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Alumni Engagement

Rising to a challenge: Desire for change prompts RRC grad to go back to school

June 27, 2014

At 46, Barb Szpak decided it was time for a career change.

“I felt that things were getting too mundane, too monotonous. You need something just to challenge you, to keep your brain active and keep you wondering what’s out there.”

After spending 21 years working as a baker/cake decorator for the same company, deciding to give it all up wasn’t as difficult as you might think, especially since Szpak knew she’d be heading to Red River College.

“RRC was the only place that I wanted to attend, as I have always had great experiences in the past. I had been taking evening courses over many years, to challenge myself and keep my brain active.

“I decided to take some Accounting courses just to challenge myself because I hate math. So why not take the hardest thing, right?” she says with a laugh.

After deciding to head back to school full time, deciding what to take proved an easy choice.

“I went… looking through stuff and thought ‘[RRC’s] Administrative Assistant program has a bunch of different [courses] in there that I could use.’ And it was a shorter course so I knew that financially I wouldn’t be out of work for that long.”

She excitedly enrolled, but nonetheless started to doubt herself.

“I was nervous about making that change. I was nervous about my ability. Can I do it at my age? When you’re going into a classroom with a bunch of 20-year-olds – there might have been one 30-year-old in the whole class – and then me, the first day at orientation I was looking around the class thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’”

But she soon formed great relationships with her classmates.

“They were wonderful. And they started looking to me for answers. It felt good that they were asking me for my opinion, asking me for help, even though I was learning just like they were. I became a mom figure for a few of them, I think,” she says with a laugh.

Although Szpak hadn’t studied much math in high school, she found the subject easier to tackle with a little more life experience under her belt. And even when she struggled, instructors were there to help.

“I had a couple of really good instructors that were always there [for me]. Never be afraid to ask questions – because I was like, ‘Oh my god what am I doing?’ and they would calm me down, they would walk me through it.”

After graduation, Szpak knew exactly where she wanted to work.

“I knew that I loved the College atmosphere, so I kept applying for jobs with the College. Both my husband and daughter work for RRC and have always told me how much they enjoy it here.”

Knowing a foot in the door was all she needed, Szpak stated working as a cashier at Paterson GlobalFoods Institute (PGI), with an eye on advancing to her current position. Today she works as an accounting clerk for PGI Food Services.

Her duties include balancing daily, weekly and monthly sales, handling cash and weekly deposits, invoice coding and data entry, plus other tasks as they come up.

“I’m very happy with what I’m doing, considering I never thought I’d do anything to do with math. I love the accounting part of it. I was able to bring a lot of my food service knowledge to the position, so it’s a good combination of all the things I’ve done over the years. It’s great! Who knew I’d like numbers.”

She also loves being able to interact with the Culinary Arts students at PGI.

“They’ll come hang out with me to chit-chat and tell me about their classes,” she says of the students.

Szpak will be celebrating her 49th birthday soon, and she couldn’t be happier. She encourages anyone who’s thinking of switching careers to go for it.

“I recommend going back to school if you want to. Don’t be afraid. If I can do it at my age, anyone can do it! I ended up with a 4.22 GPA, which blew my mind.”

And she’s not done, either. Szpak plans to continue her studies and eventually earn her Business Administration certificate.

“I will go back and complete it – for me.”

Profile by Stacy Cardigan Smith (Creative Communications, 2006)