Judy Klempner, 36, remembers when she put in her two-weeks notice at Big Lots in the fall of 2017. Her bosses were happy for her, but sad to see her go. She had been with the company for several years and, as lead support, she served as a crucial member of the team, doing everything from stocking inventory to working as a cashier – and even opening the store on some days. “I’m one of those people who always has to keep working on the task that’s in front of them,” Klempner says. “At Big Lots, there was always something to do.”
Feeling unfulfilled by her life in retail, she began shopping around for low-cost, two-year degrees at area community colleges. Her brother, a Valencia College graduate, suggested his alma mater, and Klempner liked the idea. But while she is a task-driven individual in the workplace, making the grade in school did not always come easy. In sixth grade, after she tested below average in reading and math, her counselors informed her that she had a learning disability. It was a challenge that would follow her into her adult life. In spite of her academic history, in May 2012, Klempner stepped foot on East Campus with little trepidation, undaunted by the fact that it had been more than a decade since she earned a hard-fought high school diploma.
“I wasn’t nervous going to Valencia [College]. It was exciting, and I felt great being on campus,” says Klempner, who was 32 when she first enrolled. “It wasn’t a problem for me to make the leap.”
While fear was not a factor, she had to manage her learning disability – this time, as an adult. Reading assignments and tests still took her longer to complete. Registering with the Office of Student Disabilities afforded her extra time and quieter environments for exams. While those services were readily available, she found it easier to manage her time in online courses. But when she chose to pursue an A.S. in medical administration midway through her degree, she realized she would need to take more face-to-face courses. That’s when she discovered that Betty Wanielista, one of her medical administration professors, was willing to work with her to overcome her challenges.
“We had a test on medical office software, and I didn’t do so well,” Klempner recalls. “Betty let me take it in her office with a little extra time. I ended up understanding it better – and scoring a lot better.”
“She tried hard, asked questions and always gave her best when doing projects for a class,” says Wanielista who remembers Klempner as a “people person” and “one of the most pleasant students” she’s ever had. “Judy took time to see the tutor in [learning support] when she was unsure of how to complete a project. It may have taken her more time, but she always did it with a smile.”
Klempner’s drive and affability would lead to success beyond the classroom. While finishing her last semester at Valencia College, she was at work at Big Lots and struck up a conversation with a customer.
“After a couple minutes, he found out I was studying medical administration, and let me know that he was a psychiatrist and was hiring staff at his office,” Klempner recalls.
After a series of interviews, Klempner was hired at Ashlawn Consulting in Oviedo, working a full-time job in her field of study before even completing her associate degree. The next few months would prove challenging, however, as she worked hard to acclimate herself to a new job set in a high-stress environment.
Ashlawn Consulting deals primarily with patients suffering from psychiatric disorders; Klempner’s role involves answering repeated calls for help, often from the same patients. At the front line, Klempner has to ensure that calls are routed to the correct department.
It can be emotionally and mentally exhausting, but, at the end of the day, she says, the service her job provides makes the difference. Klempner recalls a recent episode in which she fielded a call from a patient in dire need. “This person let me know he was considering causing serious harm to himself. I told the patient, ‘Hold on, I’m getting someone for you right away,’ and directed him to the right person in our office. Later, I was told ‘good job,’ because that person was very likely suicidal.”
It’s a far cry from her responsibilities at Big Lots, but just because Klempner is taking her new role in stride, don’t think she has lost her desire to learn. She is now considering a bachelor’s degree in medical administration.
For anyone thinking about college – but who may be a bit older than the average student, or is battling a learning disability – Klempner has some advice:
“Six years ago, I didn’t feel like I was going anywhere, and I really wanted a change. If you’re thinking about [enrolling], go for it!”