Stephanie, 27, from Long Island, NY, graduated from the Professional Welder program at Tulsa Welding School in Jacksonville in January 2020.
Thanks for sharing your story, Stephanie. Tell us what you did before Tulsa Welding School.
I dropped out of high school in 2010 and got a full-time job as cook because I saw the money. I thought it was great; making money was better than high school. But I was young and didn’t realize that I would need a high school diploma. I just started to drift around kitchens; I did that for 10 years…I’m still doing it, honestly! I work in a kitchen weekend-nights now. I have two jobs! I’m a welder in the morning and a cook at night. I don’t need to, but it’s okay, I like the field; I don’t want to just leave it.
After nine or ten years doing that, what changed?
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Honestly, I just woke up one day and thought this is not cutting it. The most you can earn as a cook is $18 an hour, unless you’re Gordon Ramsey. I love cooking, but now it’s more of a hobby for me. It wasn’t a great career choice, especially when I found myself in fast food joints. That wasn’t for me.
So, what did you do?
I knew I had potential. I was sitting with my friends, with no GED or nothing. My friends had jobs like delivering for pizza joints; I said to them, “Guys, let’s go get our GEDs, let’s do something with our lives!” They were all “yeah ,yeah, yeah,” until I followed up, and then they said they were too busy, so I just did it on my own. I went to community college; I actually took some classes to remind myself of mathematics. I needed it for Tulsa; there is some math in there! I got of my GED in February 2019 and started at Tulsa Welding School a month later.
Where did the idea of welding come from?
A year before I got my GED, I noticed three or four of my peers from high school—who were also high school drop-outs—all had nice things; some of them had jet skis. One was going to South Africa on vacation. They were going everywhere. I had nice things, too, but I had to work three paychecks to their one to buy them! So, I asked, “What are you doing for work?” They answered, “I’m a welder” or “I have a welding company.” I was like, “What? You’re the same age as me!” I might even have been older than one of them. I had no idea what welding was. I just knew it required a helmet.
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I asked if they knew any girls who joined Tulsa Welding School. They said they didn’t know any, but they were sure there were. I just thought it would be so neat to be the only girl from my Long Island town that’s going to travel hundreds of miles to Florida, to live on my own, and attend Tulsa Welding School.
What made you choose TWS in Florida? Did you look at local welding schools?
I looked at places in NY, but what attracted me to Florida was that I knew I could focus better away from New York. I wanted a change of scenery, as well as a change of career. People back home said there was no way I’d do this on my own; I had no support, they said they gave me three months before I’d come right back.
Did you find school hard, having never done it before?
The first week I was happy, but then I realized you needed a car in Florida. I came here with no car. I sold everything to come here to an empty apartment and go to welding school every day. I had to work in order to have a roof over my head. The buses don’t run like they do in New York. I was working at Buffalo Wild Wings till 1 a.m., then I had to figure out a ride home, take a shower, and get to bed. I had to get up at 5 a.m. to get a bus to school for 7 a.m. That first month was rough; I almost quit.
But you persevered.
You know who were my best friends? Everyone in that school. The ladies that worked there kept me sane. Emotionally, it was Terri in Career Services and Tina in Admissions who supported me; they would talk to me, support me. They didn’t give up on me. They still call me to this day, and I graduated in January.
What did you enjoy most at the school?
When you drop that hood, nothing around you matters. It’s just you and the weld; there’s no noise, no distractions. It’s just you in that helmet and you control everything, and I like to be in control! I would lift up my hood and be so excited to look at my weld. I also discovered a family bond in that school. I felt safe in that school, and that was important to me because I didn’t know anybody in Jacksonville.
Tell us about work, and where you are now.
I work for a concrete company, Jim’s Concrete of Brevard Inc. here in Jacksonville. My friend worked there, and I approached them for a welding job. They didn’t have much welding work to start with but said if I started on concrete work, then I could move into welding. The first month I did nothing but concrete every day, but July 3rd I started welding. When they saw me welding, they were impressed! The guys asked, “Where did you learn to do that?” I always say, “You want to learn to do that, go to Tulsa Welding School!”
Where do you see your career going?
My goal is to get as much experience as I can down here over the next three years, then move back to New York and join the Union. But it’s not even about the money, it’s about proving myself to everyone else. They all said I’d be back in three months; I want to come back five years later and join the Union! I’m not a big “shove that in your face” kind of person, but I want that. Don’t get me wrong, my family is very supportive now that I’ve got a job and I’m doing something I love, but I haven’t forgotten that they had their doubts.
What do you enjoy most about your career?
Just saying “I’m a welder.” That’s just so cool. Back home people ask, “What are you doing?” I just say, “Don’t worry about it, I’m a welder.” Just the way I say it is like, “Don’t mess with me.” I just love it. I come home dirty. If I stop at the store on the way home, people are looking at the dirt on my face. That’s my medal, that’s my diploma, that’s my GED. That’s everything to me. I also like what I mentioned before: I drop the hood and I’m in control.
Did you make some connections at school?
I made a lot of connections with people who were carrying their bucket, just like me! .
What does that mean?
We used the tools the school gave us, and we carried them in a bucket. I saw people with their big shiny trucks who had their own tools. They didn’t even use the tools the school gave them. But I stuck with people like me, people who were maybe working in a kitchen like me, people who were stressed with life, people who knew with a little more time to practice and a little less work, their welds might be better. That’s who I bonded with; we’d tell each other not to give up. Some of them did give up, which was upsetting to me, but I always remembered those people in New York who doubted me, so I never gave up.
What advice would you give to people considering welding school?
It doesn’t matter who you were or what you did in your life before. Your past doesn’t matter. It’s time to find out who you are now and go for it, whether it’s welding or not. If you start this program, never give up. Just keep on going and you will get somewhere in life. Your future will make you a better you.
If you’re a TWS graduate and would like to share your success and be an inspiration to others, please email [email protected] to be considered for a Graduate Connection interview. Please include details such as your graduation date (month/year), program, and campus name (Tulsa/Jacksonville/Houston).
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