Olivia Arreola | Wautoma, WI
I got into welding because Wautoma High School has a partnership with Fox Valley Tech where they offer a handful of basic welding courses. The awesome thing about this was not only was I earning high school credit for these classes, but I was also earning college credits as well.
And on top of that, I did not have to pay for the courses out of my own pocket. It was 100% free to me as a student—I just had to maintain good grades.
Jessie Lloyd is the Fox Valley Tech instructor for the Wautoma Regional Center. Every year, she has her current students bring in new students and tour the building to see what the welding program is about. When I was in high school, I got asked to tour the welding facility. After I got home from that preview day, my interest had sparked. I mentioned to some people, ‘Hey, I might do this welding class.’ And some responded, ‘You wouldn’t last a day in welding class. Women don’t weld.’ I thought to myself, ‘Well, now I’m going to do it because I have a point to prove.’
With my instructor, Jessie, being a female, it really made me feel more comfortable. I didn’t feel like I was alone. I was one of the only females in my welding class, and she shared some of her experiences because she was the only girl in her class too. Her background and story really helped me gain confidence. She didn’t ever put me down for not knowing anything about welding.
As my welding journey kept progressing, Jessie encouraged me to sign up for a welding competition through SkillsUSA. I competed in welding and welding sculpture. I brought home lots of medals, and I even got to go to nationals twice for welding sculpture. In my senior year, I took fifth place in the nation for welding sculpture. It felt good to know that I was good at something.
After I had gone through nationals, and I was in the paper and on social media platforms, the number of girls at my school joining the welding program increased significantly. Jessie used me as a role model to show others it’s not just a male-dominated field, that women can do it too. It really helped her program in terms of increasing the number of girls. It feels amazing to me that I can have an impact on someone.
When I first told my dad I was going to do welding, he said, ‘Nope, you’re not doing that.’ It wasn’t like he didn’t think I couldn’t do it, but he had that mindset of this is a man’s job. Whenever he worked on my car, I would ask, ‘Dad, I want to watch you change my oil so I know how to do it,’ and he’d say ‘No, this is something you should never have to do.’
My mom passed away in 2018, around the time I was wrapping up my degree at Fox Valley Tech, which was one of the hardest things I had to do. Instead of grieving the loss of my mother, I continued to push myself every day to focus on my academics. My mother was very, very, supportive of my welding journey. She was super excited to see that I found a passion that helps contribute to this world and to inspire more people to do the same. Although my father was not that supportive in the beginning, he came around once he saw I didn’t let my gender define who I was and strived to become better. And now he couldn’t be any prouder and more excited to see what the future holds for me.
I was making a decent amount of money for being fifteen years old with not a lot of experience in the field. And because I was making decent money, I thought, ‘I don’t want to go to college.’
I didn’t think about furthering my education beyond my certificates, but my instructor, Jessie, was really pushing me to go for it. She told me something that has stuck with me since day one and that was, ‘Your education is something that someone can never take away from you. It’s starting to become something that most companies require you to have in order to get a decent-paying job.’ I just wanted to join a union and travel and make money, but she told me, ‘You have to think about it long-term. Once you get older, your body can’t handle some of those things. If you want to have a family, you can’t travel as much.’
I thought, ‘Okay.’ I already had so many connections at Fox Valley Tech through my high school welding program. And so I felt most comfortable going there to finish my degree. And I don’t regret it for one second, it was like a second home to me. I was the first person at FVTC to graduate with a new scholarship called the Promise Scholarship which paid for my entire tuition. During the graduation ceremony, I was broadcasted live on TV and on the news and got to talk about the program, which was an awesome opportunity.
Right now, I’m a Welding Technician at Miller Electric. We make the welders—the power sources that people use to weld. Anytime a new product comes out, it takes a team of individuals with different backgrounds to help run and manage the project.
In the fall of 2022, I will be attending Ferris State University (FSU) in Michigan for my bachelor’s degree. There are not many schools in the U.S. that have a welding engineering program, and there are no schools in Wisconsin that offer this degree. FSU is offering a summer program for transfers this year, but I just had a baby girl in May, so the timing didn’t work out. She is already a future tradeswoman in the making and is catching up on her sleep now because she knows that weld life is not easy. With having a baby before finishing school I thought to myself, ‘Well, it puts a little bump in the roadmap in terms of school,’ but my job and FSU are willing to work with me and have me come the following year.
It’s overwhelming to think that I have to pick up and move to a new state and now bring my family of three along with me. Neither of us has any family in Michigan. But it’s a good opportunity to meet more people and find other resources. I’m a little nervous, but at the same time excited for a change and just to see where it takes me. You can take your welding engineer degree to lots of different areas. Right now I want to pursue a full-time job as a Weld Engineer. However, once I have my bachelor’s degree I will have more options—I don’t have to be a welding engineer my whole career.
A lot of people have helped me through my journey, and so volunteering is something I am passionate about. I look at it as a way of paying back the welding community. There is a welder shortage going on right now. We’re looking to get more welders into the trades, and just more people in the trades in general.
I don’t think a lot of women think that it’s a possibility for them to do welding, so I want to be that female representative. That’s what my welding instructor did for me. If I can do that for someone else, it just makes me feel a lot better knowing I made a positive impact on someone else. Fox Valley Tech does a lot of welding camps for middle school and high schools, and I volunteer at those often. These camps allow me to share my welding journey and then get some weld time in and build something that the kids can take home. The end goal for these camps is to inspire them to take a welding class down the road. I love working with kids who are determined to make a difference in this world. And I like to have an impact on others in a positive way.
This story was produced by Maria Parrott-Ryan.