By Tom Rohrer
“I just need to get to Australia, Africa and Asia,” said Patterson, an instructor for the welding department at South Puget Sound Community College (SPSCC). “It’s just such a big world and life is so short.”
Patterson has always been driven to see what the world has to offer, and that passion allowed her to move away from her home in western Pennsylvania to Olympia – and beyond.
During the summers of her teenage years, Patterson worked alongside her father on the Pennsylvania oil patches. This experience helped Patterson learn how to work with her hands and grow an appreciation for outdoor trade work. Her hard-earned money financed her education at SPSCC. She became a certified welder under former SPSCC instructor (and mentor) Richard Geist, who now teaches at Renton Technical College.
After graduating, Patterson began teaching evenings at SPSCC as a program assistant. This fall, she undertook a year-long contact from the school to become a full time instructor in the welding department. Along with starting the college’s community arts program following her graduation, Patterson also helped revamp and expand the community education class, one of the largest and most popular courses at SPSCC. Patterson is proud of this revitalization, especially because the course demographics are predominately female.
While she has clearly made her mark at SPSCC, she has spread her influence and hard-nosed work ethic to the far reaching corners of the world, and still has the itch to explore even more.
“I fully intend to come back to education, but I know that at 35, I’m just not ready to settle all the way down,” she said. “This feels like an adult job and I feel like I’m not an adult yet.”
Patterson’s favorite destination that her trade has taken her is Antarctica, the far most southern and likely the most uninhabitable destination on the planet. In Antarctica, Patterson at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station on the South Pole Modernization Project, as well as the 10 meter telescope, SPTR II platform and AGAP. During this time, Patterson worked in conjunction with organizations such as the National Science Foundation and NASA.
After four, six-month seasons on the ice-ridden continent, where she performed primarily structural welding (with projects including a ten meter, state of the art telescope) Patterson knows she can handle anything, and feels grateful she had the opportunity to walk where few, if any, have stepped before.
“It’s by far my favorite place,” Patterson said of Antarctica, where she helped rebuild the station (dome) at the South Pole. “After 14-to-15 hour days, doing all these tasks, you learn what you’re capable of and you realize you can go much longer than you thought.”
Patterson cited a specific task where she was dropped off by plane with a team of six others at an area located at 14,000 ft. in elevation.
“The (pilots) can’t leave us until we have a fire started and then you’re on your own,” she said. “Then you have to build a runway, a structure for the whole group, and boil water, have a place that’s warm to sleep. That’s when it’s like’ holy crap I’m doing this,’ this is what life should feel like.”
It hasn’t all been sub-zero temperatures and penguins for Patterson.
After becoming the first female welding inspector in the history of South Carolina in 2007, Patterson connected with a Spanish construction firm, which in turn would send her to Colombia, Mexico, and Costa Rica. Those same business connections would also lead her to jobs in Spain and southern France.
Despite the challenges of acclimating to new cultures and being away from her family, Patterson was always able to form strong working relationships through her tireless work ethic.
“The work you do will always translate to wherever you may be and it doesn’t matter if there are cultural or language barriers,” Patterson said. “I take my role incredibly seriously and I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve always worked with crews who took their jobs seriously.”
Patterson never imagined she would have the opportunity to travel the world through her profession.
“I never thought I would go to locations like this nor did I think I would have a career as a welder,” she said. “The plan growing up was go to college and get a nice job indoors, and that just never appealed to me. I think Washington State is full of forward thinking people in that everyone has an opportunity to make a career in any field.”
By Patterson’s estimates, females comprise only about seven percent of her industry’s work force. She recognizes that she’s not the typical individual in the welding field, but believes she can combat that unjustified attitude towards females in the metal trade by working hard.
“As a female in these fields, all eyes are on you. You can’t have a bad day,” she said. “You’ve got to keep yourself in check, and outperform all expectations. Everywhere you go, you have to let them know you are very much a welder and that they need to back off or get out of the way.”
Along with her current academic duties affiliated with SPSCC, Patterson also frequently speaks to students at elementary and middle schools about her travels and experiences as a welder. It is an opportunity for her to pass on her message that anything can be accomplished by any one person.
“I try to tell my students and the young women and men I get to speak to that you’re only limited by yourself,” Patterson said. “And for the females, I say you can still be ladylike and be successful in the trade professions. You can buy your own car, purchase your own house, set your schedule. I just think it’s important, for both genders, that people don’t say you can’t do this or that.”
So what is next for Patterson? Her agreement with SPSCC ends this spring, a point at which she will likely have many opportunities to travel abroad and excel in the welding field.
“I definitely have my eye on the Alaskan Way Viaduct tunnel project (in Seattle) but I know there are big projects in Australia,” Patterson said with a smile and a small chuckle.
“And I’m sure there will be more in Asia and Africa.”
For more information on the welding and technology program at South Puget Sound Community College, visit http://www.spscc.ctc.edu/programs/welding.