Former Hair Dresser Earns Civil Engineering Degree
LEWISBURG, Pa. -- Virginia Feigles of Milton decided four years ago that a quarter of a century of wrapping perms was plenty. The hair dresser decided to learn how to build roads and sewerage systems instead and enrolled in Bucknell's College of Engineering.
Since 1995, Feigles has attended classes, worked evenings and weekends at a beauty shop and studied every free minute. She will receive her degree in civil engineering from Bucknell in commencement ceremonies May 16. On June 1, she'll start work for the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation in Montoursville. The PennDOT job was one of several offers she had.
The 47-year-old blonde, who wore a French braid and a "Bucknell Engineering" T-shirt in a recent interview, is believed to be the oldest graduate of the College of Engineering. She'll join 137 engineering graduates in the Class of 1999.
"She survived and did it in four years flat. That's phenomenal," said Trudy Cunningham, associate dean of the College of Engineering.
Before college, Feigles attended Muncy High School, got married, had a baby, went to beauty school and started working at her husband's beauty shop in Milton.
Life changed. Her son, John, is now grown and working in construction in New Jersey. She took a job with the Milton Chamber of Commerce after serving as a chamber board member. She and her husband divorced; he got the beauty shop. She then did hair at another local salon while working at the chamber.
At some point, Feigles said to herself, "This is ridiculous. You're still not at the end of the spectrum where you'd like to be. I knew a lot of engineers and planners and thought this was what I'd like to do -- the engineering and the planning. It was time to go to school and get the credentials so I could do this from the right end."
The road to a degree wasn't straight. Her first thought had been to become a municipal planner or a borough manager. A friend suggested a degree in geology and environmental science from nearby Susquehanna University would give her the credentials. Susquehanna accepted her for the spring semester of 1996, but Feigles was determined to start college in the fall of 1995.
"I had the itch to quit my job at the chamber," Feigles recalled. "If I were going to do it, I was going to have to do it right then. It was too gutsy a move for me to quit my job and go to college full time. I had the nerve to do it right then and knew if I didn't do it then, I wouldn't do it."
She enrolled at the Pennsylvania College of Technology in Williamsport that fall, taking a year of such courses as algebra, trigonometry, pre-calculus and chemistry with the expectation of transferring to Susquehanna the following fall.
Early the next summer she visited her cousin, Robert Allen Barnes, who has a Ph.D. in analytical chemistry and works at Goddard Space Center in Greenbelt, Md. Barnes' project supervisor is former astronaut Mary Cleave. She and Cleave had lunch.
Feigles said Cleave told her, "'You don't seem like a scientist. Geology and environmental science is a lot of science, and they never have enough data to make a decision. You seem like you want to do everything yesterday. I think you'd be better off with a degree in civil engineering for the things you want to do. It would make you more qualified.'"
Cleave suggested she check out Bucknell for the civil engineering degree.
A person in Bucknell's Admissions Office looked over her Penn College transcript with all A's, except one B+ in chemistry, and warned, "'I hope you're not in love with these A's because you're not going to get them in engineering.'"
She was accepted and a financial aid package was offered. "I was coming to Bucknell regardless, but when I got my financial package, I sat down at the kitchen table and cried. I was so excited I could actually come to Bucknell, and I wasn't going to have to borrow the whole thing."
Feigles started summer school, taking calculus and engineering mechanics.
"I want to tell you, I never loved C's so much in my life as when I got through summer school," she recalled. "It is tough to take one course at Bucknell in the summer, much less two, especially in engineering."
She got discouraged occasionally. Just two months ago, she was about ready to chuck it all. "I was just so frustrated with how busy I was and hard I was trying to work that if I didn't have student loans and did have a job, I would have walked away from Bucknell."
But there were those student loans, and just the beauty shop job. Even with financial aid and working at the salon during her college years, Feigles figures she'll get her AARP card before she's free of debt. She finished the final two months of her senior year.
"It's been a wild ride, but there's a lot of support here at Bucknell," Feigles said. "The professors have been just wonderful. Whenever I would have any problems doing the work, they would always help me."
The engineering studies are a challenge for a middle-aged student, especially one who didn't have a strong math background, she said. "The work demands placed on time and resources strains your sanity pretty severely sometimes. There is so much to do you don't know what to do first."
Her fellow engineering students were curious about her at first, but eventually "I think I gained their respect. A lot of them have come to me and said, 'my parents can't believe you're doing this.' I know they gained my respect. They are incredible kids. These kids are so smart, just unbelievable."
Cunningham noted "We've had other older students in engineering, of course, but she was the only one who became part of the class. Worked in study groups, virtually lived in Dana (the engineering building)."
Asked if she had any wise words for other aspiring engineers, Feigles mentioned her poem, "Engineering's Discipline," she wrote last year. Cunningham gives the poem to other engineering students when they stop by her office:
"Into the discipline with eyes wide and knees weak
anxious to travel this unknown and foreign path
obscured by tedium and hard work
striving and enduring to attain some level of success
with a stout-hearted outward appearance
to mask the weariness and vacillation
repressing the self-doubt -- learning self-discipline and sacrifice
while hating the lesson
all-the-while steadily moving forward
with a growing self-confidence and determination
demanded by this nebulous journey
to the ordained destination
to realize these trials were the gifts of the path."
(Note: Photos of Feigles are available upon request.)