Pierce Distinguished Alumni shares what is possible


Passion and dreams make a fulfilling career

On Jan. 24, three former Pierce College students came to share how Pierce has helped them in their careers. One became a business leader, the second a pioneer fire fighter, and the third a prominent pediatrician.

This is the second year that Pierce College Foundation has set up the “Pierce Talks” forum. Former Pierce Distinguished Alumni were invited to come speak about their learning experiences and what they did after graduation. While they came from different paths and pursued different careers, they all had two things in common – a heart to serve and to do something different.

The first speaker, Jerry McLaughlin, spoke from the heart. From the beginning, he talked about the importance of relationships. The recent loss of close family members had him reflecting on personal connections that carried him through his professional life.

Matt Wuscher / Courtesy Photo
One of Jerry McLaughlin's proudest moments happened 38 years ago when he was named Pierce College's first Distinguished Alumni.

In 1969, he was a D-minus student from Clover Park High School and an assistant manager for McDonald’s. Ray Kinnaman, the assistant basketball coach for Fort Steilacoom Community College (as Pierce College was then called) recruited him. The coach would be the first of several mentors who fostered relationships that contributed to his career growth.

One of those professors was the head of the business department at the University of Puget Sound. The two would often meet outside of class. After McLaughlin earned a Bachelor of Arts degree with a major in marketing, Glenn Graves — another mentor and professor — hired him to work at his advertising agency.

He would continue to be involved in the community, creating more connections. He has served on a number of local non-profit boards, including Junior Achievement, Tacoma Urban League, and the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation.

McLaughlin ended his talk with strong encouragement. “It all started with relationships formed at Pierce College. So you students, get to work, kickstart your career and start building those relationships,” he said.

Karen Leming started her speech by asking the crowd if they knew what they wanted to do as a career. Years before she was recognized in People magazine in 2000, along with the other female firefighters in Fire District 10, she was still trying to answer this question.

Matt Wuscher / Courtesy Photo
Karen Leming met her husband, Paul, while taking a public speaking class at Pierce College, and they got married the same year she graduated from Pierce in 1981.

She did not start out to be a pioneer, to be one of the first female firefighters in the county. Like other high school graduates, she got a job and went on to a vocational/technical school for training in data entry.

In 1979, she made a decision that would also affect her career path. Working in data entry was unfulfilling, neither was pursuing a degree in fashion merchandising at Pierce College. A career assessment test pointed her to Parks and Recreation, so she decided to change her major.

Around the same time, she began to focus on training in the fitness center and the pool. The discipline led to making the swim team and added to her personal growth. “I was becoming a strong woman, and I liked it. This would prove to define who I was. Even today, I continue to train in all aspects of fitness,” she said.

Before graduation, someone suggested she try out as a firefighter. She had never seen a female firefighter before and did not know if it was something women could do in the first place. Subsequently, a seed was planted, but left dormant while she moved on with life.

But what she learned while training in the fitness center also shaped her. “During my time there, I realized some of my potential — gaining confidence, purposefulness, leadership, commitment and the power of setting goals,” Leming said.  

In 1986, five years after graduating and getting married, she again felt something was missing in her career in data entry and working for Parks and Recreation. When she heard that Pierce County Fire District 7 was looking for volunteer firefighters, she remembered the seed that was planted and decided to try out for it.

A year later, Leming was in the recruit academy. Entering a male-dominated field was not easy she said. “I had to work hard, earn respect, earn trust, and stand out because I would be under scrutiny.”

People she knew were not as supportive as her husband, yet she kept pursuing her training. Her message to the students reflected her spirit of never giving up. “The opportunities are there for you if you are willing to pursue them,” she said. “Sometimes even if it is intimidating, you have to follow your heart and see where it goes.”  

Matt Wuscher / Courtesy Photo
Dr. Stan Fleming's older brother drove him down to Pierce College Fort Steilacoom, walked him into the admissions office and signed him up. Fleming says that that's where the journey really began for him.

The last speaker is a humble pillar in the community, Dr. Stan Fleming. He noted that all three speakers had a common thread, even though they did not plan it. They all wanted to talk about servant leadership and dreaming dreams.

For Fleming, part of his message he wanted to emphasize was the power of having a dream. “You gotta start with daring to dream dreams because if you don’t have a dream, you don’t get a vision, you can’t set a course. You will never get where you want to go or hope to go as you grow up.”

In his experience, he saw that every dream begins with a conviction of what is capable. Sometimes that conviction is shaky. “You have to convince the person in the mirror,” he said.

Fleming also stressed the importance of career identity in life. He said he sees titles as nothing more than a short form of a job description. It is not as important to get the title or degree; what matters is what is done with it.

He summed up his speech by encouraging students to have a vision. “Do dare to dream dreams because the possibilities are really unlimited. The only thing that will keep you from achieving your dream and your goal is yourself,” Fleming said.