Dara Stern does not fit the profile of the typical trade school student. As a 40-year-old Jewish woman, with college degrees, the longtime Pittsburgher stands out among a sea of mostly young white dudes, many of whom come to Rosedale Technical College straight out of high school from smaller towns around Pittsburgh.
But Stern is nonetheless excelling at the trade school located out in Moon Run, where she is training to become an electrician and boasting a 4.0 GPA. She is poised to finish the 16-month program in September at the top of her class.
Out of the 400 students at Rosedale, which provides training in eight different trades, including automotive, HVAC, truck driving and welding, Stern is one of just 18 women enrolled and the only female currently in the electrical program, according to Angela Stansfield, the school’s marketing coordinator. Although Rosedale does not keep records on the ethnicity of its students, Stern believes she is the only person who identifies as Jewish in her program.
Her build may be slight, but her appearance belies her strength. Weighing in at just 120 pounds, Stern is proud to describe how she manually bent a 1¼ inch conduit, a task that some of the bigger guys in her class found challenging. That may not be on the bucket list of many other Jewish women, but it is impressive as heck.
Stern’s independent spirit has been asserting itself since she was a child, when she was expelled from three separate local elementary schools — Colfax, East Hills and ultimately Yeshiva Girls School — as teachers and administrators failed to appreciate her … outspokenness. The “last straw” at Yeshiva, for example, was when the fourth-grade Stern managed to figure out what was going on in the biblical story of Dina — and said out loud “Oh, she was raped!” — despite her teacher’s efforts to skirt around the issue.
Eventually settling down a bit, Stern was able to re-enroll at Colfax, then went on to Reizenstein and graduated from Pittsburgh Allderdice.
Stern clearly has a thirst for different experiences and a curiosity and confidence to pursue them. She has worked on a kibbutz in Israel, volunteered to help Jews in the former Soviet Union, served as a research assistant at Carnegie Mellon University and worked as a phlebotomist. She has been a physician assistant, worked with cancer patients, performed in a play, helped a friend run for political office and marketed a dog biscuit company. Most recently, she worked at an infectious disease/HIV clinic on Pittsburgh’s North Side. But none of these endeavors felt like a true calling, and she realized the work she had been doing was not generating the passion she sought.
“I just felt like something was not right,” she said.
Although she had thought about pursing electrical studies earlier, she kept putting the idea on the back burner.
“I think I felt a pressure to do something more ‘professional,’” Stern said. “When you get good grades growing up, nobody’s saying ‘Hey, why don’t you try a vocation?’ Which I think is a problem; it shouldn’t be that way.”
Stern said that she has always had a knack for working with her hands.
“I can change my own tires,” she said. “Something was once broken in my car and I pulled the dash off and started fiddling to try to figure out what the problem was. I’ve worked on my own houses to some degree. Drywall, mudding, painting, insulation. I was up on my roof a couple weeks ago in my current house fixing a piece of fascia that had blown off in the wind.”
So, about a year ago, Stern finally committed to pursuing a trade and enrolled at Rosedale. She chose electrical studies, she said, because it is “one of the cleaner trades, and there are opportunities for pretty brainy work. Sure, I could do residential and commercial wiring, and that could be a lot of fun. But there are also things like motor control and programmable logic controllers, PLCs, which are basically the systems that make industrial plants operate, that make the conveyor belt move, that make the motor turn, that make the fan blow.”
Stern knew going in that she might be a bit of an outsider at Rosedale, and it did in fact take her some time “to adapt to the social environment — not just all guys, but all very young guys, most all who grew up outside the city in surrounding communities that are very different from growing up in the city.”
So much about Stern is different from her classmates, making it difficult “to parse out the kinds of reactions I get and what to attribute them to,” she said. “Are they sighing out of frustration because I’m asking another question because I ask too many questions, or are they annoyed because I speak in a way that makes me sound elitist? Are they annoyed because I’m a woman? Are they annoyed because I’m Jewish? I just don’t know.”
“I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t care,” she continued. “I think I grew a much thicker skin being here because at the beginning I was really sensitive to all of these reactions toward me and I wasn’t really happy.”
Stern has adjusted to the environment and learned about those who are different from her. She now loves the program.
Stern recently purchased a $530 fiberglass multipurpose ladder and is already doing a few residential side jobs for friends. She is confident about employment prospects and thinks she has finally found her calling.
“I feel more passionate about this than I’ve felt about anything before,” she said.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com.