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From Rocket Scientist to RN; Student, 39, Undergoes Major Career Change

May 30, 2008

After earning her master's degree in technical management and systems engineering from Johns Hopkins University in Maryland, Susan Renee Zaczynski spent her days launching satellites and rockets.

Her resume went on to list Lockheed Martin, General Electric, the Department of Energy and transportation communications giant ARINC as employers. But three years ago, the married mom of one decided to chuck rocket science for a career as an RN. So she enrolled in and just graduated from the nursing program at Atlantic Cape Community College.

"Don't get me wrong; I loved my old job," said Zaczynski, 39, a native of Baltimore who now lives in Egg Harbor Township. "I made a lot of money. But I was working 70 to 80 hours a week to make someone else money, and I wasn't helping anyone."

After relocating to South Jersey five years ago with her husband, Andy Colon-who works at the William J. Hughes Technical Center­-Zaczynski decided to reevaluate her life and goals. The arrival of daughter, Ally, four and a half years ago was another factor in her decision to dramatically shift career gears.

"I was looking for a ‘mommy' job, working part-time" she explained. "This is one of the few part-time professions where you can help people."

Zaczynski chose the associate degree program because she already has a master's, so she can easily transition from RN to MSN. Her goal is to attend either Rutgers or Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia to pursue her graduate degree.

She hopes to land a position as an intensive care unit nurse, with an eventual eye toward working in hospice care.

 "My engineering side is interested in the engineering of the human body," she said. "As for hospice care, my grandmother died of Parkinson's after spending 11 years in a nursing home. That was something I wish I could have changed. That's why I'd like to go into hospice care."

What Zaczynski discovered during her back-to-school foray is that an increasing number of older students with advanced degrees are returning to college in order to pursue new, totally different career paths.

"I found that a lot of women my age are going back to school," she said. "More and more, I am the typical student."

Aside from that, Zaczynski found that more older people are going back to school mainly to pursue what they enjoy. As she found, older students know what they want and are in a position to pursue what they want, without the pressure from parents or peers that younger students often experience.

"You don't know what you want or who you are when you're 18," Zaczynski said. "I don't think you really know yourself until later in life."

The rocket-scientist-turned-nurse thoroughly enjoyed her experiences at ACCC. "I loved the program," she said. "The instructors are phenomenal, wonderful people. Because this school is small, they can hold your hand if you need it."

Above all, Zaczynski realized the value of life-long learning.

"In today's job market, you can't just get a B.A. and you're done," she said. "There are a lot of career changers out there. So learning is a lifelong process."