We all have that one friend who pushes us outside of our comfort zone. The one who gets you to try new things and confront your fears. Cheri is that friend for me.  When I was stuck in a rut of just working and taking care of others, she taught me how to take care of me.  She pushed me to embrace trying new things and confront my fear of heights and she even held my hand when that fear overwhelmed me!  She is continually trying new things, even new careers.  Cheri changed her career not once, but twice in midlife.  These weren’t small changes either, these were major changes from a hairdresser, to Greenlandic kayak instructor, to nurse.  Read on to find out how she mastered the art of career change.

Can you please introduce yourself, tell us what you do and where you do it?

My name is Cheri, I’m an RN and I work in Scarborough, ME at the Maine Vets Home. I work per diem so I pick my own hours. I’m also a sea kayak instructor, specifically, I work as a guest instructor for teaching Greenland style kayaking mostly rolling.

Your first career was as a hairdresser, was that something you always wanted to do as a child? If not, how did you decide on this field?

I actually wanted to be a nurse but it involved more schooling than I could afford. My Mom was a telephone operator and I knew I didn’t want to do that. My gram worked at Kmart and I didn’t want to do that. My mom had two good friends one was a nurse and the other was a hairdresser. Her hairdresser friend seemed to have fun and enjoy her work. School for that was one year and I figured if I didn’t like it I could pick something else later.

While you were a hairdresser, you took up kayaking and then started to teach it, what drew you to the sport?

I enjoy being outside, preferably in wild places. So I liked that I could pack up the camping gear, put it in the kayak and go. But ultimately I didn’t have that much time to go so I just spent small bits of time in my kayak in local ponds and lakes or Long Island Sound and that’s how I learned to enjoy rolling.  Kayaking in Connecticut was a pretty new thing so people would see me kayaking and ask about it so teaching happened naturally.

While hairdressing didn’t feel like it was a great fit for my life, it served a purpose in my growth as a person.  I was young and I learned so much from my clients.  Some had lives that were very well lived and some didn’t.  I learned from both.  I didn’t want to have regrets, I didn’t want to live like that.  And sometimes, I couldn’t wait for a client to come in because their attitude and confidence helped me to figure out the type of person that I wanted to be.

I remember when you became fascinated by the different ways that a kayak could be rolled and then found out that there was a competition in Greenland that you wanted to participate in…tell us about the training that was involved to get ready for this competition while you were already in your 40’s.

Cheri competing in Greenland in 2004

Cheri competing in Greenland in 2004

I found a quietness underwater when life above water was quite chaotic. I had a teenage son, owned my own hair salon, single parenthood…just lots of stress. I found rolling was a way to decompress. And finding the Greenland competition list gave me the inspiration to try new things at a time when life was getting more stressful. To balance my mental health I needed to push my boundaries in other ways.

I trained by going to the gym and trying to roll my kayak a couple of times a week, either in a pool or ponds and lakes or ocean.

When things got really stressful during my son’s teenage years, the Greenlandic rolls hooked me.  And being upside down in the water while I was figuring them out had a calming effect on me, kind of like an inversion in yoga.  I went to the Greenlandic competition not because I’m highly competitive but because it was something that I was passionate about, people were encouraging me because I had gotten so good from all the years of practice.

In my blog, I write a lot about trying new things and people who start over.  You decided that you no longer wanted to be a hairdresser and instead wanted to teach Greenlandic style kayak rolling around the world.  What drove you to make that leap?

My success at the Greenland national championships in 2004 was followed by invites to teach. First at Sea Kayak Georgia and then at that event, I got invited to a couple more.  Each event I worked at I got more invites. I started dating another kayak roller and he and I launched a side biz teaching which I was doing in addition to the running my hair salon solo.

At the same time that you were changing your career, you also sold your house in Connecticut and bought an uncompleted converted barn in Maine.  Tell us how you managed to go through two major changes at the same time.

Well, the economy was tanking at the time. In Connecticut, I had the expense of my house with a mortgage, AND my overhead for my hair salon. My son had moved out for the second time. In my head, I was planning on staying in that home another few years to save more money for retirement but with the economy so bad I was just making enough to pay all the bills and none was leftover.  So I thought if I was brave and lucky I could sell my house in Connecticut and buy a house somewhere cheaper and have no mortgage and not have any salon overhead expenses. I felt confident enough with the kayak biz because it was already up and running part-time, and we had a demand for that. So it was never an option to stay in Connecticut with a mortgage and become a kayak bum and roll around the planet.  It just wasn’t feasible.

