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Women professionals urged to move past 'scary feelings' and toward individual visions

From death and addiction to divorce and constant moves, life’s challenges cause careerwomen to reinvent themselves.
by Paula Burkes Modified: March 30, 2014 at 10:00 am •  Published: March 30, 2014

Early in her 31-year career at Oklahoma City University, Susan Barber was perfectly happy working as a biology professor and serving on nearly every campus committee. Though colleagues had urged her to consider administrative positions, Barber, who has a doctorate in botany, held fast to her teaching, because she loved it and knew she was good at it.

Then her husband died suddenly of a massive heart attack, cutting her income by two-thirds.

“I’ve never really been driven by money, but I had to rethink that, and didn’t like it,” Barber told guests Tuesday at OCU’s fifth annual Women in Leadership Conference at the Meinders School of Business.

Her finances fell in place, but still colleagues eventually convinced Barber, after 20 years in teaching, to accept a position as assistant vice president of academic affairs 11 years ago. She assumed the provost job in August 2011.

“I was very nervous, and not sure, about making the switch,” Barber, who’s been happily remarried for years, said.

“But opportunities have come that I never imagined,” she said.

Remembering your dreams

Barber joined Christy VanCleave, co-founder of the Tulsa-based nonprofit Muddy Paws/Pets Helping People; Teresa Rose, senior director of community relations and events for Chesapeake Energy Corp.; and JP Morgan Vice President Linda Kissler on a panel on reinventing oneself.

Recovering from drug addiction was the turning point for VanCleave, who made up her mind one day, after spending most of three years in jail, that she’d one day help women, like herself, “find jobs other than flipping burgers so they could make a living” and break destructive cycles, she said.

“Every time I’d go back in, I’d see the same women going in or out,” VanCleave said, who recovered, found work as a pet groomer and advanced with Petco.

But while she was taking chemotherapy to treat breast cancer, VanCleave was laid off and had to foreclose on her home in California, she said.

“At 45 and broke, I had an opportunity to take a similar paying job as I had with Petco, but then I remembered my dream,” she said.

She moved to Tulsa and started Muddy Paws, which trains women inmates to groom rescue dogs, so that the women upon discharge can find employment in the pet industry.

Over the past four years, VanCleave said 70 women have found jobs, with only one recent arrest.

Fleeing a childhood that included divorce and federal embezzlement charges against her father, Rose, who’s a west Texas native, said she purposefully chose to attend a college where nobody would know her.

She transferred from the University of North Texas to OCU, where she earned a teaching degree.

She taught English for a year here but, when she moved back to Texas, couldn’t find a job, so she worked in the corporate world, before returning to OCU to earn her law degree.

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by Paula Burkes
A 1981 journalism graduate of Oklahoma State University, Paula Burkes has more than 30 years experience writing and editing award-winning material for newspapers and healthcare, educational and telecommunications institutions in Tulsa, Oklahoma...
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I’ve never really been driven by money, but I had to rethink that, and didn’t like it.”

Susan Barber,
Oklahoma City University vice president of academic affairs


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