It’s no secret that women in the workforce have come a long way since the days sister suffragettes demanded voting rights and ambitious housewives realized a career could be more than a means for husband hunting. Even so, in a country that has yet to elect a female president and a world in which women’s rights and safety are still questioned daily, females who define and forge impressive careers deserve some recognition.
And for some women, Fayetteville is the ideal place to do just that.
“I have known since I was very young that I wanted to be a broadcast journalist. I used to always say, ‘I want to be Katie Couric when I grow up!’” said Amanda Weber, reporter for News 14. “My parents tell of a time when they were sitting down for a parent/teacher conference with my third grade teacher, Mrs. Riccardi. She said, ‘Has anyone ever told you Amanda is going to be on the news one day?’ My parents responded with a quizzical look and said, ‘Do you mean on the news, or reporting the news?’ From then on, my family and I knew I wanted to pursue a career in journalism.”
An early focus on career goals is common among many successful women. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson many of us have to learn, er, on the job.
“You can’t just be a jack of all trades,” my college career counselor once sighed during a conversation with me. His frustration at my refusal to write a paper detailing my career goals was evident in his flabbergasted tone and the two vertical creases that had implanted themselves between his frowning, bushy eyebrows. “Why not?” I whined. As a twenty-four-year-old undergrad who’d lived a bit more than your average freshman, I still couldn’t grasp the merits of defining what it was I should do with my life.
Well, in the years and mistakes that have passed since that discussion, I’ve learned how to answer those questions. It turns out that taking the time to assess my personal goals — to really evaluate what I wanted in a career — could have saved me years of misguided professional decisions, and a decidedly damaging lack thereof. As a woman in the workforce, I had done myself a serious disservice by floating haphazardly through a mishmash of post-graduate startup careers, each more dismal, unsatisfying, and soul-crushing than the last. Every time I donned black pumps, every time I stopped for coffee on my morning commute, and every conference call I suffered through reminded me just how far I was from the woman I knew I could be.
But, for some, single-minded focus comes more naturally.
Captain Mary Katherine Schuster, an attack helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army, was first introduced to the military while living in Belgium, where her parents worked at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels. The first in her family to pursue a career in aviation, she said, “My family has a long established history of government service and it was important to me to do my part to serve.”
The same focus was true for Dr. Cara Wadon. “I dreamed as a teenager of becoming a neurosurgeon,” said Dr. Wadon, now a successful surgeon practicing at Carolina Neurosurgical Services in Fayetteville “I was very fortunate to have my dream come true,” she said, though “fortunate” doesn’t seem to account for her years of hard work, scholastic study and hands-on training.
Colonel Kirsten Brunson, a JAG (Judge Advocate General) officer at Fort Bragg said she saw a court room show on television at a rather young age and knew that the law was her calling. She started her career off in Hofstra University’s ROTC program before transferring and graduating from the University of Maryland. There are two Colonel Brunsons in her household — but it’s a safe bet that Kirsten is the one who wins the arguments. As a dual military couple, Kirsten Brunson joked that while she and her husband Xavier occasionally run into each other at Fort Bragg, they make the best of their time off together.
“In the early years of our marriage my husband would say things like: ‘stop cross examining me’ and ‘stop talking like a lawyer’.” Her reply: “Did it ever occur to you that I don’t talk this way because I’m a lawyer, I am a lawyer because I talk this way?”
(“See, you are doing it again,” Xavier Brunson interjected.)
During her senior semester with the University of South Carolina’s journalism program, Weber said she experienced what it was like to produce and record a daily, half-hour newscast. Despite the stress and difficult challenges that arise with such work, she found joy in the experience. “I knew I had pursued the right career,” she said.
By recognizing their passions and pursuing them early, these women were able to take the necessary steps — from choosing the right colleges to acquiring the required level of knowledge and expertise before entering the workforce — to achieve their goals.
As with any hard-won career, the work doesn’t stop with the schooling. “I wake up at 5:30 a.m., do rounds in the hospital, then spend the day in either the operating room or the clinic. Emergency Room call every fourth night involves responding to emergent neurosurgical problems as they arise,” said Dr. Wadon.
“Most days I work what we call a ‘one man band,’ Weber said. “I am my own camera operator, I drive a station car, and I write and edit all of my own work. Some days I receive an early phone call to come in for breaking news, and I know that working in this business, my shift could change at the last minute. I may have to work holidays or rush to prepare a breaking news piece to air as soon as possible, but I find my schedule to be exciting. I enjoy it.”
Demanding work schedules often make maintaining personal interests and relationships challenging, but these women have managed to balance their careers with their personal lives.
