ESSAY BY MARINE BUTCHER PIEHL
Our work makes us better
Perhaps I was a late bloomer, but I didn’t begin exploring the person I wanted to be professionally until I went to college. I don’t remember applying much conscious consideration to the question before that. In fact, I don’t remember it even being a question. I know I was influenced by others — my parents, the exchange students we hosted, dedicated teachers who inspired my love of writing — but mostly I rolled with the status quo. College, fortunately, widens your horizons.
When I started my freshman year at North Dakota State University, thanks to an array of involvement, I encountered people who ranged widely and affected me deeply. I looked up to the seniors in my sorority with all their academic focus and their social confidence. I obeyed the warm, but stern, Alpha Gamma Delta alumnae who helped the chapter officers test our leadership muscles. I shyly admired the senior staff of The Spectrum with their desire to unearth controversial stories and put out a great paper. And I was enthralled by the more offbeat intellectual charisma at work in the NDSU English department at the time — David Martinson, Bill Cosgrove and Jean Strandness — their passion for literature and fiction, their Birkenstocks and liberal bumper stickers, and their intellectual enthusiasm. They illuminated the life of the mind to me.
Despite their import in my life, I don’t think I would have named those sorority alumni or those teachers as mentors in the moments I was with them. I admired them, I looked up to them but their impact was muffled by the veil of self-absorption I wore — a filter natural to that time and place. Knowing your mentors sometimes takes time and distance. A little maturity helps too.
I now realize that a mentor isn’t necessarily your biggest cheerleader, sometimes she’s your toughest critic, or just straight-up tough. I worked for NDSU Publications Services after I graduated from NDSU in the early ‘90s and took it on the chin from editor Laura McDaniel a number of times. And I’m a better writer for it. You couldn’t pay me enough to use the words “there is” or “there are” in a sentence. “Waste of space!” she said. She’s right.
Another woman important to me was Doris Hertsgaard. A long-time NDSU statistics professor, Doris forced this mass communications/English major to comprehend math by way of an on-the-job crash course on statistics.
At age 25, I became the communications director for Doris’ market research firm, DH Research, and she was adamant that I fully understood the numbers I was translating into written reports. I cried over those numbers — literally wept. Doris, a no-nonsense, warm and prickly wonder of a boss, would scowl, give me a little shake and insist I was smart enough to figure it out. “Come on now, Marnie. You can do this.” She was not swayed by my mental roadblocks and self-made obstacles. She made me push past my “I’m-not-good-at-math” mindset.
Doris was hard on me because she believed in me. She earned a Ph.D. in statistics as a single mother in 1972. When she was hired at NDSU, she was one of only a couple of women in her department and the only woman with a Ph.D. She broke a lot of glass ceilings in academia and later, in business, and she insisted that the young women who worked for her saw, and strove to meet, their potentials. She inspired me to take my talent and work seriously and to understand that my professional abilities were of great worth. She’s retired now, but her influence is not. Her daughter, Beth Ingram, recently became NDSU’s new provost.
I’ve looked to men to learn and to grow as well, but it has always been the women in my personal and professional life who stand out. My mother is the first of those. She was a leader in the traditionally male field of agriculture policy and management. She carved that space out by leveraging both her substantial knowledge and her substantial wits and charm. My paternal grandmother earned a master’s degree from Columbia University in 1922 — a time when most women didn’t even earn bachelor’s degrees.
Professionally, I’ve been lucky to have a number of managers who really believed in me. They saw my potential and gave me the space and opportunity to shine. When I first began working at Microsoft in Fargo, I was sure all my colleagues were smarter than me. My manager showed me that wasn’t the case. But, they were more confident. She helped me discover that I had the same smarts and then some — I just had to learn to unapologetically put myself and my ideas out there.
Friends serve as mentors, too. My most inspiring friends are professionally accomplished in areas ranging from not-for-profit management to public relations. They achieve great things at work while raising their kids, helping aging parents, battling serious illness, running for office and running marathons. My women friends have taught me everything from how to trust my child- rearing instincts to how to motivate my team at work.
While the women who mean the most to me are highly accomplished, they do not necessarily inspire me to do more. Instead, they help me be a better me. They drive me to be more myself — to recognize that I have great strengths and to value who I am, not yearn to be what I am not.
As I get older and advance in my career, I am attempting to pay forward what all these women have done for me. I try to make younger women stronger by expecting them to rise up to their potential. I aim to help them recognize the value of their talents and realize that professional strength is as important as the other priorities in their lives — and as worthy of time and attention as their relationships. I want younger women to understand earlier that rewarding work done with confidence and joy makes us not only better professionals, but also better friends, mothers, wives, daughters and citizens. Our work makes us better women.