Helping others: Kelly returns to school in her 50s – and finds a new career

Telecommuting might appeal to some people, but not Kelly Devine.

Born and raised in the Southern Tier, she spent more than 20 years in the local manufacturing industry, working as a purchasing manager in Endicott. After her company moved, she worked out of her home for three years – and hated it. One of her strengths lies in her ability to connect with others, and the prospect of replacing human contact with a computer screen and fuzzy slippers just didn’t appeal.

“I had severe people withdrawal,” she explained.

With deep roots in the Triple Cities and a love for the area, following her job out of state was also off the table. At age 51, she decided to go back to school and retrain for a different field – a big step for Devine, who achieved various certificates through her career, but hadn’t pursued a degree since high school.

While she continued to work part-time at a local church, she decided to major in Chemical Dependency Counseling at SUNY Broome, inspired by a desire to help others.

“I’d rather have a career instead of a job,” she reflected. “I think there’s a difference between the two.”

The degree program prepares students as entry-level counselors in the field of alcohol and substance abuse treatment. The current job demand for professionals is high with the nation’s growing opioid epidemic. In addition, there is an anticipated shortage of trained counselors due to projected retirements, with a majority expected to retire in the next five to seven years.

Back to class

Devine already had some experience of campus life – as a parent, taking her son on campus visits across the state. Even during those visits, SUNY Broome stood out and she felt comfortable choosing the same college for herself, for both the quality of education and the “campus feel.”

Now in his final semester at SUNY Broome, her son is a Liberal Arts major interested in psychology; the two have taken a few classes together, as well as helped each other study.

“I’m glad he’s looking at working with people, too,” she said.

Her favorite class: Cultural Competencies in Chemical Dependency Studies, which she took with her son.

Initially, she felt a bit like she was “dropped in a foreign country,” but she caught the rhythm of campus life, helped by the campus’ diverse student population, which includes a large range of ages. The availability of services such as free tutoring also boosted her confidence, as she juggled her role as a full-time student with a part-time job.

“There’s so much available. If you want the extra help, you can get it,” she said.

Preparing for a new field

Contrary to popular belief, addiction isn’t just about personal choice. It’s a real disease, involving changes in the brain – and in the client’s core identity.

“When you have people who are being treated for addiction, you’re asking them to change a huge part about themselves and how they act,” Devine reflected.

To keep prospective counselors from suffering career burnout, SUNY Broome’s program include an emphasis on self-care that Devine finds helpful in her new career. Professors and coursework help students understand and take care of themselves, which then allows them to take care of others in need.

Students also have opportunity to engage in their chosen field directly through internships that can also lead to job opportunities. Interns also have class together, during which they process their own unique experiences in the work field, Devine said.

She had her own internship September through December 2016 at the Addiction Center of Broome County, juggling school work, paid employment and 15 to 20 hours a week in the field. It taught her a good deal – and led to an immediate full-time job in the field. The Center hired her on Jan. 3, and she graduated from SUNY Broome in May.

“I was totally prepared to work there, which totally blows my mind. It doesn’t often happen that people are completely ready to go into a new field,” she said.