Alumna Recalls Enjoyable Career | Virginia Peninsula Community College

Alumna Recalls Enjoyable Career

September 23, 2021
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Cathy Mays said Thomas Nelson was a great fit for her.

Cathy Mays worked for three presidential administrations, with an office in the West Wing her final four years. She worked for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She worked for the Motion Picture Association of America, as well as numerous vice presidents at major corporations.

Recently, as she was doing some retirement cleaning, she realized she had a great career and did some great things. However, she wouldn’t say she was special. She just took advantage of the opportunities she had.

“I came a long way with an associate’s degree. I did,’” she said.

That degree, in secretarial science, came in 1976 from Thomas Nelson. It led her into a career she wanted and enjoyed.

“The possibilities wouldn’t have been there if I hadn’t furthered my education,” she said.

After graduating from Bethel High School, her next step was Thomas Nelson, which she said was a great fit. She loved how it opened up a whole new world, a diverse world, to her. She wasn’t ready to move away from home, but still learned how to be independent, and what she wanted to do with her life.

 “It just worked for me,” she said. “I never found anyone who said that’s not a good school.”

A number of her assignments at Thomas Nelson stand out: read the Wall Street Journal, buy a stock and see what it does at the end of the month, read the paper.

“The people that influenced me the most were the people that taught us how the real world was going to be,” she said.

She recalls case studies that she thought at the time were extreme.

“I would look at that and say, ‘This is ridiculous. No boss would ever do this. This is just extreme.’ Let me tell you, they do things like that,” she said. “So I feel like the training I got in my courses there prepared me for the real world.”

Her real world included time as a clerk stenographer with the federal government, as an executive assistant in the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations, the private sector and for the CEO of the Motion Picture Association. She also did advocacy work for the Gates Foundation.

“In the two years I spent (at Thomas Nelson), and the courses they offered at the time, it gave me a lot of knowledge about where I was headed, and to go out into the world and make a living doing it,” she said.

She never earned a degree higher than an associate’s, but that doesn’t mean her education was finished. She says she “learned something from every job I have ever had.” And she often was encouraged by her employers to enroll in classes at local colleges, which she did.

“I took a lot of management classes, and accounting and marketing, and all sorts of things,” she said.

But she never felt the need for another degree.

“I never wanted that paper,” she said, although she took classes at the University of Maryland, and was accepted to the University of Richmond. “I didn’t feel like I needed that paper, with all the experience that I had. To tell you the truth, I probably have more college credits than the degree would give me.”

This is about Mays’ fourth attempt at retirement, and so far it’s lasted 10 years.

I’ve failed at retirement about three times, but I think this time I’m not answering the phone any more,” she said with a laugh.

Mays and her husband, a chief engineer for the national missile defense program at the Pentagon, live in Fredericksburg. Her time now is spent sewing, cooking, volunteering and traveling with her husband. They also have a home in South Carolina. They have no kids or grandkids, but six nieces and nephews.

She drives by the Hampton campus every now and then.

“I remember when that was just three little buildings over there, and we used to play tag football on Saturdays,” she said. “It was a small school, and we knew everybody in that school. It was a great. I thought it was a great opportunity.”

She says she is proof you don’t need a four-year degree to be successful, that earning an associate degree or getting an apprenticeship can be just as important, especially if it helps you decide what you want to do or helps you find your niche.

“I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning,” she said. “I have done it on my way up the ladder.”

Her resume is impressive, but again stresses she’s “not special. I’m not, by any means.” She’s just grateful for the opportunities she’s had, and that includes attending Thomas Nelson.

Her story is a lesson for today’s students, no matter their age.

“You can go and get that associate’s degree, and you can go do great things with it,” she said.