4 Tampa Bay women overcome challenges, strive for goals with help from Athena Society

In Greek mythology, Athena is the goddess of strategy, wisdom, invention…and war when necessary. Legend has it she imbued the women of Greece with those qualities to make them important members of their families and communities. 

Ancient Greece may be ancient history, but the spirit of Athena lives on in the Athena Society of Tampa. 

According to their website, the Athena Society’s mission is to “advance the status of women through equality, acceptance, education, and opportunity.” The organization accomplishes those goals through what it describes as “members who are an active, accomplished, and community-minded group of leaders from a cross-section of businesses, professions, academic institutions, civic and philanthropic organizations, and governmental bodies.”

The Athena Society’s current president, Denise Jordan, says she joined the organization to have a real effect on the status of women in the region and work alongside women with whom she had much in common - women who are successful, who are committed to encouraging younger women and committed to diversity. 

Jordan calls the women of the Athena Society “difference makers.” 

Recently, the Athena Society made that difference by awarding the 2022 Phyllis Marshall Career Assistance Grant to four recipients. Phyllis Marshall was a long-standing Athena member and a past president who advocated for students pursuing their educational and career dreams. 

According to a recent press release, the grant is part of the Athena Society’s Women Education and Scholarship Fund, administered through the Community Foundation Tampa Bay. Since 2014, a total of $108,692 in career assistance grant funds have been awarded to 63 women during their enrollment in post-high school educational institutions throughout Hillsborough County.

Notices of applications are sent each winter to guidance counselors at local community and technical colleges and to organizations that provide community resources, including social services agencies. Applications are reviewed in the spring and awarded by the fall of each year.
 
Grants are awarded to deserving Hillsborough County college women who are striving and need support to reach their educational goals. The grants are used by the recipients to advance their career progress.

Here are the stories of the four women who won this year, the challenges they have overcome and the goals they aspire to reach. 

Pursuing Their Dream

Natalie Rychel

Natalie Rychel grew up in the countryside surrounding Oldsmar. She loved animals, volunteering at Horse Power for Kids and Animal Sanctuary. She showed goats and trained dogs, eventually becoming a professional trainer with Sam Ivey K9 Consultants, Inc. Then the pandemic hit. 

She found a job selling Harley-Davidson motorcycles. One afternoon, sitting in a parking lot during her break, listening to NPR, she heard a segment about how women could make a good living working in the building and construction trades. She turned up the volume. When Natalie was frustrated with her life, she used to say jokingly, “I’m going to give this up and go be a plumber.” Here was a sign that might just be the thing to do. 

The story said that the need for tradespeople was so great, companies would employ inexperienced applicants and train them. Natalie went from company to company but no one would give her a chance. Someone recommended she enroll in Erwin Technical College, a public vocational school in Tampa that is part of the Hillsborough County Public Schools system. 

Coming home after inquiring about enrollment and programs available to her, Natalie found she’d been preliminarily enrolled in the culinary program. The universe did not seem to want a female plumber. 

That initial glitch aside, Natalie says she’s had a wonderful experience within the Plumbing Technology Program. She’s excited to graduate this December as a first-year apprentice and wants other women to know there is more opportunity for them than they perceive. 

“We can perform well in construction and diversify the industry,” she says. “Being a tradesperson provides a stable, high-yielding income, with the possibility of becoming your own boss."

Annetta Hawkins 

Annetta Hawkins calls science and technology “a path I was destined to follow.”

“I finally found something I wanted to do,” she says.

The journey to finding that something was not smooth. Her father, who was in the Air Force, stationed at MacDill in Tampa, and her mother had a difficult divorce when Annetta was five. The tumult that followed left her with undiagnosed PTSD. After graduating from a charter high school, Annetta finally received the treatment she needed. 

“Medication helped me move forward,” she says. “I was able to go to college, to the Art Institute of Tampa.”

But fate intervened again. Annetta’s mother was hospitalized. Annetta left school and went to work to support the family, but her dream was always to return to school and enter her chosen field of video game design. As her mother recovered, Annetta set her sights on the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), but first, she needed to earn the required number of General Education Credits.  

