Minds We Meet—Karen Fletcher

Karen Fletcher lives in Ottawa, Ontario with her husband and three young children.  She is currently enrolled in the Bachelor of Science program with a Major in Mathematics at Athabasca University.  She hopes to complete a masters and a PhD and to eventually work as a university professor teaching mathematics.  This is her story.

Can you give us a little bit of background information about yourself? Who are you? Where do you live and what do you do for work?

My name is Karen Fletcher and I live in Ottawa, Ontario, which I love! There are a ton of museums and festivals throughout the year to go to, which I really enjoy.  For work I design and sell knitting patterns to yarn companies and magazines, and my husband and I have three young children.

What program are you enrolled in?

I am taking the Bachelor of Science in Mathematics, which I’m really enjoying so far.

Could you describe the path that led you to AU?

I got a degree in Classics and Religious Studies when I was younger, which I really enjoyed but it did not lead anywhere professionally.  After university, I had an administrative job at a non-profit until I had kids.  Since then, I have done freelance work designing knitting patterns at home, which I also love, but in the next few years all my kids are in school and there are about 30 years until I’ll be close to retiring and I felt stuck.  I felt like there wasn’t a lot of places I could go with what I had.

What was it that made you realize you wanted to go back to school, and what pushed you to major in Mathematics?

The first time I went to university I was pressured by family only to switch programs if I could graduate on time, and I’d been thinking that I wish I had pushed back and just taken an extra year to study math or something STEM related, and then, one night, I couldn’t sleep.  It was about 2am, and I just had this epiphany that just because I didn’t do it then doesn’t mean I can’t do it now and I think I applied to Athabasca University the next day.

Any advice for people who are on the fence about going back to school?

If you are thinking about going back to school, I would say that you are not too old and that just because you did not do this when you were 20 years old doesn’t mean you can’t now.

Selling knitting patterns is such a unique job.  Could you describe one of your proudest moments in relation to your work?

I’d been working on publishing knitting patterns independently for a while when I started to get contracts for magazines.  The first time I got to hold the hard copy of a magazine that was being sold across Britain in major stores that had my pattern with my picture in it was really cool.  There are lots of things I’ve done in life that are more important or have had much more of an impact but I think what made this accomplishment meaningful was that it wasn’t something that society or my employer expected me to do but something I had run after just because it was important to me.

What do you do like to do when you’re not studying? Any hobbies?

I love sewing clothing, there’s something satisfying about not being limited by what stores have in stock, but to say “I want a sweater with this neckline, this kind of fit, these sleeves, this sort of pockets” and then to make it fit exactly right.  I also love the body positivity of online sewing communities.  I cannot count how many times someone will post a photo and say they don’t like how something looks on them and 100 or so people will respond “You look fantastic, that sweater needs a narrow shoulder adjustment, let me explain how to do that.”  To be a part of a group where the emphasis is on changing clothes, so they fit someone’s body instead of changing someone’s body to fit clothes is really awesome.

What are your plans for this education once you finish? What would be your dream job?

I’d love to be a university professor teaching math.  After this degree, I’m hoping to get a Master of Mathematics and then eventually a Ph.D.  but we will see where life takes me.

Has there been someone in your life who has influenced your desire to learn?

I’ve always been terrible at spelling (I’m mildly dyslexic), and so many teachers just assumed I was dumb or always going to be bad at this, but my grade one teacher Mrs. Van Hemert would sit down with me and my writing and say, “Let’s correct this together” and patiently went through each word to show me how to get it right, she never made me feel dumb for not getting it, and there was something about how she handled that that made me love school.

Could you describe your experience with online learning so far? What do you like?

I love that the schedule’s flexible, really that makes it possible for me to do this because, with little kids, even if I had daycare, then as soon as they get sick I wouldn’t be able to get to class.  I also love that I can sign up for new courses any month which means I’m not tied into a three-semester schedule like a typical university.

Is there anything that you dislike?

It is a bit lonely at times, but I love the AUSU mobile app because it makes it possible to connect with other students.

What’s your favorite AU course that you have taken so far?

I loved ASTR 205 (Universe—The Ultimate Frontier), which is an introductory astronomy and astrophysics course.

What made it your favorite course? Would you recommend it to other students?

The course was really interesting, and my tutor was great.  I would absolutely recommend it but be aware that it will be a good amount of work.  I’ve always been fascinated by space, so I enjoyed getting to use one of my electives to study something that was a personal interest.  I’m planning to take the next astronomy course Athabasca offers after I finish my calculus courses.

Have you given up anything to attend AU? Was it worth it?

I don’t really feel like I’ve given up a lot, maybe just time and money, but I think that’s worth it.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life freelancing and feeling stuck.  The fact that Athabasca University is online, and that I can start a course any month of the year means I did not have to give up a lot to go, if I had been locked in to a more traditionally university timeline or been tied to a physical classroom I’d either have to put off going to school or give up much more family  time.

How do you find communications with your course tutors?

I find it really depends on the tutors.  The one I have right now is fantastic; he usually answers questions within the hour.  I’ve had another one that responded to my detailed question about not understanding why a particular math technique was used in a particular question with a form letter that suggested I should read the textbook and maybe take notes and that would help me succeed in class.

What famous person, past or present, would you like to have lunch with, and why?

Amelia Earhart, I love how she followed her passions even though they were unconventional and atypical for a woman of her time.  I think it would be really interesting to hear about what she struggled with as she pursued flying, what her favourite parts were, and to hear about her work in forming the 99s, a group of female aviators.

Could you tell us something that few people know about you?

I spent a ton of time as a kid dreaming about and attempting to design a flying bicycle, I lived on a steep hill and figured the sidewalk would be the perfect place to gain speed and take off.  I was forever using my furniture to build airplanes in my room.

What is the most valuable lesson you have learned in life?

When I was in high school, I tutored this girl in math, she was a good student, but math didn’t come easily to her.  One day she showed up and said, “I did my homework for the week.  I re-did all the questions I got wrong, but these ones I still don’t get.”  School always came easily to me, so I hadn’t had to work like that, it never occurred to me to work like that, but following her example has helped me in my studies and other things I’ve gone after in life.

Have you traveled? Where has life taken you so far?

I got to organize a number of trips to deliver medical aid to Cuba (they have awesome doctors, but the US embargo makes getting medical supplies difficult).  I loved it because we were hosted by churches (we camped out in their Sunday School rooms), and got to see people’s real lives instead of just hotels, we got to go to a bunch of places that weren’t normally open to foreigners and spend time with people in their homes.  I love travels where I get to not just be a tourist.


What (non-AU) book are you reading now? Could you describe the book?

Skunkworks, which is about the development of the SR-71 Blackbird, the fastest spy plane ever built.  I’m really enjoying it; the author was the head of thermodynamics working on the project and the stories of what went on behind the scenes are crazy.

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