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Surprise! 5 real-life, unexpected college-to-career journeys

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For some folks, their undergraduate major leads them directly into the very career they'd expected. That's not a bad plan, given the rising cost of college tuition and the focus today on making a college degree pay off, literally with a high-salary, entry-level position, or, at least a job in a field they've studied. But let's face it: the path to a prosperous profession that you're passionate about is often not a straight line from degree to occupation--and that's OK.

After graduation, many people begin in their expected job slot only to find their interests leading them elsewhere, some take even more scenic routes from the very beginning to their ultimate career destination. That's the case with these five professionals we've profiled. They found happiness in unexpected places, with most still using knowledge gained from their college experience, which shows that you can wind up doing something you love even if you could not have foreseen it when choosing your college major. For those of you that still haven't gotten to your new career destination, it's never too late to learn how to change careers.

From coding to core workouts

Bambi Ann Martin is the co-owner of the just-opened Spinlates Wellness Center in Hollywood, a Spinning-Pilates-yoga hybrid studio that is the favorite workout spot of celebs and entertainment-industry powerhouses. However, Martin could never have predicted her burgeoning fitness business back when she was an undergrad at Southeastern Louisiana University. She had chosen a major in international business with a minor in computer science and management. For a long while, these educational choices served her very well.

"Even as a student, I was doing well in the computer field. During my senior year I was selected for a special field-study program and eventually ended up in the tech-marketing sector," says Martin. "I have to be honest, the money was extremely good," she adds, but notes, "I knew from day one I would be an entrepreneur."

The fit, effervescent blond realized she wanted to strike out on her own when the opportunity presented itself. When a software company she was working for was sold last year, Martin decided it was time to live her dream. "I had long loved Spinning--I got addicted to it when I was living and working in New Orleans. I wanted to come to work every day with a smile on my face, to help people feel better about themselves, and now I do. I am living my dream."

Naturally, Martin's deft computer skills are a huge asset to her Spinlates studio--for one, she didn't have to hire anyone to build her Spinlates Web site.

From bylines to blooms

The low-key and witty Christopher Bolick says, when asked about his college major, "I am never quite sure how to answer. I went to Sarah Lawrence College and we didn't have majors. I studied writing classes, wrote a lot of essays--you could say I studied humanities. I didn't have a lot of definition--Sara Lawrence has a really self-directed course of studies. Some people really flourish in that, but I didn't."

Initially, Bolick thought he wanted to work as a writer, explaining, "My mom was a journalist--she wrote for newspapers, magazines. After I got out of college with a fairly useless degree, my sister--who is also a writer--nudged me into getting a job at a bi-weekly Boston paper. I then bounced around New England writing cringe-worthy copy for local publications."

Then, something entirely unexpected cropped up in Bolick's life. "Eventually, I got married, and my wife got accepted into a psychology fellowship at Yale," explains Bolick. "I needed to get a job there, and the only one available was as a part-time manager at the Yale greenhouse. As it so happened, the guy hiring was the father of my freshman-roommate's father from Sarah Lawrence, so I landed it."

So, into the Marsh Botanic Gardens at Yale University went Bolick in 2006, not knowing much at all about soil, plants or fertilizer. Today, he is the staff horticulturist, and is surprised as anyone at his long tenure. "It turns out that I love horticulture!" he declares. "I love working in the greenhouse. It was a bit late in a frustrating career path, but I finally found my calling. I needed some additional training, and I earned my horticulture certificate from the New York Botanical College."

When asked to describe what's best about his career, Bolick explains: "I like the never-ending problem-solving. I love the greenhouses. I feel like I am the captain of a ship--working with the heat and managing this microcosm. I have become a part of international groups, I have gotten to meet amazing people all over the world. I really live in 'plant time.' With journalism, the hard part is getting to the truth. With plants, you do a grow program, and the plant either flourishes or it doesn't."

Bolick's encouraging advice for those who are confused about their own career paths? "A lot of time, people do the job they think they should do. I say, follow your interests. Have faith, be brave and hold on. Out there, there is a great job for you." If you'd like to see what's blooming for Bolick these days, check out the Marsh Botanic Gardens Web site.

From buzz-words to bees

Cleveland-based Amy Rzepka studied advertising at Ohio State University, mostly, she says, because, "I didn't know what I wanted to do. I went to a very large state school and it was hard to change majors."

Rzepka is now the owner, with her family, of the Beecology line of organic bath and body products. Beecology's soaps, shampoos, lip balms and the like are made using beeswax and honey that they farm themselves. She notes of her college self, "I was creative, I knew that, and advertising seemed the natural path." But of course, she took a detour.

"After college," says Rzepka, "I took a PR job, I worked for a sorority and visited campuses. I then worked as a community education organizer. They were good jobs, but never really lit my passion." As it turns out, what did put a bee in her bonnet, professionally speaking, were actual bees.

