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By Laurie Davies
Sometimes you concentrate on international studies and end up running a winery. Or you get a business degree but wind up making quirky musical instruments.
Two University of Phoenix alumni have embraced the weird and the wonderful — taking their careers and interests to places they never imagined they’d go. Here are their stories.
Clara Van Drunen (MBA, 2013) has stared down machine-gun-yielding militias, eaten boa constrictor and been inked by an octopus. Oh, and now she runs an urban winery.
For her, it’s all a very natural progression that began when she was the straight-A-earning, overachieving seventh of eight kids growing up in scenic West Virginia. She knew even then that she wanted to see and taste what the world had to offer. The Air Force was her entry point.
Now a retired E7 Master Sergeant, Van Drunen began her 20-year Air Force career in finance, “mainly because I wanted to travel, and there are different colors of money all around the planet,” she quips.
And travel she did. She lived on bases in Washington, D.C., Germany and Korea, and for the last six years of her Air Force career, she was on a special duty assignment for the U.S. Defense Attaché Office, working as a military liaison in American embassies in Cameroon and Madagascar. That’s where she ate boa constrictor. She also ate viper and porcupine. (“It’s a little rubbery,” she says of the latter.)
It's also where she cultivated a sense of connectedness with other human beings. “It was humbling to live in a Third World country,” she says. Madagascar, her last assignment before retiring, stands out. “There’s no electricity, no running water [where I was]. The people there were always smiling and generous to share whatever they had, which was very little,” she says.
At the end of her military service in 2006, Van Drunen had to figure out what to do with the smattering of college classes she had taken at various bases over the years. “It was hard to find a reputable school that would honor the collection of military credits and classes I’d already taken,” she says, noting that with University of Phoenix (UOPX) she found she could transfer her eligible credits.
She moved to San Diego because “when you retire, you’re supposed to live at a beach.” There, she got started on her bachelor’s degree in earnest with UOPX and met her future husband, who was dabbling in making wine on weekends.
“After 20 years of wearing heels and a suit, now was my chance to wear jeans and flip-flops,” she says.
She bought a little MR2 convertible, and with her then-boyfriend, Eric, bought a ton of grapes — yes, a literal ton. “We weren’t even in the business yet. We just said, ‘Let’s try this out.’”
They bought two little tanks, started mastering the art and science of winemaking and got married. All the while, Van Drunen kept working on her education, earning both her bachelor’s and, later, her MBA with a concentration in international studies from University of Phoenix. (MBA concentrations have since been retired from the program, but much of the content has been incorporated into the overall MBA curriculum.)
“The MBA definitely helped, especially with critical-thinking skills and decision-making,” she says.
Her and her now-husband’s winemaking business grew to a large tasting room with 20 employees. “We went really small to really big and hired employees.” In the end — both due to profit margin and preference — the duo scaled the operation down again to two people: Clara and Eric, or “Charlie & Echo,” the first letters of their names in the military’s phonetic alphabet.
Situated near a military base, Charlie & Echo often draws customers who take stock of the military motif and assume that it’s Eric who served. “Nope, I’m the Charlie,” Van Drunen will say.
Maybe it was her time in developing countries. Maybe it’s just who she is, but Van Drunen views wine like she views people: non-judgmentally.
“We want to make wines very approachable,” she says. “People come in and think winetasting is this bougie, unreachable thing. ‘I don’t know anything about wine. I’m embarrassed,’ they’ll say.
“But you know your palate,” she reassures.
And usually a new wine lover is born.
Van Drunen and her husband are passionate about producing craft wine from local vineyards. To her, it would be a shame if any two bottles tasted the same. “If there’s a pine tree over the vineyard, I want to taste that,” she says. “If there was a fire nearby, I want to taste that it happened.” Her love for terroir, the complete natural environment in which a wine is produced, again flows from her larger views about connectedness.
She and Eric keep their winemaking simple: They harvest grapes when they’re available rather than rushing the process with chemicals; they process as little as possible; and they connect with local growers who use no herbicides or pesticides.
“We are ultra-local. All of our grapes are grown in San Diego County. We’re all connected. If we can help the local farmers by purchasing grapes from them and put it back into the economy by sharing our bottles with local bottle shops and restaurants, it’s a sustainable way of doing what we love,” she says.
She runs the business side, her husband makes the wine, and now, at 55 years old, the speed limit has finally caught up with Van Drunen. She doesn’t drive that sporty little MR2 anymore. She drives the local economy by making craft wine with locally sourced grapes that capture the essence of San Diego.
Director of marketing operations for Bluestone Apps by day, James Broyles (AA in Business, 2016) makes other things by night. Lots and lots of other things. From creating quirky musical instruments to dabbling in 3D modeling and 3D printing — enough that he gets some side-hustle business from it — Broyles is part of the maker movement, an umbrella term for a chapter-based movement of inventors, tinkerers and designers.
Like many University of Phoenix students, Broyles didn’t follow a traditional path to higher education. He got married and had kids right out of high school, so college didn’t seem to be immediately in the cards.
“I had a hundred different jobs in a 10-year period,” says Broyles, who did everything from pizza delivery to plumbing to repairing nuclear gamma cameras in doctors’ offices.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do until I started seriously thinking about going back to college,” he says.
Plus, he had another motivator. “I wanted to show my kids it was possible to go to university and graduate.” His own father, a Coast Guard veteran, had achieved a two-year degree, and his mom never earned a degree.
He credits his business classes at University of Phoenix and his involvement on the board of directors with his local maker shop, for helping him be better prepared to take on leadership positions at work. “I can build websites by myself. I can do marketing and sales, and hold down a leadership position at work,” he says.
He started at the company as a project manager, a position he still holds with VIP accounts. He also serves on the escalations team. “I have opportunities to flip those situations into positive outcomes,” he says.
It’s not unlike the problem-solving he sharpened at UOPX and sharpens through his affiliation with Knox Makers, a dues-based hobbyist shop where blacksmiths, woodworkers, metalworkers and other makers gather to saw, drill, weld, build and make a mess — noisily, if necessary.
To be fair, his participation in the maker movement is mostly a side hustle. He does some 3D modeling and 3D printing on the side and has sold some small pieces.
However, at Knox Makers, James has taught classes on 3D printing, served on the board of directors during a time of growth, and has even learned skills that translate readily to his day job. “You learn about making with a community,” he says.
For example, he built a robot, and it just wouldn’t work right. So, he worked with peers to figure out how to rewire it. And voilà, now he has a working robot.
“At work, I’ve been able to work on projects like a mobile app that controls a car wash. So, there is crossover,” he says.
His maker hobby has also translated to success at home.
“I helped facilitate a creative learning workshop online with MIT. One of the things we learned about was scratch programming. I used that to create a simple video game for practicing math lessons. My own kids started getting better math grades after that,” he says.
At 42, he’s happy now not to have to work three jobs at one time. “In those years where I was working multiple jobs at the same time, mainly I was working to pay the bills. I wasn’t working to find job satisfaction. I’ve found it now. Every day I’m learning something new,” he says.
He believes that earning his associate degree has led to more opportunities at work.
“The critical and creative thinking classes shaped how I look at work and how I look at opportunities,” Broyles says.
“Specifically, I was able to flip problems into solutions in a way that opened some doors for me. My creative-thinking class helped me think outside the box, and that has come in handy when I’m working with clients.”
A marketer by day and a maker by night, Broyles has his sights set next on a bachelor’s degree. And knowing him, he’ll figure out a way to make it happen.
Want to learn more about the impacts University of Phoenix alumni are making in their communities? Visit the Alumni Chronicles page on the University of Phoenix blog.
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