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Joyce Owen's Story: from Dordt history major to aerospace engineer

By Andrew De Jong

History major Joyce Owen has lived in Florida and been involved in the sciences of computing and engineering for most of the years since she left Dordt College.

History major Joyce Owen has lived in Florida and been involved in the sciences of computing and engineering for most of the years since she left Dordt College.

Ten years after she graduated from Dordt in 1980, Joyce Owen returned to Sioux Center for an alumni weekend. At a basketball game, she found herself talking to John Hulst, then president of Dordt College. At one point he asked her what she did for a living. She told him she was an aerospace engineer. He asked her what her major was in college. She told him she was a history major.

“Oh,” he said, a little puzzled and quite curious. “How did that happen?”

How did that happen? It’s a question that Joyce has had to field a number of times over the years, a question that she sometimes poses to herself when she gets a break from her busy job. How did a college freshman planning to become a high school history teacher end up working on defense contracts for the United States government? Unfortunately for Joyce, there’s no quick answer—the only way to answer it adequately is by telling her story.

“I’ve always loved history,” says Joyce. “I’ve been reading history books ever since I was a little girl.”

Majoring in history, then, was an easy choice, and although she was accepted to three different colleges by the time she graduated from high school, Dordt turned out to be an easy choice as well. Because she had gone to a large high school, she says, the idea of a smaller college appealed to her. But what really made her decision for her was a personal call from a Dordt College recruiter.

“Dordt was the only school where someone called me and asked me to come,” she said. “That’s what really sealed the deal.”

As is the case with so many people, it was an episode that would prove to be typical of her later life—a tough decision made easier by circumstances and prodding from other people. Joyce’s next big decision came at the end of her sophomore year, when she had to decide whether or not to stay at Dordt for her remaining two years.

She says, “I had gotten sick three times that year—the flu twice and tonsilitis once—and my grades just tanked. I felt bad all year.” Luckily, as the school year was coming to a close, two of her friends told her about the play that was going to be put on the next year. The play was going to be the Rogers and Hammerstein musical The King and I, and the Dordt theater department was having auditions before the summer break.

“I got into the play,” she says, “and that’s what ended up bringing me back for the last two years. My sophomore year was miserable, but my last two years were wonderful.”

Still, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do after she graduated. She loved history as much as ever, but a difficult student teaching experience and her slight fear of being in front of groups of people made her rethink teaching. Again, outside circumstances helped her make the difficult decision. The year she graduated, many schools were closing, and most teachers were making subsistence wages—not the best atmosphere for a college graduate just starting out, much less a college graduate who wasn’t sure she wanted to be teaching. Luckily, there was one field that was booming: computer science.

“Back when I graduated, computer science was just hitting its stride,” she says. “There weren’t enough engineers out there to do computer science—in fact, just about anybody with a degree could end up doing it. If you had an analytical or logical mind, it wasn’t too much of a stretch.”

Joyce went to graduate school at the Florida Institute of Technology, working at the Institute simultaneously. When she was done, she had both an MBA and an MS, and had, in effect, made her transition from history into engineering and computer science.

Her journey wasn’t done yet, however. For a while she worked at Cape Canaveral for the space program.

“I worked on the destruct program,” she says, and then adds, “This gets a little technical.” Basically, she explains, everything NASA sends up has to be equipped with a destruct package in case it goes the wrong way, something to stop propulsion in case of an emergency. “We’d much rather have a rocket end up in the ocean than in, say, Disney World,” she laughs.

When the Challenger shuttle exploded, however, everything came to a stop. Soon, Joyce and her colleagues began hearing about the possibility of layoffs. One of her coworkers quickly found a new job with an organization called Grumman, and offered to give his new bosses her resume. Joyce took him up on his offer, and later got a call herself.

“They interviewed me for ten minutes and hired me on the spot,” she says. “They needed a bunch of engineers for this contract they had gotten.”

So began a relationship with a company that has lasted for almost twenty years. She’s worked a variety of jobs over the years, but she’s always worked for Grumman or one of its subsidiaries. Another thing that hasn’t changed much is the project she works on, the project that Grumman hired her for in the first place, and the project that she works on this very day.

It’s called JOINT STARS. The “STARS” stands for “Surveillance Target Attack Radar System.”

“JOINT STARS is a surveillance aircraft,” she explains. “It was used in the first Gulf War, and it’s been used in every military action since. The program has grown immensely over the past twenty years.”

Joyce’s specific job is to do technical subcontract management for the program. Northrop Grumman—the name her company currently goes by—gets a contract from the government, laying out their requirements for the final product. Northrop Grumman takes care of some of the contract itself, but not all of it. That’s where Joyce comes in. Her job is to break the contract into its component parts, subcontract those parts to other organizations, and make sure that everything gets done right so they can put everything back together again at the end.

“It’s really strange, because it turns out I’m very good at it,” says Joyce. “It really works well with my analytical skills, skills which also came in handy when I was studying history.”

As it turns out, the job also “works well” with Joyce’s Christian worldview, instilled in her when she was a little girl and reinforced at Dordt College. In her twenty years with Grumman, she’s gained a reputation for being a good worker who’s also very good at cultivating relationships, and known for treating subcontractors with fairness and kindness.

And that, more or less, is the story you might hear if you ask Joyce Owen how a history major became an aerospace engineer. That’s not the whole story, however. To hear the rest, you’d have to ask different questions—ones that have her looking forward, not back.

“I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up,” Joyce says. “I still have whole decades of stuff to do!” She mentions her old dream of teaching as a possibility. There’s also her charitable giving to think about, the money she’s given to a variety of causes over the years—just Dordt at first, but then to organizations like World Vision, Mission India, and Roseland Christian School in Chicago.

“I could retire in a few years and do something else,” she says. “When you’re my age, you look outward and wonder if you’ve contributed anything. Dordt influenced me to do that, to look outside my circle and see the greater world. I apply history to world situations—like AIDS in Africa, or India, the great potential for Christianity there. The things we can do in the world are absolutely mind-boggling!”

For now, of course, Joyce is content to work at Northrop Grumman, to do her current job with integrity and diligence. She’s also okay with telling her story to the occasional stranger or old friend who’s perplexed by the path her life has taken. But for this history major turned engineer, who’s already followed God’s leading through one amazing story, “How did that happen?” isn’t nearly as interesting as “What happens next?”

Andrew De Young ('05) lives in Bloomington, Minnesota, where he works as an editing assistant for the Minnesota legislature. Next fall he plans to split his time between pursuing his master’s degree in English and copy editing manuscripts for Beacon Publishing Services. He and fellow 2005 graduate Sarah Versluis plan to marry this summer.