James Atkinson: from aspiring Marine to Certified Career Expert
Supporting students in finding their calling in life, James Atkinson has spent the last two years as the Director of Career Development at Berea College’s Center for Transformative Learning (CTL). However, a career in career development was not what Atkinson had in mind when he was trying to find his own calling. “Twenty years ago, if you would have said that I was going to be a career counselor,” he said, “I would have said that you were crazy.”
Coming from a coal mining family originally in Harlan, Kentucky, Atkinson considers himself as fortunate to be the first child born in the city of Louisville. However, even though his being raised in Louisville kept him from following the family career path of coal mining, college was not a plan he had for himself either. “I thought I was going to the Marine Corps,” he said, but his family had other ideas. “My mother was a big proponent of me going to college, and my brother, who was enlisted at the time, once told me the Marines will always be there and I better take the opportunity to go to college. So I did, and never really looked back, although I regret not serving.”
After careful consideration of several colleges and universities, Atkinson ultimately enrolled in Kentucky Wesleyan College in Owensboro. He was the first generation college student in his immediate family. There, he started out with a major in Business Administration. “Since we didn’t have any at the time, I thought it would be fun to work with money.” However, it did not take him long to realize that a major in Business Administration was not for him. He switched to Criminal Justice. “Firstly, I had some really good professors in Criminal Justice. Then I took a Criminal Investigation class where we actually investigated a non-student suicide on campus. That really piqued my interest.” He graduated with a Criminal Justice major and a Philosophy minor.
The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia was where Atkinson planned to land after graduation, and from there to go to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “But God had a different plan,” he says, “I broke my leg in three places playing softball (after 4 years of relatively injury free football!) a day before I finalized my paperwork for the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.” Consequently, he had to abandon his plan of becoming a criminal investigator in the FBI, and went back to Louisville to recover.
Three months later, he started working for United Parcel Service as an air cargo supervisor. He spent three years working for UPS and then moved to Ford Motor Company. Ford became his occupational homefor the next thirteen years. It was at Ford that he established himself as a career expert.
Atkinson worked as a voluntary chaplain and as the Education and Training Coordinator at Ford. In his role as chaplain, he counseled co-workers during their difficult times and directed them towards necessary resources. As the Education and Training Coordinator, he directed all on-site and off-site degree programs and benefits, as well as taught continuous improvement, lean principles and health and safety courses to employees. “Ford is where I really got into career development. I worked with adult learners and their families using different theories and practices to help them get where they needed to be,” he says.
It was also while working in Ford that Atkinson earned his master’s degree in Manufacturing Management and Engineering Technology from Eastern Kentucky University. He recalls how challenging it was to balance work, studies and family affairs. “Sometimes you may have to miss a class, and obviously, you are going to have to make up the required work. But there is also the flip side; there are times that you are going to have to miss a lot of your family time too. I can say that I am very blessed to have such an understanding wife and family.” However, there were other sides of his graduate school experience that gave him the energy to face the challenges. “Having an employer that paid for it was one opportunity I did not want to pass up. Moreover, graduate school is usually geared around working adults, so the rigors of your life are somehow understood.”
While at Ford, Atkinson also earned his Global Career Development Facilitator Certification through the University of Wisconsin. He also started his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Organizational Development at the University of Louisville right before he left Ford Motor Company to enter academe.
“I went to the University of Louisville as a senior career coach in their Career Development Center. There, I was working with the Speed School of Engineering, the Department of Athletics, the Office of Military and Veteran Student Services, and the entire school of interdisciplinary and graduate studies, which includes about 14,000 students over all.” In his second year at the University of Louisville, Atkinson became an adjunct professor in the Work Force Leadership program. “It is the fastest growing program in the university. It helps adult learners go back to school. We had a lot of non-traditional students that were also parents going back to obtain (or finish) their undergraduate degrees. Many of them had a few credit hours, but then ‘life happened.’ They quit school to raise their kids or get a job and the years passed. It was one of the most rewarding programs I’ve been a part of.”
Among those who worked with Atkinson at the University of Louisville, there happened to be three people who were associated with a small liberal arts school called Berea College in Berea, Kentucky — a former intern of his who had worked in Berea, and two colleagues who were Berea alumni. From these colleagues, he learned about Berea, observed the potential of the new Center for Transformative Learning that the college was striving to establish, and deduced that it might be the right time to pick up the blue banner.
“I looked at the job description and looked at what they were trying to do with launching a new center that is not in the traditional sense of a career center. I really liked the way they incorporated Faculty Development and Peer Consultation as well as Internships into the new center. That is what really drew me, besides the mission of the institution and coming back to a school where I could help students from the Appalachian region, in a manner of speaking, giving back to my origins.” He joined Berea College in August of 2011 as the Director of the Career Development Office and Co-Director of the Center for Transformative Learning along with Esther Livingston, a position which Atkinson and Livingston later passed to Dr. Leslie Ortquist-Ahrens, the Scholar for Teaching and Learning.
Though Atkinson encountered a smaller number of students in Berea than at the University of Louisville, he found the corresponding work as great and demanding. “We use the Bridge metaphor to help students to bridge into Berea. We help them discern their majors and figure out what it is that they really want to do by creating connections between their labor assignment, their academic studies and any experiential learning. We are trying to collect these into a package that students can sell to employers or graduate schools. We are helping them realize they really need to think about their career development earlier in the cycle, and not just in their senior year.”
After investing in the futures of college students for the last six years, Atkinson had this to say about his work: “It is rewarding to watch students figure out what they want to do. It’s important to stay on top of current employment trends, graduate school programs, employers and the jobs they need filled, and be able to provide help and answers to our students and alumni.”
James Atkinson claims that graduating from a liberal arts school takes the blame for his successful navigation of various career paths. “It helped me to be more flexible and adaptable. I’ve had great inter-personal communication with people. I was able to speak freely with whomever ranging from the person sweeping the floors to the CEO of the company. It did not matter to me as long as I communicate with everyone at the same level,” he says, “I gained a lot of opportunities when I was in college. I had my student work position as well as internships. I had different types of positions and experiences that helped me see how to articulate what I was doing in the classroom to the work force.”
Consequently, it is this same advantage that he advises students to utilize in their lives after Berea. According to Atkinson, opportunities to follow what the heart desires might not be immediately at hand. “Finding satisfaction from doing what you love is wonderful, and it will not be a problem if you can find a position that you love. More often, though, you do not. You have to start out somewhere, usually at the bottom. That is how you learn and prove yourself in the work place. Then you will be able to build upon your experience. Hopefully you get to that point where you actually do what you love.” This is where, according to Atkinson, students should take advantage of their liberal arts background to adapt themselves to various arenas on their way to their desired destination.
While focusing on being that person you dream to be, Atkinson recommends keeping your eyes open to other opportunities as well. He recalls the time — as he was graduating from Kentucky Wesleyan College — he was offered a position as an admissions counselor, which he declined. “I told them I was never going to work for a college,” he remembers. “I could have been doing what I am doing now, i.e. helping students in their careers, twenty years ago and really enjoying it, but I was head strong only on what I wanted to do. But if you listen to those outside influencers and at least keep your options open, you might be surprised by what you discover.”