Layoff sparks grandmother’s motivation

New degree, new job for Fredericktown woman

February 10, 2013
Sandy Harbaugh returned to business school one day before her granddaughter, Avelynn Donaldson, was born in June 2011. - Christie Campbell / Observer-Reporter Order a Print

When Sandy Harbaugh found herself unemployed more than two years ago – she was a customer service representative for Teleperformance USA’s account, which moved its call center operations overseas – the 57-year-old grandmother of two decided to head back to school.

Last week, Harbaugh began a new chapter in her life when she started a job at Laurel Business Institute in Uniontown, where she earned an associate degree in administrative office technology.

In January, Harbaugh stood before her fellow graduates, their families, her husband and children and delivered the commencement address as valedictorian of her class.

Another feather in her cap: She earned perfect attendance and student of the month honors.

Harbaugh credits her family for her academic success.

“It ended up that the school I attended wound up hiring me,” said Harbaugh, of Fredericktown. “My husband and my kids supported me, and I’m thankful for that. Every now and then you run into someone who says you’re too old to go back to school, but that’s not true.”

As an administrative assistant in the human resources department, one of Harbaugh’s responsibilities is helping the school’s graduates find jobs, something she is excited about.

“I thought, at least I know what I’m talking about. I’ve just been through it,” said Harbaugh.

Initially, the prospect of heading back to school after nearly 40 years was intimidating, and Harbaugh said the hardest part of the experience was getting used to doing homework again. And she had to get adjusted to a technology-driven environment.

“I went to career school in 1973, and they taught us how to smoke a cigarette and keep the ashes off your desk,” Harbaugh recalled. “It’s funny when I think about it. Life has changed since the last time I went to school. They didn’t have PowerPoint, Excel or Microsoft Office. I’m much more marketable now.”

Harbaugh said she was the oldest person in her class, surrounded by women in their 20s, 30s and 40s, but she found herself making friendships that she believes will last for years.

As a young woman, Harbaugh’s first job was a secretarial position at Ferguson’s Insurance Co. in Canonsburg. She left for Kappel’s Jewelers in Washington Mall for seven years, then took time off to raise her two children. She re-entered the workforce 15 years later, taking a job at Gabriel Brothers in Brownsville, then accepting a job at the call center.

Harbaugh said her experiences as a mother and a worker taught her one thing: It’s important to stay in the workforce.

“The world moves on while you’re home. Even if you get out one day a week, you should work, just to stay involved. I wish I would have done that,” said Harbaugh.

So, while many people are thinking about winding down their careers, Harbaugh is just getting started.

“I’m scared, excited, everything all at one time,” she said. “You want to do a good job. But I feel pretty confident. I feel like I learned everything I need to know at school.”

Karen Mansfield is an award-winning journalist and mom of five who has been a staff writer for the Observer-Reporter since 1988. She enjoys reading, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a good glass of wine and nice people.

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