Sutina Li is a great example of a highly intelligent woman who, for many reasons, is questioning what best to use her many gifts and talents. A 35-year-old mother of two, Sutina lives just outside of LA. She moved there in the summer of 2020 after spending the prior 4 years in England where her husband, Will, was stationed for his own career. Prior to that, she was in Chicago where she received a dental hygiene degree after working several different jobs in service, hospitality, and non-profit. Now she is a stay at home mom, navigating the world of distance learning with her kindergartner, demanding better from her local school board, and creating cardboard wonderlands for her kids to play in while they shelter in place.
Sutina did well academically in high school, especially because she excelled at standardized testing, but she never had a clear career path in mind. In college, she majored in Sociology, studied abroad in South Korea, took courses ranging from accounting to French literature, volunteered at a crisis hotline, and joined a sorority but emerged from the college experience with even less clarity. This was in 2008 when the country was reeling, firms were letting go of workers and not hiring. All the graduates that year faced a backlash against new hires, and they all (me included) took jobs where they could get them. Sutina thought about joining the Peace Corps but settled for joining AmeriCorps as a volunteer coordinator in her home state of Minnesota. She loved the job, her co-workers, and the organization where she was placed but she decided to move to Chicago to join her fiance when her service year ended rather than continue to build her own career in the nonprofit sector in Minnesota.
After moving to Chicago, she worked at a call center before deciding to follow her mother’s path by becoming a dental hygienist. It seemed like the quickest path to a stable career with flexible hours to accommodate a family. She started working as a dental assistant while taking the science courses she needed for admission to the two-year hygiene program at the community college. She gave birth to her first child during the spring break of her second year and passed the board exam a few months later. Meanwhile, her husband continued his climb up the corporate ladder and applied for a “secondment” (or temporary chance to work abroad) in London. When it was approved, she put her career plans on hold for a two-year adventure in London, which they extended for another year. While there she gave birth to their second child and focused on getting her daughter into the best preschool and bringing her to Qextracurricular activities. While they were preparing for their next move to California, her husband’s firm asked him to help with a job in Manchester for an
Now that Sutina is in California, she does not know for sure what her next path is. “It’s just so daunting to start all over in California, let alone during the Pandemic when I haven’t been working for 4 years. I’m not even sure I want to be a hygienist anymore.” She wants to work, the desire is there, however, full-time work is not something she thinks she can commit to right now. Her husband has more earning potential and an essentially vertical career path, so his career and helping with the little ones at home is taking a higher priority right now, especially with the pandemic raging unchecked. Sutina is just like the other millions of women in the US who have to choose their family at the price of their career to get through this time.
Sutina does want to do something of use to society, especially at a time when so many are in need. She found a volunteer opportunity where she could work remotely and immediately jumped in, calling strangers to offer emotional support and help navigate applying for aid. However, her optimistic spirit was quickly crushed by the reality–all the organizations offering a path to affordable housing had stopped returning calls because they were overloaded and many of the clients she was calling had already received the maximum amount of cash aid offered by her organization. In this broken system, her efforts to try to do good broke her spirit too.
When asked about work that had given her joy, Sutina recalled times where she acted as an educator to help people learn about their health and oral hygiene. She sees this as her true calling and is interested in exploring those possibilities in the future, possibly in public health. She is hopeful about her career prospects after the country emerges from this uncertain purgatory of lockdowns, but until then, she is a household manager in chief, part-time Kindergarten teacher, figuring out safe social outlets for her children, and keeping the local school board accountable for the decisions they make. “[Women] are the pillars of the community. The only reason we are making it through this pandemic is because of women.”
Her husband is wonderful, and with the pandemic, he has been even more present with the children. Before moving to LA, Sutina was worried that the traffic of his commute would take up any time he could possibly spend with their young children. Now, he eats every meal with the kids, gets them ready for bed and puts them to sleep. “I guess that’s the silver lining of this Pandemic. If this were normal life, he wouldn’t know his kids.” The fact that he works from home now has definitely helped with the transition to a new area that at first seemed to have a lot of drawbacks. She definitely has appreciated the weather and being close to the coast. And though we both talk about real estate prices and know that you can get “so much more” in other parts of the country, for right now California seems to be working out just fine.
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