“Empowered Women Empower Women” : The Importance of Female Mentors

I feel a bit hypocritical seeing as I’m sitting in my alien pajamas, writing this from home instead of being at work like I should be but, I’ve always been a master of playing hooky and I’m not gonna stop now. A few months ago, I was basically assigned to be a coworker’s shadow. Where she goes, I go. Projects she works on, I work on. Her job was to show me the ropes, so to speak. At first I was a bit apprehensive. I was new to this particular group at work and despite my cubicle being across the aisle from hers for the past 6 months or so, I really knew nothing about her.

Our job entails a lot of traveling. I mean a LOT of it. Every-week-a-different-place kind of traveling. Unfortunately, most of this traveling is just to Ohio (boo). Regardless, this means a lot of hours in the car, breakfasts in hotels, and dinners at whichever restaurant is closest. Conversation was a bit stilted at first, as to be expected. After all, we were essentially two strangers being forced into close quarters. But as time wore on and traveling became the norm, I started to realize that my coworker wasn’t just teaching me about my new position, she was teaching me about life.

My coworker (let’s call her Tammy), is very open about sharing stories from her childhood in Ecuador, her many travels, her university experience, and her job experiences thus far. To say she has lived a remarkable life feels like an understatement. According to Tammy, the culture in Ecuador is that women were to complete their high school education and then get married and have kids while the husband was the unfaithful financial provider. Sounds kind of like a nightmare, right? Well, this was her mother’s reality. Tammy’s mother found the courage to leave her husband, move to the United States and bring her (6) daughters with her, so they could pursue the higher education they otherwise would have been deprived of. I was told by Tammy that her mother had always told her daughters, “You can get married if you want to, but you WILL get your education first.”

So that’s exactly what my coworker did, but it certainly wasn’t easy. With Spanish being her first language, there were several English requirements that she had to pass. It took Tammy five years of working part time to pay for her classes and continuously failing one of her English courses before she was finally able to enroll in university. To me, that alone is admirable; Wanting an education so badly that you try and fail at the same thing for five years but never throw in the towel. Her studies eventually set her on the path that would one day cross with mine. Tammy become a part of the automotive industry, working at a GM facility.

During her time working in the plant in Ohio, Tammy was diagnosed with breast cancer. She underwent three rounds of chemotherapy along with radiation and she did it by herself. Her family doesn’t live nearby, and she never asked them to come help her through. On Fridays, her chemo day, a friend from work would take her to the hospital, drive her home, and then stay Saturday and Sunday to make sure she was alright. The rest of the week Tammy spent alone; feeling nauseous, losing her hair, sleeping the majority of the day away.  Ten years after the fact, Tammy tells me she was able to survive because she “wasn’t very smart” and went into it thinking about it like the flu, or something she just had “to get over”. There is no doubt in my mind that her attitude played a major role in her beating breast cancer. Once the doctors gave her the all clear, Tammy realized that she hadn’t really done anything she wanted to do in life. So she set out armed with her bucket list, and she crossed every single thing off.

I have the heart of a wanderer. I would love nothing more than to travel the world, meet new people, and experience different things. Tammy’s stories of her bucket list adventures fill me with equal parts awe and jealousy. She has backpacked through Belize, climbed up to Machu Picchu, spent days wandering the Galapagos Islands. She’s been to the Amazon Rainforest twice, in two different countries. She has camped in every national park in the United States. Her current plan is write a new bucket list and start again.

Starting again is kind of Tammy’s modus operandi, really. She has a handful of Associates degrees because she would become interested in something, learn what she could about it, then move on to something else that grabbed her attention. She eventually ‘settled down’ and got her Bachelors in computer programing, just to turn around and sell her computer and go without until three years later when she had to buy one for a job. She has bought and sold cars, bought and flipped houses, sold television sets at a Sears in Hawaii, worked as an electrician’s apprentice, a maintenance supervisor, the list goes on and on. Some people may see that as being fickle. I would too, if I didn’t know the stories behind each job. Her motto is “work to eliminate your job”. Take your department and make it run so well, that it no longer needs you to function. When that happens, she moves on to the next opportunity. Imagine if everyone had that mentality and work ethic. I’m going to work so hard, and do my job so well, that everything is running peacefully and I can gracefully bow out. That’s essentially what she’s doing with me. She’s training me and grooming me so intensely and thoroughly that one day, I’m going to take over her position. If that’s what I want.

Tammy is well aware of my degree in English and Creative Writing and my passion of reading and writing. She knows that’s what I would really love to be doing, without me ever having to tell her. She calls me “The English Major” and tells suppliers that I won’t be around much longer. Not because my job is in jeopardy, but because she’s subtly, but firmly pushing me towards my dreams. It started with casual questions during car rides. What genre of books do you read? What do you want to write about? Do you do any writing right now? Do you have a blog where you post it? What places would you like to travel to? It evolved into more pointed questions. What would you really like to be doing? Why aren’t you writing right now? And finally, just a week or so ago, the questions stopped and this incredibly straightforward statement came. 

You need to travel, and you need to write. Otherwise you’ll just remain a bookworm your whole life and wake up one day wishing you would’ve done it when you had the chance.

So here I am, writing this piece. The longer I spend on it, the more I realize how important female mentors are. How crucial it is to surround yourself with empowered women. It’s so easy to get caught up in what society expects of us, instead of what we expect of ourselves. Somehow Tammy has always avoided that. She has no children, is not married, and has never wanted either of those things. She has always lived her life for herself. Tammy has told me that she “wants to be responsible for no one but [her]self.” She has also managed to avoid the impossible beauty standards of today’s society. Sure, she watches what she eats and exercises, but she does it for the sake of being healthy, not so she can fit into a size 2. This is another thing that she is unknowingly helping me with. I struggle with depression, anxiety, and disordered eating, but it’s easier to manage when I’m with Tammy. We once went to dinner at a nearby Olive Garden and both of us were craving the chicken fettuccini alfredo. Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately, I’m not sure yet) Olive Garden has put the calories of all of their dishes on the menus since I was there last. Knowing that my dinner alone was about 1500 calories had my stomach in knots. Somehow Tammy could tell. She said, “we both worked out, we could eat half…heck, we could even eat 3/4 of this, and it would still be okay.” That logic, along with both of us immediately dividing our portions up helped me through that meal. Having someone on my side, without ever having to say anything or ask for help is making all the difference.

I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve having someone as amazing as Tammy in my life. Empowered women empower women, and it’s happening in my day to day life. All I’ve wanted since my eldest niece was born 3 and a half years ago, is to become a strong, independent woman who will be a positive influence and source of empowerment for her. Thanks to Tammy, I’m on my way to becoming just that.

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