A brokerage vice president decides to study nursing so that she can `make a difference'

Trading dollars for doing good

July 26, 2006|By ANDREA K. WALKER | ANDREA K. WALKER,SUN REPORTER

Susan Anderson picks up the pace and tugs at her bag. She can't believe how heavy textbooks are these days. Nutrition class starts in a couple of minutes, and she can't afford to miss the pop quiz she suspects is coming now after the low grade she got on her last exam.

Some of her classmates stroll in late and miss it all. Anderson aces it. On top of that, the professor says he'll add six points to some of the exams because his answer key was wrong on two questions. Anderson thrusts her fist in the air in triumph, then settles back in her desk for class presentations and listens as a fellow student talks about how alcohol impacts heart disease in men.

Definitely not the life of schmoozing and expense-account dinners to which Anderson had become accustomed.

After 30 years helping to shape the Baltimore region's retail development, Anderson could be winding down toward retirement. But instead of planning to sleep in late, volunteer at her favorite charity or travel the world, she is pursuing a new career as a nurse at the age of 58.

Until this month, Anderson was a vice president at H&R Retail, a prominent brokerage with exclusive contracts with companies such as Target Corp., Whole Foods Markets Inc. and Shoppers Food Warehouse.

Now she spends most of her days in her home office buried in textbooks, writing term papers, studying for exams or figuring out statistics equations.

Anderson's nights at plush restaurants persuading retailers to move to the city have been replaced by lectures in dingy classrooms with world maps hanging from the wall and stains in the carpet.

"I have no life," she declares. "I study all the time."

But she said she wouldn't have it any other way.

Anderson's journey to nursing was a slow, well-thought-out one. About five years ago, she began thinking about what she would do when her career in retail development ended. She'd needed her income to help pay her kids' tuition. Her daughter attended Drexel University in Philadelphia and her son Columbia University in New York. With her son set to graduate soon, it seemed like the right time and opportunity.

"There was no specific moment when I decided I needed to do this," she said. "It was kind of a slow build. I've always wanted to do something like this. But finally financially and timing wise it was the right moment."

While her career afforded a comfortable life in Roland Park, the job wasn't exactly doing anything to save the world, and she'd always been a do-gooder - going back to her college days as a civil rights activist. She donates to Oxfam International, a poverty organization, and Heifer International, an organization that teaches poor communities how to develop their own food sources. She's active with the House of Ruth, a Baltimore domestic violence center, and adopts children living in poverty through another international poverty organization.

"I knew I wanted to do something different, and I wanted to do something important. Not that would make me important, but that would make a difference," she said. "You're a broker to make money."

Medicine looked to be the profession where people made the biggest difference. But getting through medical school would take too long. She could teach English overseas but didn't find that appealing. So she settled on nursing.

But Anderson hadn't been to college in more than 30 years. Her background was in history and sociology; she hadn't taken many of the science classes needed for nursing. And even if she had, her coursework was dated thanks to the advances in medicine since then.

So she enrolled at the Liberty Heights campus of Baltimore City Community College, where for the past two years she has taken basic math and science classes.

Like Anderson, many of her classmates are seeking second careers. But most are much younger. One is a paramedic, one a researcher and another is a dental hygienist. On a break from nutrition class on one recent Thursday, they leaned against lockers and talked about how competitive it is to get into nursing school. They complained about how tough the professor's exams are and wondered if anyone will pass the class.

But Anderson isn't one to let obstacles get in the way of what she wants. She rose through the ranks of what initially was an industry unfriendly to women to become one of the Baltimore region's most prolific retailer brokers.

She started in Baltimore's Planning Department, working as a planner for a decade in neighborhoods such as Park Heights and Rosemont. She helped the Monument Street Merchant Association get an awning over its shops to compete better with enclosed malls. (But once enclosed malls lost popularity, the association had the awnings removed.) When she didn't get the pay raise she wanted, Anderson went to work for a development group formed to improve retail opportunities along York Road.

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