Annetta is working toward earning an Associate of Science degree at Hillsborough Community College, where the office of financial aid has assisted her in becoming a work/study student. She says the grant from the Athena Society has been invaluable in helping to purchase the books and supplies she needs to continue her education. 

After graduation, she hopes to be on her way to the Atlanta campus of SCAD, where, as the child of a deceased veteran (her father has passed away), she can apply for tuition assistance through the GI Bill.

Annetta stresses that mental health is so important and should never be neglected or ignored. 

“If someone can read my story and be stronger and move forward, then maybe I’ve given them something to hang onto,” she says. “If I can do it, they’ll know so can they.”  

Crystal Doria

Life on Long Island, New York, was happy until Crystal Doria’s father was diagnosed with stage 4 colon cancer and given six months to live. Wanting the family to be as comfortable as possible after his passing, the decision was made to move to Florida. 

Crystal went to work for Publix part-time. When at home, she cared for her father, who lived for a year and a half after that initial diagnosis, so her mother could go to work. 

After her father passed, Crystal found full-time work with Cruise Connection by ESCOT, a passenger bus company providing transportation to cruise ports on the east coast of Florida. She loved the job and her customers, so much so that she stayed for eighteen years. 

As COVID took its toll on the tourist industry, her brother, Anthony, who worked as a government contractor in cybersecurity encouraged her to consider a career in IT, where jobs were plentiful.  

In August 2020, Crystal began her studies at Hillsborough Community College in pursuit of a certificate in cybersecurity penetration testing, which provides for proactive protection of an organization’s network before a cyber attack occurs. 
Crystal is optimistic about the future. She has already had two inquiries from companies interested in hiring her and says that she would ultimately like to work for the government.

 “I’m very concerned about the status of the world,” Crystal says.

She looks forward to completing her goals to build a better life for herself and her daughters and is grateful for the Athena Society award, which will allow her to apply for specialty certifications that can cost upward of $1,000. 

“I would like to get my ethical hacker certificate,” she says.

Her advice to other single moms is, “Whatever stands in your way, push through it”. 

“Don’t let anyone put you down,” she adds. “Always try to better yourself. I found the Athena Society women to be warriors. It really stuck with me”.  

Frannces Augustin

Until Frannces Augustin was a young adult, her life in Haiti was focused on getting an education and helping others. She attended college for computer science and worked with an organization devoted to mothers and babies with AIDS. 

When she moved to the US to be with her father and brother, she continued her life of service by working in a group home for people with special needs. Frannces says her English wasn’t very good, but her computer skills were, so she was able to assist with scheduling and running reports.

Realizing she had more to offer, Frannces decided to become a nurse. A friend recommended her to Hillsborough Community College. She was disappointed to learn that her credits from Haiti were not transferrable and that she would have to start over. She began by taking such prerequisite courses as English composition, microbiology, and psychology to qualify to enter the nursing program. 

Frannces is proud of her graduation from the HCC nursing program and excited she will soon take her nursing exam. Throughout this process, she has continued to work the night shift at South Bay Hospital. The grant received from the Athena Society will be used to obtain her bachelor’s degree in nursing.

 “I was so happy to receive the award,” Frannces says. “It will help me so much.” 
Frannces says she’s looking forward to being able to relax a bit and socialize.

“For two years in nursing school I was anti-social…you need to stay focused,” she says. “People need to believe in themselves. If you can dream it, you can realize that dream. I love taking care of people who cannot take care of themselves. This is something you do from your heart. I am grateful to everyone who along the way contributed to my nursing career.”
 

Read more articles by Pamela Varkony.

Pamela Varkony’s non-fiction topics range from politics to economic development to women's empowerment. A feature writer and former columnist for Tribune Publishing, Pamela's work has appeared in newspapers, magazines, and in PBS and NPR on-air commentaries. Her poetry has been published in the New York Times. Recognized by the Pennsylvania Women's Press Association with an "Excellence in Journalism" award, Pamela often uses her writing to advocate for women's rights and empowerment both at home and abroad. She has twice traveled to Afghanistan on fact-finding missions. Pamela was named the 2017 Pearl S. Buck International Woman of Influence for her humanitarian work. Born and raised in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Pamela often weaves the lessons learned on those backcountry roads throughout her stories.