Alumni Degrees Are a Means to a Different End

Diverse Backgrounds Provide Transferable Skills in New Careers

Adam Norton '09, left, uses his graphic design background as a robotics lab manager and is one of many alumni transferring skills to new careers. Photo by Ed Collier.

Adam Norton '09, left, uses his graphic design background as a robotics lab manager and is one of many alumni transferring skills to new careers. Photo by Ed Collier.

12/19/2013
By Julia Gavin and Sheila Eppolito

From engineering to cookies, literature to groceries and art to robotics. They may not seem like common tracks, but they’re all career paths University alumni have followed, making their dreams a reality and putting their educations to use. 

Chris and Paula White '91, civil and plastic engineers, respectively, became founders of 600lb. Gorillas, a premium frozen cookie company.

The Whites moved to California the day after graduation and put their engineering degrees to use. They made slice and bake cookies at night to destress from long hours but dreamed of owning their own business. The couple only lightly considered combining the two activities until returning home several years later, neither completely satisfied with their careers.

Cookies had to be better, right?

The Whites spent several years developing their company while balancing their growing family and shifting work schedules. Now, they run the 600lb. Gorillas company full time with products in several large chains. Chris focuses on manufacturing, logistics and product development and Paula deals with sales and marketing.

While they both felt prepared for engineering careers from their studies at the University, they’ve seen unexpected benefits in the entrepreneurial world.

“We absolutely used what we learned in college every step of the way,” says Paula, who credits the research, analytical and presentation skills from their engineering days with much of the company’s success. “Even though we ultimately didn’t end up in the fields we went to school for, we rely heavily on the skills we learned every day.”

Chris agrees, seeing the similarities between the engineering and baking world in testing, product development and research.

“[College] prepared us for our entrepreneurial venture more than we would have thought, by providing real-life experiences and lessons that went well beyond our scholastic learning,” he says. “Four years of college offers the opportunity to figure out what you are good at. Once you find it, and are able to become passionate about it, you have solved the basis of the equation that will lead you to a successful life.”

Adam Norton ’09, who studied to be a  graphic designer, is now a robotics lab manager.

Norton worked with robots for several years as he earned his graphic design degree and then employed as an arts educator. Now, as the lab manager for the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation Center at the University, he designs and coordinates exercises that put robotics from industry leaders to the test.

“I use my design background when developing tests at the lab and while building the runs,” says Norton, who has been an instructor in the Artbotics program since 2006. “I also work on the graphic design and aesthetic aspects of the robots we work on, which lets me combine my interests and make the projects more visually appealing.”

Renée (Jurgelon) Elliott '76, went from writer to founder of Planet Organic, the United Kingdom’s largest independent organic grocer.

Grocery stores weren’t part of Renée Elliott’s career plan. But reading “Diet for a Small Planet” in a nutrition class she took as an elective intending to round out her English degree sparked something in her.

Before her senior year, Elliott visited London and met her future husband in the country she’d come to call home. After graduation, she worked as a wine writer before realizing her dream of opening an organic supermarket.

Since Elliott opened the first Planet Organic in London in 1995, the business has expanded, offering produce, meat, baked goods, beauty items and natural remedies. She has also written several cookbooks and handles publicity, relying on her writing classes and that nutrition elective that started it all.

Although the Whites, Norton and Elliott have taken different paths than their degrees suggested, they're using the skills and networks built at the University in their careers. Preparing students for the changing work landscape, says Chancellor Marty Meehan, is what UMass Lowell is all about. 

"We have a responsibility to ensure that our students are work-ready, life-ready and world-ready to meet the challenges of not only today's society, but also the changes we anticipate in the future."