Graduate Connections – Meet Cheyenne Ray

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Cheyenne, 20, from Huntsville, Alabama, completed the seven-month Professional Welder program at Tulsa Welding School in Jacksonville in February 2023. 

Thanks for your time, Cheyenne. Did you go into Tulsa Welding School straight after high school?   

Yes, I graduated high school in May of 2022 and started at the welding school in July 2022.

Awesome. Where did the idea of welding come from? 

Let me give you a little backstory. I went through a rough childhood and was put in the foster system at 17 years old. As a foster kid, I decided that I wanted to find a career where I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone else for anything. So, I tried welding my senior year of high school just to see if I’d like it. I fell in love with it, and I chose to continue with it. That’s how I ended up at welding school.

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Had you done any welding at all before that year in high school? 

Not really. I knew people who did it, but I didn’t take an interest in it. I’d lived in a very sexist household with a “Women shouldn’t be in a trade” attitude. But when I got out of that situation at 17 and was able to fully make my own decisions, I decided to give it a try. I knew that it couldn’t hurt to try it in high school; I wasn’t making a career choice right then, I was just giving it a chance.

Good for you. What did you enjoy most about your time at TWS? 

I really enjoyed the diversity of instructors, how each one initially had specialized in a certain type of welding. So, it’s not like one instructor was trying to teach everything. They all taught me something; different ways to tackle the same process, or different ways to try things. I was able to pick up bits and pieces from all of them and kind of make my own way. That was probably my favorite part.

How did you find the program? Was it hard or frustrating for you? 

It had its moments, for sure. I’d say anybody that goes through welding school will have days where they want to quit! Just don’t. I had my fair share of those days, and so did a lot of people I met down there. 

How did you get through those days? 

The thing that really helped get me through it was the support I got from people I met there, and people back home. I met a guy in school, Dallas; he is my best friend to this day. Anytime I wanted to quit, Dallas would say, “Think of where you were a year ago, two years ago. You’re not there now. You can push through this. I know you have a passion for it, and I’m not going to sit here and let you fail or give up on yourself.” 

People back home knew that I loved welding. They knew I was going to have hard days, going to have to deal with the diversity of being a woman in a so-called man’s world. They told me I was going to get through all these things because I’m stronger than everything that I’ve overcome.

You brought up being “a woman in a man’s world.” Did you have any issues with that?

The best thing I could say is to be careful who you surround yourself with. I did have to deal with the ignorance of some classmates who thought, ‘Oh, she’s a woman, she can’t make it”. But I’m pretty picky about who I surround myself with. When you go out into the field, like where I am now, plenty of people say women make some of the best welders because they have more patience and a steadier hand.

It was also reassuring to have instructors at Tulsa who enjoyed seeing women join the field. They knew that women welders can do what male welders can, and sometimes welding women can do what men can’t! Things like welding in tight spaces, or doing something at a slower pace, or having patience and not being quick to anger…because welding can be very frustrating! It’s not hard to get angry welding. You just have to have the right attitude at school and work. In fact, treat school like a job. It’s that serious.

Many employers say, “You can teach skills, not attitude.” Is that right? 

That is 100% correct. Especially with the welding philosophy I live by. Welding is a mindset and I find a lot of peace in it. If I’m having a bad day before I weld, once I start welding, I calm down and it makes my day better. If I get mad while I’m welding, I’ll take a step back and tell myself to calm down, then I’ll go back to it. It’s all mindset. It’s all attitude.

So, tell us about finding a job after graduation a year ago.

I came home to Alabama after welding school and was went to work for Lee Company at Redstone Arsenal, a U.S. Army base in Huntsville. Then I joined a local union, the Pipefitters Local 760 out of Muscle Shoals, Alabama. I’m currently working 4 10s and 8 hours on Friday building a solar plant. I work 6am-4:30pm, and then go to school for my union apprenticeship on Monday and Tuesday nights from 5pm-9:30pm. 

That’s awesome. Are you happy where you’ve started in terms of money? 

For my age, I will say I’m definitely happy with what I’m making!  

So, tell us about your career plan?

With me being in the union, I’m going through a five-year apprenticeship first. So, while I’m an apprentice they will try to keep us local for school. But once I’m out of that, they can pretty much send me anywhere. My ultimate goal is to own my own welding rig and go off around the country welding for the union.

What do you enjoy most about your new trade?

There are quite a few things that I enjoy about welding. For one, you can drop the hood and not have to deal with anything outside of the work. It brings peace, even though it’s something so dangerous that you could catch yourself on fire! Second, I enjoy the fact that I’m creating something with my own hands. Something that will be put to good use, like a pipeline for example. I get to look back and say, “I did that”. 

Also, it’s an art, a really beautiful art. It takes skill, time, and a lot of practice to master. To me, it’s no different than being a painter. Picasso didn’t become perfect overnight. I also enjoy learning something new every day because I’ll meet different welders who do stuff different ways, so I’m always learning. 

It’s also the challenge that I enjoy, how everything comes together. I could look at a job and I’m like, “Okay, I have 600 pieces of pipe that have to be cut and fittings added to them”. I’m looking at a print and thinking, how do I do this? And then I get it done, look at it, and I’m like, “Wow, I did that!” 

That’s quite the list of things you enjoy! You really do have a passion for welding.

As my best friend’s dad says, and I consider him to be like my dad, “If you enjoy what you do, then it’s not a job.” So, if you look at it like it’s not a job, just something you enjoy, then you don’t dread going to work every day, you’re not miserable, and it doesn’t follow you home!

Good welders never stop learning, no matter how old they are, right?

A good example of that is the job that I’m working right now with a bunch of different welders. Welders who have been welding for five, ten years or more. There’s this one guy, I can’t remember how long he’s been welding, but he was in the military previously and is in his 50s or 60s. So, we were welding one day, and he was watching me. He said, “I’m trying to figure out how you’re doing this. What are you doing? I want to do it because of the way it looks.” I told him what I was doing and why, and he just watched me. Then he said, “Well, I just learned something new. I’d never have thought to do what you’re doing.”

Another welder, in the first company I worked for, taught me something with a welding file. He taught me that if you put grooves in the file, it makes it easier to knock off slag. Well, at the job I’m on now, one of the main welders I was working with asked, “What is the purpose of the grooves in your file?” I told him and he said, “I’m going to do that. That’s smart.” So, you can learn stuff from older welders and sometimes older welders can learn stuff from younger welders. You just always have to be ready to learn.

What advice do you have for a student to be successful at Tulsa Welding School? 

Do not spend your time with people who aren’t good for you. Stay focused no matter how hard the days get. Everybody will have hard days, just don’t turn to distractions or the wrong people to try to get your mind off it. Stay on the path and remember what you’re there for – to make a career. Don’t look at Tulsa Welding School as a college. A lot of people my age are like, “Oh, I’m young, I’m going to party, yada, yada, yada.” It throws you off, puts you out of focus and then you’re playing catch up. That is one of the worst things that you can do while in welding school. Once you fall behind, it is rough to catch back up. You have to treat welding school like it is your job.

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/Dallas).