Back to School: Gifts from Two Volunteers on Career Day

By Sherry M. Adler

Their finely honed set of skills and love of lifelong learning brought them to Xerox, and sent them back to Clopper Mill Elementary School in Germantown, Md., for Career Day. Donna Thomas and Alana La Bel, both educators before joining Xerox, had life lessons to share with the young students at this school for at-risk children. They drew upon their own experience to engage the children and show how even the most unlikely paths can lead to success.

The key: Follow your interests and passion.

Confound Statistics and Stereotypes

Donna faced challenges during the early years of her life ─ poverty, abuse, neglect and apathy. Emancipated at age 17, she made her own way through college. Today, she holds two Master’s level degrees and is en route to a Ph.D.

“Success is not a place in life,” she says. “It is overcoming obstacles in the way of getting where you want to be.” With that principle as her guiding force, she confounded all statistics and stereotypes for someone with her background.

Donna Thomas (left) and Alana La Bel (right) shared their life lessons with at-risk children.
Donna Thomas (left) and Alana La Bel (right) shared their life lessons with at-risk children.

After 20 years of working at marquee high-tech companies, she used a layoff to go into teaching. Four years later, on the same day she received recognition as “State Innovative Educator,” a former colleague called her. Her contact had since joined Xerox and she persuaded Donna to apply for a job in Quality Assurance. Soon to mark three years at Xerox, Donna volunteers for educational initiatives. Her reputation came to attention of the principal of Clopper Elementary School, who invited her to Career Day.

“After checking my schedule, it took a nanosecond to respond.” notes Donna. “Count me in!”

Her assignment: Talk to kindergarten classes, to children four-to-five years of age.

It was an ideal occasion for Donna to share her story. Many of the students come from similar circumstances. “It’s important from the outset to instil pride and esteem in these children. That sets the course for them ─ and everyone ─ to want to learn,” Donna explains.

What did Donna teach that day?

  • Play well, share, listen, get along with others.
  • Read, write, ask questions, explore, do math.
  • Understand Y-O-U: What you are good at and want to do.
  • Set goals and work to achieve them; then set higher goals.
  • Get Educated: It opens opportunities that don’t exist otherwise.
  • Love to Learn, Love STEM: Science Technology Engineering Math.

Donna’s Formula for Success:

Goal Setting + Work Ethic + The Golden Rule = Master of Your Destiny

“In the face of impossibility, strive to turn your dreams into realities. You can make it happen.”

Adaptability Is Critical Success Factor

With college diplomas in hand, Alana entered the field of teaching. A Romance Language major in college, she went directly to graduate school to study Spanish Linguistics. Then she accepted a job offer to teach Spanish to middle school and high school students.

That was the straightforward beginning of a career that has landed in the high tech sector. “It may seem unusual to go from teaching school to programming computers and then to managing large-scale projects; however, the foundation is the same,” says Alana. “Translation and communication are core skill sets in all of these areas. They share the same roots, but use different terms.”

Alana has worked at well-known high tech firms. Now at Xerox for four years, she organizes and coordinates all of the activities and tasks required for a project. That is how she described her role to the fifth grade students she spoke with on Career Day. She emphasized the transfer of basic capabilities from one field to another throughout her career. “It’s a matter of listening to what people are saying, translating and processing issues, and then figuring out how to reach agreement to satisfy needs.”

When Alana arrived at Clopper Elementary School, she realized the student body was multi-cultural. Once in the classroom, she offered to speak in Spanish and polled the students about it. They agreed. “It was a great ice breaker,” she notes. “I delivered my presentation bullet points first in English, then repeated the content in Spanish.” It engaged the children and brought them into her story.

That story line was about adaptability as a critical success factor. As Alana puts it: “Languages can be used in unexpected ways in roles not traditionally designed for them. The idea is to polish your talents; then apply them broadly.”

Lessons from Alana:

  • Open yourself up to new things.
  • Be creative, flexible and resourceful.
  • Master foundation skills, such as organization.
  • Develop your people skills.
  • Add technical knowledge in line with today’s world.

Keep the Conversation Going

What does a good day at school look like for you? Share your insights in the comments section below.

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