"My family and I became beekeepers pretty much by mistake. Over 10 years ago, a friend had asked us to watch his hives. He lived an hour away and his wife was having a tough pregnancy and he wasn't able to take care of them," she explains. "We became instant beekepers. My husband was very interested. We had lots of extra wax and we started with lip balm. We'd considered doing candles, but our kids were young, so we scratched that idea."

Rzepka has obviously taken to her winged charges. "We started with just two hives," she says, "and now we have 20--beekeeping is a very relaxing hobby, very interesting. If you're not afraid, the bees won't be. They are very gentle, and they don't want to sting you."

When asked to look back at how her college education and early career influenced her current passion, Rzepka says, "One of the things that I liked the most about advertising was the PR part and public speaking. I learned a lot of what's required to run and promote a small business back then."

When Rzepka talks about what she likes most about running her own company, she says that it's enabled her to spend a lot of time with her children, who are now all teens. Beecology has also brought her closer to the people of Cleveland. As she explains, "My neighbors like the bees, because they help pollinate their gardens. One cool statistic is that a bee has touched every third bite that you eat: coffee, oatmeal, apples. It makes you feel good--we are helping the environment, the products are safe, we use products all from the U.S. We're also really excited in that each product a consumer buys from us has 10 cents that the purchaser can apply toward a charity."

You can check out the great products that Rzepka and her family creates at their Beecology site.

From compositions to chuckles

Dave Pierce is a warm, funny Los Angelino who began an academic career that is quite different from his current career. As he explains, "I am a native New Yorker; I grew up Upstate and I went to NYU and began studying psychology--I loved that it had both a scientific and academic bent to it."

Still, studying psychology at NYU wasn't a great fit.

"When I would sit in these classes of 100-plus students," says Pierce, "I felt disenfranchised, and felt badly that I hadn't worked hard enough in high school to get into a college where there were smaller classes, and I could have more one-on-one time with the professors."

Eventually, Pierce's interest began to shift. "I had a lot of friends in school who were music techies, NYU had a pretty good recording studio and equipment. I was taking classes in the music department; it allowed me to take a computer-language course in the truly nascent days of the Internet--this is back in the late '80s, and it was really exciting. I studied a lot of trade things, but I wasn't really prepped for the real world. There were some people I knew who were lucky enough to fall in with the likes Laurie Anderson or Peter Gabriel and land cool jobs, but I wasn't one of them."

After college, Pierce tried many careers--he worked in the research department of an investment bank, worked at the SF MoMA, he traded on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, he even ran a division of his family's toy company. Nothing seemed to click.

Then, a few years ago, Pierce found a career that made his heart sing. He is a partner in a company that is a talent agency and production agency, with a focus on comedians.

"After different manifestations of work life, this is the first time I'm able to pair my personal interests with my professional life. My type of comedy is left-of-center, Adult Swim-style stuff," says Pierce. "I first was exposed to the professional comedy world through my wife, who was writing about it for The Los Angeles Times and was working at comedy festivals. Watching how these people are starting to get big careers--doing something that has been a hobby when they were in their twenties and turning quite lucrative in their thirties--has been an inspiration to me."

When asked what he loves most about his job, Pierce says, "I enjoy being of service on a friendly level. It's very exciting to have the capacity to mentor young comedians. I think that you are able to identify raw talent after just a few years' experience. It's also great to be able to encapsulate a talent's voice--to tell them how to translate their raw talent into a show. Someone can go straight from being a funny person fresh to the comedy business to having a real shot at success."

From finance to film

Soft-spoken and charming, Los Angeles-based Jane Choi majored in economics at UC Irvine. She explains her academic decision thusly: "Basically, when I started school, I wasn't sure where I was heading or what I wanted to do. I was undeclared during my first year. Then I started taking more and more economics, and by the middle of my sophomore year, I had declared my major."

Though she was an ace with numbers, Choi always felt something was missing from financial analysis. After school, she says she started working for a marketing firm doing accounting, but found herself increasingly drawn more and more to the creative side of the business.

"A few years later, I moved to a boutique production company, and I met a lot of editors and they encouraged me to try editing: 'You'd like it,' they told me, 'it's more creative.' So, six years ago I took a video-editing course--it was an intensive two-week program, eight hours a day," says Choi. "Then, when I was done, my friends started recommending me for TV editing gigs, and here I am. I love it!"

The life of a freelance television editor is not known for its stability, but Choi's talents and easygoing demeanor have meant that she's never lacked for work. "I move from show to show to show, and I have been very lucky as a freelancer," she explains. "Right now I am working on a kids program, So Random, for the Disney Channel, and it's a lot of fun."

Choi doesn't disavow her college study choices, and feels that the economics-major side of her helps a lot in her new career, saying, "I am more left-brain, more analytical, this comes in handy when I am editing."

Finally, she praises her support system for her happy career shift. "My family and friends were very supportive of my change. If it weren't for my friends' encouragement, I wouldn't be doing what I love today."

Choi's message for those who are considering a drastic career shift, one that may not seem to capitalize on their college studies? "Don't give up on yourself--pursue the job that you want, you only have one life."