I GREW up in a suburb of Chicago and attended a predominantly white high school. We were at the tail end of the civil rights movement but I never experienced any unrest. However, my parents were not as lucky. When I was in elementary school, my mother came home early one day from her job at a manufacturing company. She said the Ku Klux Klan was meeting in the company cafeteria at 4 p.m. and that there was actually a meeting notice on a bulletin board.
I was one of those students whose grades didn't reflect their abilities. When my guidance counselor asked me what I planned to do after high school, I said I would go to college, of course. She said I wasn't college material. Instead of being devastated, I thought, "Well, she's the counselor."
Senior year I visited a local recruiting station where several military services were represented and decided to sign up for the Marines. I told the recruiter I wanted to work in TV and radio, and he said they could accommodate that. He didn't tell me what he really had in mind for me. I ended up carrying a radio on my back, calling for medical supplies during exercises in Okinawa. No one told me I'd be saying things like "Tango X-ray Niner" over the airwaves.
During my tour in Japan I became pregnant and married. I was so sick that I was discharged at the end of the first year and served the rest of my enlistment in the Reserve. I immediately enrolled in college for an associate of applied arts degree in journalism at Waubonsee Community College in Aurora, Ill., and worked in public relations for the Marines at the same time.
I graduated in 1987 and started my bachelor's degree in radio and television at Southern Illinois University. Two years later I completed my military obligation and finished that degree. I then got a master's degree in human resource development from Webster University in 1993. I'm currently studying for my Ph.D. in values-driven leadership at Benedictine University in Lisle, Ill.
For most of the time, I'd attend school at night and work during the day. My first job after the service was as a recruiter at the Technical College of the Lowcountry, the equivalent of a community college, in Beaufort, S.C. From 1992 to 1994, I worked for DeVry University as a career placement adviser. I was also an adjunct instructor there for eight years, teaching career development, human resources and psychology courses. In 1994, Grady Health System recruited me; I wrote material for their career mobility program.
Every job I took seemed to revolve around helping people making career choices; it's in my DNA. In 1995 I worked as a consultant, helping organizations manage their employees' careers, and in 1997 I made this into an Atlanta business, Careers in Transition. I also worked for the Department of Labor as a management and leadership development specialist for a year during that time.
Our clients are mainly federal government agencies. We help them attract, develop and retain employees, and we develop policies and programs for them.
My biggest challenge starting out was how to run my company on a shoestring from my basement. When I could finally move into an office and hire employees, my company took off.
My younger son, Austin, 21, is studying international business at the University of Georgia. In December we traveled to China together. I spoke to a group of human resources professionals there and he studied Mandarin. I'm hoping that when he graduates he'll get some experience at another company and then join me and help us expand internationally.
As told to Patricia R. Olsen.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.