By Sherry DiBari

When Sarah Ritchey, of Yorktown, Virginia, felt her son was old enough not to need her 24-hours a day, she decided it was time for a career change.

Ritchey, a single mother, full-time student, part-time employee and commuter, had spent 10 years working in the food service industry.

Once she decided to change gears, things just fell into place: associate degree, scholarship, internship, bachelor's degree and as of last week - a full-time mechanical engineering position at Jacobs Technology.

"Your future is never set in stone," Ritchey said. "If you see something you want, the only person that can get it for you is you."

After earning her associate degree in engineering at Thomas Nelson Community College (TNCC), now known as Peninsula Community College, she transferred to Old Dominion University's Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. She officially graduates May 6 with her bachelor's in mechanical engineering.

An innovative scholarship program, designed specifically for adult learners like Ritchey, helped to cement her choice to attend ODU.

The Manufacturing of Advanced Materials for Second Career Seeking Students (MAM) Scholarship, a National Science Foundation-funded award, is aimed at reducing financial barriers for STEM students. The program offers tuition assistance, professional development seminars, hands-on research projects and mentoring.

Ritchey is a perfect example of the program's success.

"Sarah is an exemplary second career student in the current Cohort of NSF STEM Scholars with the focus on manufacturing and advanced materials," said Oleksandr Kravchenko, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and principal investigtor for the scholarship project. "She has a passion for becoming an engineer and demonstrates commitment to excel in and outside the classroom. I am very glad that she joined the current S-STEM program, as she will serve as the role model to the next group of students once she graduates."

During one of the MAM seminars, Ritchey was introduced to Lisa Monaco, vice president and deputy general manager of Jacobs Tidewater Operations Group. The organization provides a variety of services to customers, including NASA's Langley Research Center.

"She talked about how she works for Jacobs over at NASA. And it sounded like she loved her job," Ritchey explained. "So, I applied for an internship there and got it."

Ritchey has been working at Jacobs part time since the internship ended over the summer.

Figuring out the work-life balance as a full-time student took a while.

"In the beginning, I was pulling all-nighters. I would procrastinate and push things till the end," she explained. "But now I try to get things done and budget a little bit of time for each class or each assignment."

These days, she manages work and school and tolerates the commute. "Some days it takes 45 minutes to get to ODU, and some days it can take two hours," she said. "It can be pretty rough."

Ritchey reserves Saturdays for quality time with her son, Corbin, 13. She attends his flag football games and they often go to farmers markets. Once in a while, she plays Dungeons and Dragons with friends. "It's a nice way to recharge," she said.

One thing she and Corbin are looking forward to is a home of their own. "We currently live with his grandparents," she explained. "He [Corbin] has been talking for a couple of months about us going house shopping and buying a house and moving."

It will be a new routine, but Ritchey is used to changing gears. "When I first started school, it was pretty scary," she said. "It was way out of my comfort zone, but now it's my new normal."