“I enjoy playing sports,” said Capt. Schuster of her free time. “I played lacrosse in college, but now I have found a home on the Fort Bragg Women’s Rugby Club.” When it comes to her personal life, she said, “I have a very supportive and understanding husband, so that makes it easier to overcome the challenging demands of my career.” Capt. Schuster and her husband are both Army aviators, which garners empathy from both partners when scheduling conflicts arise.
Dr. Wadon’s partner is a neurosurgeon, as well. “After 25 years, it seems normal to us. When he arrives home at 2:00 a.m., I know exactly what’s going on. It really helps that we both do the same thing.” Despite their long work hours, Dr. Wadon and her partner manage to find time for other interests. “Other than surgery?” she jokes. “We travel, spend time with the dogs, scuba dive and make dinner for friends.”
Weber has the added challenge of juggling a demanding career and a long-distance relationship with an active duty soldier. “The funny thing is, being in a long-distance relationship is a challenge, but we’re both so busy that I doubt we’d get to see much more of each other if he were here!” laughed Weber about her relationship with her boyfriend of two years. “I think the best way to find balance is to try to have some sort of routine. When it’s possible I try to work out every day, eat healthy, and socialize with friends and family. I love traveling on the weekends, and North Carolina is a great place for this. From the coast to the mountains, there are so many places to explore.”
Brunson lit up when asked about her greatest accomplishment and favorite diversion: “My three beautiful children — Raechel, Rebekah and Joshua.” As a working mother of three, Brunson’s free time is often tied up with family activities. She said she tenuously attempts to find a balance.
“The kids understand what I do and appreciate it,” said Brunson. “It requires lots of planning and being deliberate.”
But with military retirement looming, Brunson hopes to delve more into her other favorite hobbies — cooking and travel. She is already planning a huge 50th birthday bash in two years with her sister at the islands of Turks and Caicos for their family and friends. She has aspirations to take month-long vacations and show their children the world as an educational experience.
While focusing on their training and finding ways to balance work and play has been key to their success, these women acknowledged that sometimes the best inspiration comes from others. “There are so many men and women journalists I respect,” Weber said. “I have always looked up to Katie Couric. Her ability to be fun and spontaneous while staying professional always impressed me. She was also the first solo woman to anchor primetime weekday evening news, and now she has her own show.”
Dr. Wadon’s most respected mentors are Dr. Victor Keranen, the first neurosurgeon in Fayetteville, Dr. Lanna Ruddy, her old physiological psychology professor, and of course her partner and colleague, Dr. Bruce Jaufmann. “[Dr. Keranen’s] dedication, intelligence and wit convinced me this was the right practice for me,” she said. Of her old professor, Dr. Ruddy, Dr. Wadon said, “She believed in me and encouraged everything I wanted to achieve. She is not exactly in my field, but she made her mark on my life in many ways.”
Capt. Schuster’s best role models were in her own home. “My parents have always been such a positive influence in my life,” she said. “They taught me the value of hard work and the importance of doing any job to the best of my ability. My family has supported me every step of the way. My father has been one of my biggest influences. He has been a great example of positive and influential leadership that I have always strove to emulate.”
As one of four siblings raised by her mother, in a single parent home, Brunson shared that her mother has been the most influential person in her life. “On a single income she managed to give us great vacations, and put a homemade dinner on the table every night. I don’t know how she did it.”
The city of Fayetteville has also made an impact on the impressive careers of these women. “I didn’t know much about Fayetteville prior to moving here, other than that it was home to Fort Bragg, one of the largest Army installations in the U.S.,” Weber said. “Since moving here, this community has been extremely welcoming and inviting. I think one of its biggest strengths is that there is a wide variety of culture. People come from all walks of life, and because of that, there is something for everyone.”
“Fayetteville’s greatest strength is her people,” said Dr. Wadon. “They have such vision and dedication for our community.”
And that’s been true for me, too. Since arriving here in 2007, my vocations have run the gamut from geographic information systems specialist for a private environmental consulting company, to sustainability coordinator for Fort Bragg’s Environmental Management Branch, to bar wench, to real estate assistant and even a two-month stint as a hot sauce maker in Costa Rica.
It’s taken me time and several wrong turns to finally admit that my counselor may have been right — I can be a “jack of all trades” and refuse to choose a path, but in doing so I would continue to neglect developing my own unique interests, talents and drives. It’s extremely difficult to master anything while focusing on everything.
The truth is, overcoming the physical and mental barriers to establishing a successful, satisfying career is no simple feat, especially when combined with other societal limitations and expectations women face every day. That is why we’re recognizing these four accomplished women — an ambitious journalist, a talented neurosurgeon, an Army JAG officer and a helicopter pilot — and thanking them for inspiring us to achieve goals of our own.
Kelly Twedell contributed to this story.