“We fall down,” the popular gospel song lyrics suggest, but “we get back up again.”
Rachelle Forney sure has lived it.
But what a rite of passage — her graduation — is coming up for this 30-year-old Akron woman.
Sarah J. Cupples, public relations representative at the University of Akron, alerted me to Rachelle’s journey:
“She graduated from Firestone High School in 2002 and went to Tiffin University, but had to drop out and return home to Akron after becoming pregnant with her son. In Akron, she worked various jobs, including the FirstEnergy mailroom, all while going to UA part time.”
Rachelle was determined not to stay down. As she attended UA over seven years, she worked the entire time. During her senior year, she accepted a job as a project engineer at Republic Steel, where she works now.
Rachelle had attended Tiffin on a partial track scholarship, specializing in long jump; and she was an international business major with Spanish as a minor.
When pregnancy derailed that game plan, she was forced to make some major decisions.
Many of them were difficult, yet one would be easy: Because she was down didn’t mean she was out of contention for a successful life for herself and her son.
So, she worked several part-time jobs while trying to get herself back up: bank teller, cashier and so on.
“I was young and irresponsible back then,” she said with humility in her voice.
Prayer changes things, she was convinced. So does hard work.
The dark clouds parted one day in 2006 after she landed an entry-level job in FirstEnergy’s mailroom.
“My boss signed all of us up to attend a corporate roundtable featuring Tony Alexander (FirstEnergy’s CEO). We rarely ever saw him in person,” Rachelle said. “This was a real opportunity to hear his vision, his goals for the company and about future projects.”
Glad to be invited to the table, so to speak, Rachelle said, “I always aspired to do more. I wanted a career.”
She had earlier decided to change her major from international business to engineering “because I always liked math and science.” Deciding on what area proved to be both simple and humorous: “Not mechanical engineering because I didn’t want to get dirty, and not civil engineering because the structural aspect didn’t grab my attention.”
So, electrical engineering ended up getting her vote. “The idea of controlling and analyzing what you couldn’t see was just so interesting to me!”
She continued, “When I did meet Mr. Alexander I told him I was in school part time studying electrical engineering and that I would be interested in seeing the plant and how electricity is made.”
Her question at the roundtable was about the availability of plant tours, not just for herself but for others. Alexander told her due to budgetary constraints, it wasn’t possible at the time.
However, by the time Rachelle had changed from her navy-blue power suit back into her mailroom attire, Alexander’s executive assistant had called her supervisor and arranged for her to tour a couple of the plants. “My boss asked ‘What did you say?’ ”
Rachelle — who described herself as “always the curious type” — said she would see mail going to so many different departments and wondered what happened in each one.
Shaping a vision
“It was a real turning point in my life … It gave me my vision,” Rachelle said of that roundtable encounter. “I knew at that moment I would definitely need to finish college to make that happen.”
She reflected on the events of that day, saying, “I had that one suit that I wore to church and on job interviews. I believe it ended up being very symbolic of where I wanted to go in life when I wore it to that roundtable. It helped change my perspective and my potential.”
She explained: “In the classroom there was no one like me in terms of demographics — an African-American woman … So, I had to develop that sense of confidence to say to myself, ‘You can do this.’ … I’m not claiming to be the best student. I wasn’t. But I worked hard.”
Fortunately she had a strong support system — specifically her grandmother Barbara Thornton-Smith, who was always there to help with her son, Timothy.
Rachelle’s work ethic was duly noted by those in the company and doors began to open wide for her.
“I got to co-opt at the Bruce Mansfield Plant outside of Pittsburgh for two semesters,” she said with excitement in her voice. “It was a very unique opportunity since I hadn’t had any of the core engineering classes … But I met the best mentors along the way, people I still keep in touch with … I was able to observe major capital projects there. They made me feel part of the team.”
She attended UA while working in various departments at FirstEnergy, including smart grid and energy efficiency, from 2007 until 2013. Rachelle said she paid for college with federal student loans and grants. Her major sponsor was the Choose Ohio First STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) grant.
Rachelle will graduate — after a seven-year journey — from the University of Akron on Friday with a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering. “Finally there is light at the end of the tunnel,” she smiled and sighed, adding that the degree “is as much Timothy’s as it is mine … There were times I didn’t get to see him, especially during finals week.”
She continued, “I have had a lot of people who have supported me along the way — my FirstEnergy mentors; the ones at the University of Akron, especially Adam A. Smith (assistant vice president, Division of Student Success), who took me under their wings and pushed me along when I would be crying and bawling my eyes out.”
There were times when she felt besieged and thought about quitting. “Sometimes I would be so tired that I would fall asleep studying with my head in my book … Hillary Clinton said, ‘It takes a village to raise a child.’ Well, it took a village to help me get this degree!”
Cupples called Rachelle “a fantastic example, to not only her son (who’s now 11) but to others who are facing obstacles.”
Rachelle said she wants to “encourage every young girl or woman out there — no matter their race, economic background or other circumstances — that they can do it too … Yes, college is a different ballgame. But never settle for less and have faith … Most of all never give up! … There will be bumps in the road. But keep moving forward. It only took me almost a decade but I did it.”
… We fall down; but we get back up again!
Jewell Cardwell can be reached at 330-996-3567 or email@example.com.