Cheri teaching kayak rolling

Teaching positioning for rolling

And now, ten years later, you changed your career yet again or at least added in a new career.  You went back to school and became a nurse.  Can you share why you wanted to be a nurse at this time in your life?

When I became a kayak instructor I knew it was unsustainable because we were never home, our place was still unfinished and I needed to be able to save more for retirement. It was meant to be short term.  Since I always wanted to be a nurse and they are in super high demand I thought it might be a good retirement career. It is kind of like coming full circle.  Interesting and challenging, intellectually stimulating and health-based, and caring for people are all of interest to me.  My biggest concern that I worried about was:   Did I have what it takes to get through nursing school?

The bizarre thing is that I always felt that hairdressing was a temporary job, and I never really felt old or too old when I was teaching kayaking and rolling. But the leap to go to nursing school I did feel like “Holy crap! Life is moving by, I better bust a move on nursing school.”  I was getting a bit anxious about that but how I fight anxiety is by being overly prepared.  I knew that if I failed even one semester, then I would be done with it.  I also knew that I had an advantage over a lot of the other students.  I’d already tried other jobs, my son was already grown and out of the house, I had the luxury of time to study and I put it to good use.  It was hard, don’t get me wrong.  And there was even one clinical semester that I wondered if I would make it, but I did.  And becoming a Registered Nurse was more satisfying and powerful to me than graduating from hairdressing school at 20.

Cheri with her Dad at her Pinning Ceremony

Cheri with her Dad at her Pinning Ceremony

Did you get any advice or help from others while embarking on any of your career changes?  What is the best advice or assistance that you got along the way?

Books inspired me: Rowing to Latitude by Jill Fredston and Paddling My Own Canoe by Audrey Sutherland are just two of many.  These two books inspired me to go further in my kayaking and the confidence that I gained from that eventually gave me the confidence to go back to school.  I knew that when I went off to do the kayaking thing that I would have to have another career afterward because I didn’t have enough saved up for retirement.  And I was ok with that.

Seeing Audrey Sutherland who didn’t start going on adventures until after her kids were raised was especially inspiring.  She started in her 50’s and continued into her 80’s.  I saw her at an L.L. Bean symposium.  She basically made me realize that I was never going to be rich, but I could have amazing adventures.  I could throw all my stuff in a kayak and go cheaply and have this amazing adventure and that’s what hooked me into kayaking.

There were other kayakers that inspired me because they’ve done amazing things, people like Justine Curgenven and Simon Osbourne who expanded their horizons to do things that other people wouldn’t consider.  Justine created Cackle TV and the acclaimed This Is The Sea series of DVDs.  Some of the twenty plus sea kayak adventures she completed included the first all-female circumnavigation of Tasmania in a sea kayak, as well as a solo trip around Iceland’s West Fjords.  Simon Osbourne learned how to kayak when he was seven years old and in 2002 became the youngest person to circumnavigate Great Britain.  He did it in memory of his brother who died of leukemia when Simon was 9 years old.  He raised more than 22,000 pounds for leukemia research.

And to go along with that question, what advice do you have for someone looking to make a career change (or multiple career changes) during midlife or later?

Don’t let age stop you, you are as young as you are ever going to be right now.  What things might You regret not doing when you are at the end of your life? Then do those things now.  Only you define your life. I find it amazing how so many people put constraints on their OWN lives that actually don’t exist. They feel like there are barriers but the barriers are actually self-made.

Be frugal.  I’m also averse to debt, so I’ve always paid off my credit card fully each month, paying extra on my mortgage allowed me to sell in Connecticut and buy in Maine with no mortgage. Living well under my means to afford the dreams. While I have had car payments at different points in my life I have never used the whole time to pay them off. But it didn’t happen right away, some of it was forced on me when I divorced and became a single parent.  Being single I couldn’t get a mortgage without 20% down. I became more frugal over time, as I saw the benefits of financial freedom and how it could help me fund my adventures.

Recently we did a 4-week trip paddling from Portland, Maine to Machaistrop, Maine.  We did resupplies every 10 days.  So I challenge people to think about what limitations they’ve set for themselves and to push back the parameters.


From hairdressing to kayaking to nursing: how she mastered the art of career change on UnfoldAndBegin.com

I hope you enjoyed getting to know Cheri.  You can find out more about Cheri at the below links:

Website: Kayakways.net
Facebook:  Kayak Ways
Adventure Kayak article: 3 Greenland Rolls You Need to Know