law and the opportunity to work within it to help others who have failed. “Essentially, I play high-stakes poker with people’s freedom,” he says. “I’m motivated by my desire to get a good outcome.”

Leon Fikse’s NWC experience was similar to Simon’s. He loved the social life. Classes and mandatory chapel? Not so much.

As a sophomore in 1968, he clearly heard God’s call to become a pastor. “It was the last thing I wanted to do,” he says.

Suspended from Northwestern for skipping chapel, Fikse farmed almonds and sold used cars before beginning a 16-year career with the postal service. Though a variety of lay ministry experiences, he began to realize the pastorate “wouldn’t be so bad after all.”

The senior pastor at Bethany Reformed Church in Redlands, Calif., since 1995, Fikse loves helping people grow spiritually. And he acknowledges God’s timing was perfect.

“I wouldn’t have been a good pastor in my 20s. I became wiser and learned many lessons about dealing with people that are so beneficial today.”

Career Leaps—and Links

For 10 years, Lou Bram ’96 preached grace and forgiveness at a Baptist church near Mason City, Iowa. Now he busts drug dealers and investigates thefts as a Cerro Gordo County deputy sheriff.

He changed career tracks to bring home more money so his wife, Christy (Hoffman ’96), could be with their children full time. His heart is still in the ministry, but for now his job meets their family’s goals.

While his career fields may seem disparate, Bram sees similarities.

“This is about building relationships, just like being a pastor,” he says. “And I’ve had many opportunities for ministry most Christians don’t get because of the situations I’m in.”

Fawzy Simon, the public defender, also draws on past experiences in his new role. “My theatre training is paramount,” he says. “I learned how to use my voice, memorize lines, move in a space and get into character. I’m a different person in the courtroom. I use my words, voice and behavior to persuade.”

The Rev. Troy Van Beek, senior pastor of Bethel Reformed Church in Sheldon, Iowa, worked in business for 10 years before completing his undergrad degree and seminary. “I wake up every morning—even when in the midst of difficult things—and I can’t believe I get paid for doing this,” he says.

When the Rev. Troy Van Beek ’00 started his first pastorate at the age of 35, he found his previous business ventures created a connection with church members. “They sensed I had experienced the same things they had,” he explains. 

Van Beek started at Northwestern in 1986 but left as a junior after switching from major to major. God used his 10 years working in implement and lawn care businesses, he says, to help him listen and prepare for ministry.

“I understood at a deeper level God is in control, and I learned things I probably wouldn’t have learned if I had completed school the first time,” he says.

Karen (De Boer ’79) Woudstra, an agent with Northwest Realty in Orange City, looks back on the last eight years with amazement and confidence in God’s sovereignty. She sees how her experiences in two previous careers—20 years as a kindergarten teacher and five as Northwestern’s director of alumni relations—benefit her and her clients today.

A former kindergarten teacher and NWC alumni director, Karen Woudstra is now a real estate agent. “I love the challenge of matching a family with the right house,” she says. “I get great joy hearing a family loves their new home.”

Her teaching skills come in handy as she helps first-time home buyers navigate pre-approvals, offers and closings. She uses the computer proficiency she developed at NWC to complete paperwork and post listings online. And the contacts from both positions have brought her many clients.

“I could do this for a long time,” she says, “but I’ve learned to be open to what God puts in front of me.”

Costs of Change

Karen (Goettsch ’84) Fenedick and her husband spent a year living off of his income so she could take computer courses. After 21 years as a nanny in the Washington, D.C., area, she knew she needed technological skills to pursue an office job. When she landed a position selling insurance, she was so motivated she became one of the fastest-certified agents in State Farm’s history.

Leon Fikse saved diligently to fund his education at Western Seminary. But when his California house didn’t sell, their nest egg was soon gone—as were borrowed funds from relatives. Unsure if he could continue, he told God he didn’t know where to turn. “After we humbled ourselves before God, our house sold quickly. God has always taken care of us,” he says.

Reed Friese is learning trust after the first year of his coffee business. “My biggest surprise was how many lattes it takes to pay a light bill. I got way more business than I expected. I also made way less,” he says.

But he subleased some of his retail space to a flower shop, and he’s seen his roasting business perk up through the Sioux Falls farmer’s market. Ultimately he savors the positives this change has brought his family.

Michael Swanson, the biochemist-turned-archivist, followed financial advisers’ advice and had money saved in case he lost his job. He also benefited from a nontraditional-student fellowship that paid for a year of grad school.

John Liesveld knows he could be making more money if he hadn’t left law for the lure of the microphone. But he doesn’t have any regrets.

“I love my job. That’s worth so much more.”

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