Graduate Connections – Meet Kristen Duke

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Kristen, 23, from Ridgecrest, CA, graduated from the Professional Welder program at Tulsa Welding School in Jacksonville on May 29 2020. She came to Florida in early 2018.

Thanks for your time, Kristen. Tell us what you did before coming to Tulsa Welding School.

Out of high school, I had a very interesting experience. I went into basic training for the U.S. Navy. In my eighth week of training, I decided it definitely was not the place for me. It wasn’t a good fit, and I would have been of no use to my teammates in the field. I decided getting out was the best option. I then took a dead-end job at a bookkeeping place in California and worked there for a few years.

Then you moved to Florida?

Yes, my brother decided he wanted to move out here to be closer to family. He asked me to come with him. I moved here on the fly really. It wasn’t planned. I thought it would be a good opportunity to move forward in my life.

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What did you do for work?

I got another dead-end job! It was at a vacation rentals place; it was basically like being a front desk person at a hotel. Even though the pay was good, it was a hostile work environment. It was definitely not the best place for me. I decided I had two options: look for another dead-end job that I would probably be unhappy with, or find a career that would be exciting, interesting, and keep me from getting bored.

Where did the idea of welding come from?

Literally the next day I saw a TV commercial for Tulsa Welding School. Something just clicked; I thought, “Okay, that’s what I want to try. It looks cool!” I don’t really like fire, so it’s a funny career choice, but I took a tour of the Jacksonville campus with Tina in Admissions, and she persuaded me to give it a shot!

Had you ever done any welding – in high school maybe?

No, I had zero experience. In fact, I had negative experience. I didn’t know what welding was until I got to the school to take the tour!

What was your first impression on the tour?

I was super excited about it. I haven’t been excited about anything job-wise or school-wise in about seven years. It definitely was a learning curve even on the tour. Just being in the lab, in that level of noise, really threw me off at first because I’ve never been in a loud environment before. But the minute I put the hood down and watched somebody weld, I was like, “Okay, this feels like something I’d be good at, that I’d enjoy.” It was definitely a change of pace, and the instructors and staff made a great first impression.

Did you have to wait long for class to start?

I accidentally timed it perfectly; I had two weeks to get the financial aid stuff done before class started.

Did you live in Jacksonville?

No, I live north of Jacksonville by the Georgia border. I commuted an hour each way for the program. 

What did you enjoy most at the school?

Honestly, the thing I enjoyed most was the instructors and staff. They really made it bearable. On the days when I was having a rough time and ready to throw things, the instructors would encourage me, tell me to take a break, get some air. Every once in a while, I’d go sit with Ms. Tina and she’d offer me a coffee to calm down! They kept me motivated to keep going, so I really appreciate them all.

Did you ever think about quitting?

Oh yeah, my first day. Other people were laying down pretty welds while I was fighting the machine, figuring out how everything worked. It was a hot mess. My beads looked totally different to everyone else, like puddles on a plate. It was so frustrating. I like to excel at everything. I’m not okay with average. When I was struggling that day, knowing there’s a three-day drop-out period, I had to figure out if I was going to push myself or walk out the door. Obviously, I made up my mind to push myself and stay, and it paid off.

What made you come back on day two?

Mostly stubbornness: I am very hard-headed. But my Phase One Instructor Merv Bailey was very nice about it. He reminded me that I was brand new. He said most students have some experience – be it weeks, months, or years. He told me not to pay attention to anybody else’s stuff but my own. He explained that of course they were going to out-weld me at first. Then he said, “Trust me; come back tomorrow and you will be much better than you were today, I promise!” Between my stubbornness and that little burst of motivation, I was like, “Okay, I’ll give it a second shot!”

Tell us about work, and where you are working?

I just got my first welding job this week with Sunbelt Gated Access Systems. Ms. Terri Burnett (in Career Services) made some connection phone calls. She got me the interview, which I had last Monday. A couple of days later they called and said they were starting the paperwork. They want me to start just after Labor Day. I’m super excited about it. I’m going to be building and repairing aluminum fences and gates, and once in a while welding some steel—some heavy-duty gates are made of steel. I’ll get to use all three welding processes: mostly MIG and TIG, but some stick in there too.

Are you happy with the money they are starting you on?

Honestly, I am very happy; I am basically doubling my hourly rate from where I’m working now at the pet store. I’m extremely happy with that, I can’t complain. I’m getting paid twice what I earn now to keep learning my trade. They are going to offer me in-house training so they can teach me what they want me to learn. I’m thinking of it as an apprenticeship rather than a welding job.

Where do you see your career going?

I want to stay with Sunbelt for the next four or five years. From what I’ve been told they take care of their people. It’s a perfect work-life balance for me. It’s Monday through Friday, 40 hours, so I’ll get weekends off. In the future I’d like to jump around a little bit, try some different things. Maybe try a shipyard or pipelining. I’d like to do a mixture of things during my career. I’m open to opportunities down the road.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

I don’t like fire, but I like the heat. I mean that in a couple of different contexts. I don’t like the physical heat of it being 112 degrees in the shop, but I love having to be self-driven and self-motivated. It makes me think more about what I do with my time outside of welding. It’s put a fire under me and made me less of a couch potato. Welding is also so cool to look at. I still watch people weld, and even though I can do it now, I am still amazed by how cool it looks.

Did you make some connections at school?

I definitely made some friends in school. Some were already welders who came back for a brush-up or to learn a new process. I still hang out with a lot of them, but I also made friends with a lot of the instructors. I’d say that I still keep in touch with five out of the ten instructors I had. I’m building my network.

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

To be successful, you have to push yourself. You have to want this. Do what feels right for you. When I had that rough first day, I was doubting myself. Base your decision on what you truly feel is the right decision for you. Don’t do this because someone else wants you to. If you are just going because grandma and grandpa want you to, and you’re not feeling it, don’t go. If you really don’t want to be there, you’re never going to find the strength to keep going. You have to be self-motivated, driven, and keep your head up. If you don’t find that passion to keep yourself motivated, you’re going to struggle. A lot of people fail because they don’t have self-motivation, or they don’t believe in themselves. Do what’s best for 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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