Class of 2021: At 62, lifelong learner Joyce Swenson is ready to take on new challenges

Swenson has lived and worked all over the world. Now she is tackling a second career as a medical laboratory scientist.

Joyce Swenson.
Joyce Swenson has lived all over the world. Now she is tackling a second career as a medical laboratory scientist. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

After decades of teaching and working in community development, Joyce Swenson wanted to reinvent herself by going into the medical field. In May she will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in clinical laboratory science from the VCU College of Health Professions.

“I’ve always had a passion for the medical field as well as community development. This is something I always wanted to do,” said Swenson, 62, who works in the hospital lab at Saint Francis Medical Center. She said she will likely continue to do so after she completes her degree.

“During this time period I would like to investigate and be open to options in which I can work in and/or promote the needs of underserved areas,” she said. “I think it would be interesting and fulfilling to participate in getting a program started to help meet the larger need for laboratory professionals in these areas.” 

Swenson has gained most of her work experience outside the United States. She decided to begin her new journey after returning to the U.S. by pairing her new degree from VCU with a biology degree she previously earned from Carson-Newman University in Jefferson City, Tennessee.

“I wanted to go back to the interest I had growing up and build on my biology degree,” she said. “I wanted to be a productive member of society.”

After graduating from Carson-Newman in 1980, Swenson married and moved to Beirut, Lebanon, where she taught English as a second language and biology in high school for children of American University of Beirut faculty members.  

“My husband and his family were Americans, but he was raised in Beirut. He wanted to go back to teach after college,” she said of the couple’s move to Lebanon.

Their work later took them to Bahrain, Cyprus and the West Bank outside of Jerusalem where Swenson and her family worked in Palestine refugee camps. After the West Bank, the couple came back to the U.S. and Swenson worked on a master’s degree in plant and soil science. She hoped to use her experience in agriculture to help women in other countries.

“I wanted to provide tools that would help them help themselves,” she said. “A lot of times, particularly in the West Bank, work was segregated by gender. For example, a husband couldn’t go outside to hang up clothes because that wasn’t allowed. It was a woman’s job. One thing that did cross gender barriers was working on the land. If people were involved in agriculture, gender didn’t matter.”

After graduate school, Swenson went to Morocco to establish a rooftop gardening program. The project was designed to help people living in large urban areas have access to food and/or supplement their income to buy other necessities.

Swenson went back to Lebanon to try to set up growers who could produce peppers that would be sold to U.S. manufacturers that made hot sauce. From Lebanon, she moved to East Malaysia where she taught about vermicomposting, which uses worms to turn vegetable or food waste into compost.

“The [people we taught in East Malaysia] could either use it or sell it,” she said.

After returning to the U.S. in 2012, Swenson studied at J. Sergeant Reynolds Community College and received her associate degree in medical laboratory technology. Getting her bachelor’s degree at VCU adds to her base knowledge, she said.

“I want to find a way to be involved in helping underserved communities and areas of need,” she said. “I notice that rural communities are underserved because they don’t have a lot of amenities that people want. I would like to help them. I can’t change the world, but maybe I can change a part of it.”

Swenson considers herself a lifelong learner, whether it’s for her career or pleasure. In 2013, she learned how to ride a Honda motorcycle.

“I saw a lot of people riding them outside the U.S. It makes practical sense, and it’s good on gas and easy to park downtown,” she said. “It was a new experience and something I wanted to learn.”

Riding the motorcycle helps her see things more clearly, she said. “It makes you a more careful driver.”

She wants to teach her children and grandchildren that you are never too old to learn something new, she said.

“I want them to know they can always try something. It’s never too late.”

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