Cindy Egan had a highly successful career during her 25 years as a geotechnical engineer. She rose to managing principal, overseeing 150 employees in the Oakland office of Geomatrix Consultants Inc.

"I had a huge job with a lot of responsibility," she said, before pausing, "and my blood pressure was through the roof."

Today, she teaches advanced environmental science and introductory engineering at San Ramon Valley High in Danville. When she goes home at day's end, she's wearing a smile because "I feel I'm making a difference."

Hers is not an isolated story.

Lee Millard, a science and engineering teacher at Dougherty Valley High, worked 15 years as a mechanical engineer. Ernie Liu was a biotechnical scientist for two decades before joining the staff of Concord High. Julie Westcott cut in half her hours at her Danville chiropractic practice to teach sports medicine at Dougherty Valley.

Their reasons for change were as different as their personalities, but the bond they now share is the fulfillment that comes from engaging young minds and preparing them for the future.

All four are part of the Contra Costa County Office of Education's Regional Occupation Program, which offers dozens of career-directed elective courses to more than 12,000 students each year.


Advertisement

What Egan remembers most vividly of her former life was the ongoing stress of "managing people, dealing with terminations and all the things that you have in a large office." She knew she was ready for a change seven years ago.

What she discovered in her new career is that "students' lives are changed by my classes. When they leave the environmental science class, they understand that every choice they make -- how they get to school, what they eat, where they live, what they buy -- affects the environment."

Millard, who worked for the Ford Motor Co. and Lawrence Livermore Lab, was drawn to teaching by a desire for personal interaction. All the days he was chained to his desk advanced his technical skills, but he wanted to work more directly with people.

He earned a teaching certificate at San Jose State, then discovered an ROP opening. He is quick to identify the two biggest rewards of his new career -- relishing his students' development and working with other educators.

"Educators are really good people," he said, leaving the listener to fill in the blanks about his experience in the business world.

One of the highlights in his first two years in the classroom was witnessing the joy of accomplishment when students completed a complex engineering project. For the longest time, the assignment he'd given students -- building an automated machine capable of crushing aluminum cans -- had produced only failures and frustration.

"The really cool moment was when one of the project teams actually got it to work," he said. "Everybody in the class cheered."

Liu has been teaching advanced biology and biotechnology at Concord so long -- since 1999 -- his job hardly seems like a second career. Where he once experimented with growth hormones for T cells to combat the spread of HIV, he now educates 125 students in five classes about the possibilities of biomedical applications.

A winner of several teaching awards, he said his formula is simple: "The kids love me, and I love my students. That's how this romance began."

Even though his mother and five brothers all had been teachers, Liu never envisioned that for himself until the travel demands of his old job and time away from his family changed his mind. He said teaching has taught him a new set of values.

"It's a profession with a reward that doesn't come by dollars but by the love you have offered and the return love of your students."

Westcott learned similar lessons at Dougherty Valley, where her curriculum not only examines human anatomy but also how to treat body parts when they're not working. She's enjoyed opening eyes to the varied medical careers available to women. She also is the school's head athletic trainer.

"I like to inspire students to do things maybe they didn't think they could do," she said, explaining that fulfillment doesn't always come in a paycheck.

"In the long run, money is money, but there's nothing that compares to touching people's lives."

Students aren't the only ones who learn lessons in the classroom.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.