From Teacher to Student: Career Change Brings Nutrition and Exercise Science Major Kerry Perez to Rowan

Photo of Kerry and her four children.

Today we feature adult learner Kerry Perez, a Nutrition and Exercise Science major from Haddonfield, NJ (Camden County). She transferred to Rowan from Camden County College. Kerry shares how she’s made a successful transition from full-time teacher to “nontraditional” student here at Rowan. 

Photo of Kerry.

Before you pursued your degree here at Rowan, you were an educator. Could you share why you are making a career shift?

I always knew I wanted to be a teacher, and that is exactly what I became. I studied elementary education at Bucknell University and graduated in 2002, I took my first teaching job after a yearlong AmeriCorps Volunteer position, right outside Washington D.C and continued this path for the next 11 years.  In those years I got a master’s in special education at Rider University and taught in three different schools, moving as my husband made his way through medical school and surgical residency.

I loved teaching both for the rewards personally and professionally.  In 2011, my husband and I welcomed our first set of girl twins, Esme and Georgina. With lots of help and support I was able to go back to teaching and continued for three more years until we were blessed with our second set of twins (boy/girl) in 2014. When I left for maternity leave, I had all intentions of returning to this career that I loved.  But the reality of having four children under the age 3 and a husband who was now living in Albany, NY (I was in Haddonfield, NJ) completing his fellowship set in hard. 

The decision to leave teaching was a hard one; this career had defined me and for a large part was how I valued myself. Thrust in the role of stay-at-home mom, staying on top of the demands of young children, while also not losing one’s identity, is incredibly challenging. I knew that staying home with them was a luxury that many parents do not have, so I also struggled to stay grateful. I continued to remind myself raising these four children to be valuable members of society, to teach them a strong moral compass so that our world would be better off, was truly the most important work that anyone could do.

Photo of Kerry and her four children.

What inspired you to choose your major?

As my children got older our family was introduced to some mental health issues and young daughter was diagnosed with anxiety at the tender age of six and in addition to therapy, we became educated about the important role of nutrition on mental health. I found myself deeply connecting with the notion that food is our healer, and that through changes to our diet we can positively affect not only our physical health but also our mental health. I could not resist continuing to explore this passion in nutrition and dietetics, and with the gentle nudge and support of my husband a new and scary path began.

I knew that I wanted to return to the work force in some fashion, but I was only ever going to be a teacher, this new path would involve subjects and content I hadn’t studied in over 20 years (actually I had avoided) and even though I had both a bachelor’s of science and a master’s degree I would pretty much be starting from the beginning.

Photo of Kerry and two of her children.

How did the transition go from teaching to learning? 

I graduated in the class of 2002 — we didn’t have cell phones, we barely had email. So here I was in 2019 and taking both an online and on-campus class. Canvas, Banner ID, Examity, Google Classroom, and the Cloud were new terms, and the learning curve was steep and quick. As a double hit I was learning how to navigate the world of online learning while also learning content I had avoided, which was science. To top it all off my brain as a 39 year old just didn’t function like my 20-year-old brain, I had mastered the techniques of making a third grader’s lunch while emptying the dishwasher, folding laundry, cooking dinner and kissing boo-boos, but figuring out the potassium and sodium pump or stoichiometry was a different ball game. There may have been tears, a lot of questioning of why I am putting myself through this.

Being a nontraditional student, being almost double the age of many of your peers, being part of classes that you have little recollection of, is intimidating and humbling. My first class I brought notebooks, highlighters and my reading glasses, the rest of the class brought their iPads and cell phones. 

The juggling of studying and completing classwork and finding the balance of fulfilling my role as a mom and wife while not feeling guilty about pursuing a new career is challenging. There won’t ever be the right balance: some days the kids overrun all my checklists and some days I’m up early or stay up late to watch yet another YouTube video on calorimetry.

Any parting advice for Rowan students, specifically adult learners or those who are considering going back to school?

It is hard, but we can do hard things.

I remind myself that one day my four children will reach a wall they’d rather not climb. A wall that on the other side leads to opportunities they never dreamed of, I want to be able to tell about the time I, too, met that wall. I desperately wanted to stop and fell many times but I climbed that wall and it was worth it. 

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