Northwest Woman

Women at Work: Pursuing the Careers of Their Dreams

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Who says women can’t have an amazing and fulfilling career? Meet a few local ladies who’ve worked their way into some prestigious roles.

Freeport Art Museum’s extensive collection includes this example of pietra dura -- pictures made entirely from colored stones that have been hand-cut and hand-polished. (Karla Nagy photo)

Freeport Art Museum’s extensive collection includes this example of pietra dura — pictures made entirely from colored stones that have been hand-cut and hand-polished. (Karla Nagy photo)

Women are proving they can have the occupations they desire – and a family too, if they choose to do so. In an ongoing Northwest Quarterly series about women with unique jobs, we meet four more ladies who are following their hearts and pursuing the careers of their dreams.

Jessica Modica, Director, Freeport Art Museum

Jessica Modica grew up in Lincoln, Neb., and studied fine arts at the University of Nebraska. As her education progressed, she developed an interest in art history and museums.

She moved to Illinois and attended graduate school at Northern Illinois University, obtaining a certificate in museum studies. A requirement of the certificate was that she participate in an internship, which she completed at the Freeport Art Museum. The internship paved the way for her to work as a curator at the museum for several years, and, three years ago, she assumed the duties of museum director.

The Freeport Art Museum exhibits art from its impressive, large collection – which includes nearly 4,000 artifacts from all continents and time periods; 15th to 19th century European paintings, prints and sculptures; textiles from around the world; and contemporary American prints, paintings and sculptures.

The museum also brings traveling exhibitions to the community.

Modica’s day-to-day duties include facility management, community advocacy, marketing coordination, strategic planning and management of fundraising, grant writing and educational programming and exhibition management.

Working at a smaller-scale museum, she has not faced obstacles related to gender discrimination. “Much has changed in the past five or 10 years,” she says. “Most notably, in small museums. The majority of director jobs are now held by women. At larger institutions, though, it’s much tougher for women to obtain director positions. It can be a matter of pay, because a woman’s income is still [sometimes] 75 percent of what a man makes.”

The workload itself can be daunting.

“There’s a lot of responsibility, and the success of the museum falls on my shoulders,” she says. “Private art museums don’t receive much support and it can be challenging to meet the budget.”

As for juggling professional and family life, “The balance is hard,” she says frankly. “It’s not easy to leave work at 5 p.m. every day. The sheer number of hours can be difficult. I put in many hours, depending on the week. Sometimes 60, especially when it comes to grant writing.”

Still, Modica enjoys her career and finds it rewarding.“The best part of the job, for me, is being part of community projects and exhibitions that really enrich the community,” she says. “We want to be a resource. What I love about small museums in general is the outreach programs.”

The Freeport Art Museum partners with several businesses and other organizations to provide educational programming. One such program is Arts Magnetism, with the Jones Farrar Magnet School. The program is funded by grants from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois and the Freeport Community Foundation, as well as private donations.

“We coordinate with the school’s educators to design arts-based projects and lessons that support the key principles of their International Baccalaureate Curriculum,” Modica says.

To women who aspire to work in positions like hers, Modica offers some simple advice: ask for help.

“It’s really easy to become overwhelmed by all the responsibilities,” she says. “I have to ask people I know, people that are willing to help. And people will step up to the plate.”

Dianne Butler, Owner, Illinois Design Center

Rockford designer Dianne Butler grew up in Oak Park, Ill. She first fell in love with the arts in kindergarten when, in her classroom, a fake fireplace with painting reproductions above it captured her fancy.

“I was hooked,”she says. “I grew up looking at beautiful pieces of art and loved them.”

Butler took art classes throughout elementary and high school, including at The Art Institute of Chicago. While in college, she decided to be a set, clothing or interior designer.

“I thought it would be one of the most intelligent things to do [if I got married] and had kids,” she says.

She attended both the Ray-Vogue School – later known as the Illinois Institute of Design – and the University of Illinois, before getting married. She started working as a freelance designer while living in Park Forest, Ill., with her late husband, a paint representative with a large paint company, and their three children.

When she and her husband were offered the opportunity in 1966 to own the Rockford location of a Midwest decorator center chain, they didn’t think twice.

“I thought, ‘It’s something we could do together,’” she recalls.

The full-service decorator center offered paint and wallpaper, but also provided sketches and suggestions for living room layouts.

“It’s an extremely rewarding career because of what it has developed into,” Butler says of her business. The Illinois Design Center is a one-stop design shop that also sells fine art and old and new furniture, diligently hunted down and handpicked by Butler. She also helps clients to shop for and find what they need.

Butler oversees several designers who work out of their homes, plus three upholsterers, two seamstresses and several painters and wallpaper hangers.

Although there have been challenging times throughout her career – changes with the economy and learning how to balance her home life with a husband, three children, and three young cousins she fostered – Butler says everyone “turned out well” and she learned how to juggle well.

“There are no guarantees when you have your own business,” she advises aspiring business owners. “There are good times and bad. We went through three recessions and survived.”

One of the keys to building a successful business is hiring solid employees, she says.

“I always hired people who had art degrees, so that everybody was on the same page and everybody prospered,” she says.
Butler has been in business for more than 40 years and still loves what she does.

