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Part 1. Looking back

Karen Shirer, associate dean

Karen Shirer, associate dean headshot.
Karen Shirer, associate dean.
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” (Charles Dickens, The Tale of Two Cities, 1859).

These words both capture the place I find myself today and define my work career as I reflect on it. I am finding this in-between time— when I am still working but also fast approaching retirement — a time for looking back and reflecting on the story of my “work” career. I put the word “work” in quotes because like most of us work played a primary role in my growth and development, and is deeply intertwined with other aspects of my life — marriage, children, hobbies and interests, etc.

My work career began early. As an only daughter with six brothers, much of the burden of work in the home fell on me and my mother. My father, a WWII veteran, worked as an auto mechanic and suffered from war-related mental illness. My parents were able to scratch out a lower middle-class lifestyle due to VA benefits for buying a house and medical treatment for my father. I learned young that work and a love of reading provided a path for overcoming adversity.

In high school (attended 1966 to 1970) I discovered a deep passion for learning and a desire to achieve. Home economics became my path of choice due to the mentoring of two important teachers. The times were turbulent with the Vietnam War and the beginning of the Women’s Movement, and the latter opened up opportunities for women in the workforce.

In my junior year I made the decision that I wanted to go to college, which no one in my family had done and there was no money to support. At first, I explored computer technology at a for-profit business school. I tested high on aptitude but couldn’t see myself spending my days in a room with a big mainframe computer (this was the days before personal computers). I also loved to sew and wanted to study fashion design at Mount Mary College in Milwaukee but the private college tuition was beyond my means. So, I worked full time as a bank teller after I graduated to save money for school.

I ended up attending the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and then University of Wisconsin-Stout in Menomonie. Both experiences provided the groundwork for a career in home economics education (now called “family and consumer sciences”). My favorite courses were textiles and clothing but foods and nutrition, human development, interior design, and family resource management also held my interest. During my junior year, I decided to become a teacher because it was a job my family supported and offered the best chance for getting a job out of college.

After graduation, I worked as a K-12 teacher for three years, and a community education program manager for home economics for eight years at a vocational technical school. In 1987, my career in Extension began at Iowa State University as an Extension agent in Black County (Waterloo/Cedar Falls, IA). At the same time, I completed a masters of science in home economics education. In 1990, my family moved to Ames so that I could work on my Ph.D. in family and consumer science (FCS) education and take a position as an assistant state leader in Family Extension.

My formal education ended with a Ph.D. in 1995 but informally it continued and continues to this day. I discovered a love for leadership and my career went in this direction. I participated in several leadership development programs, took a position at Michigan State University as the state leader for FCS Extension in 1999, and eventually came to Minnesota as the associate dean in 2007.

Karen Shirer, Sara Croymans, Darlene Rangaard, Bonnie Christiansen, Trish Olson, Loreli Schelhaas, and Kathy Schwantes during Southwest Regional Visit.

Here are other jobs I’ve held that appear insignificant but contributed to my career trajectory:
  • Taught women how to make their own jeans.
  • Sold shoes for five years through college.
  • Cooked for a summer camp.
  • Made a Passover meal at my church for 150 people.
  • Sewed for women who were difficult to fit.
  • Worked for a chiropractor.
  • Managed a So-Fro Fabrics in Chicago.
As the current phase of my career comes to a close, there are a number of reflections and lessons learned that I carry with me into retirement.
  • Formal education was an important factor in my career development but it was not sufficient. Work experiences, relationships, professional development opportunities, and more were necessary.
  • Other people were critical to my growth and development. Mentoring and relationships provided access to opportunities that may not have been open to me otherwise. There have been many guides and teachers along the journey. 
  • My family’s support was critical. My life partner, Steve, encouraged me along the way and moved with me for my jobs. My children put up with the demands of my positions, including frequent travel.
  • I had other career interests beyond leadership but over time I’ve found that I gravitated back to it. My interests include co-parenting education, working with inequities faced by families, community engagement, and curricular and instructional design. 
  • Supporting others to develop themselves became a focus in recent years. Preparing the next generation of leaders became an important priority. 
  • Work is important to me and has sustained me through difficult times in my life, and I expect to continue working in some capacity into the future as long as I’m able. But some sage advice I’ve been given is to take 6 to 12 months off before pursuing these new opportunities. 
  • I’ve not always been successful in jobs. I learned it’s okay to experiment and take risks but to acknowledge when something is not working out. No matter what, I learned valuable lessons from these painful experiences. 
  • Even in difficult situations I’ve always tried to learn from what is occurring and reflect how to work within it. One of my favorite sayings has been “make lemonade out of lemons.” 
What does your work career path look like? What would you like it to look like? What opportunities do you have or would like to have? I highly recommend pursuing these questions!

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