“Every time I say I’m going to retire, someone calls me for help and I say, ‘I just have to do this,” she says with a laugh. “A lot of people are not able to live their whole lives doing what they love. I love what I do.”

Michelle Rotert, Professor of Philosophy, Rock Valley College

Michelle Rotert initially intended to be a lawyer and a judge, not a philosophy professor.

The Black Hills, S.D., native studied political science while in school at Black Hills State College. Then, during her last semester of undergraduate school, she took a class related to philosophy.

“I became absolutely hooked,” she says.

She went on to study at the University of Iowa and obtained a PhD in the field, which was challenging, since she hadn’t studied philosophy as an undergraduate.

She credits a professor who helped her along her career path.

“I had a really great professor who changed my life in a lot of ways,” she says. “The instructor was such a great classroom presence, and I thought, ‘I didn’t know anyone else thought about these things.’ I discovered an occupation in which I could get paid to do the things I love to do. It was such a great moment.”

Rotert moved to Illinois and began working as a philosophy professor at Rock Valley College in 1993.

She teaches subjects like medical ethics, logic, nonwestern philosophy and world religions. During the regular school year, she teaches five classes of 40 students per semester. She’s also on a limited teaching schedule in the summer.
Throughout the course of her career – from the moment she studied philosophy in college, until present –there have been challenges.

“In grad school, I had to face the fact that the world of philosophy tends to be a male-dominated field,” she says. “It still is, but more and more women are entering the field. I suspect it was lacking women because philosophy is a lot like law – there’s a traditional adversarial nature to it. The language of philosophy is like the language of war. You have to attack, defend, have victories … A lot of women probably felt discouraged and didn’t want to try. In fact, all of my professors were male, except one. And she didn’t get tenure. There are very few women in this field to serve as role models.”

Despite those hurdles, Rotert pushed ahead. She succeeded, in part, because of her stick-with-it personality. When challenges are presented to her, she enjoys taking them on.

“Women should know that, slowly, the field is changing,” she says. “Now it’s easier for women to communicate with each other and there’s more intervention politically and ethically with issues in the workplace.” She’s learned that “having a family and a profession can be a delicate balancing act.”

Rotert has two children with her partner of 10 years, Tina Ingram, and says that although the work/life balance can be tough at times, it helps that her hours in the classroom are structured and meetings can be scheduled around family events.

What she enjoys most about her job is making a difference in the lives of her students.

“Teaching is such a rewarding occupation,” she says. “It’s the kind of occupation in which you can immediately tell that something you talked about has changed the way people see things.”

Chaesoon Jung, Business Owner and Master, Jung’s Taekwondo Academy

Since she was a little girl, Chaesoon Jung has loved Taekwondo, a Korean martial art that emphasizes kicking and is one of the oldest martial arts in the world. Born in South Korea, she began training at age 7. Her three brothers were all competing, and she didn’t want to be left out.

Jung’s parents weren’t happy about this, at first, because they considered martial arts to be “unladylike,” she says. Still, she trained for many years, excelling in the sport and finding her life’s passion.

She married and moved to the U.S. in 1977, and her Taekwondo training halted for a time.

However, Jung’s love for this martial art was reignited when her son asked her for training because he wanted to be a “Power Ranger,” like the television show characters. Jung decided to resume training herself, while mentoring him.

Determined to share her passion with others, she opened up Jung’s Taekwondo Academy in Rockford and Belvidere in 2003 – the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Jung has participated in competitions with USA Taekwondo and is a certified Taekwondo master, holding a level five black belt. There are nine black belt levels and Jung aims to reach the final level, although there are years of waiting between levels to test.

Her Chicago Martial Arts-associated academy offers Taekwondo training that helps students to develop self-control, respect, kindness and gentleness. Classes are available for people as young as 3, but some of her oldest students are in their 50s.

Students graduate to different levels via a belt system. Two additional instructors are available to assist, and testing is held monthly.

One of the best parts of her job, Jung says, is seeing her students grow from the moment they walk into the school. “Some of them start out being shy, but then they begin to develop and come into the school being very happy,” she says. “Some of them are even motivated to get good grades, which is very rewarding to me. I like to see that they can grow up to have leadership ability. Some students can’t even make eye contact, at first, but they begin to challenge themselves and believe they can do it. And I learn from my students every day, too. They grow so much and when they move on, one emotion is sad, but the other is happy that they are opening their wings and developing.”

While her credentials are impressive, Jung admits that some people don’t take her seriously as a martial arts teacher.
“Martial arts is still a man’s world, but it has helped me become more disciplined by being a part of it,” she says. “It has also been challenging to go home and be a wife and mom in addition to being a Taekwondo master. I have to do everything.”

Jung also has a daughter, who has not taken an interest in Taekwondo. Her husband has generally been supportive of her career choice.“He has lived with it this long,” she says with a chuckle. “And I can’t find a different job. This is it, what I want to do. In my soul, I feel like a millionaire.”

Jung hopes to have a larger school in the future and would like to open up a second branch in Rockford.

“As a business owner, the economy is tough,” she says. For women interested in starting their own businesses, her advice is to watch one’s money carefully, start out small and “watch pennies.”

She also encourages women to get involved in martial arts.

“I think we need more American women involved in the martial arts,” she says, and then smiles. “It brings pride and accomplishment.”

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