Jennifer Owens always believed her degree in Instrumental Music Education from Ithaca College would lead to a fulfilling career doing what she loved. She started on that path, training and working as a band director. But life’s next stanza brought some unexpected changes as she balanced homeschooling three children with caring for a severely ill parent. Nearly two decades after graduating college, Jen was ready to return to a career in music education. That’s when she saw a television interview about optics that changed her tune.

Dr. Alexis Vogt is Endowed Chair & Associate Professor of Optics at Monroe Community College (MCC) in Rochester, NY and also serves as the AmeriCOM Executive Director for Workforce & Higher Education. When Jen saw her on a local news show promoting MCC’s Optical Systems Technology program, she said she felt “a thunderbolt moment.” Dr. Vogt talked about musicians often finding success in the optics field, and mentioned the program’s flexible schedule. “There were certain things [Dr.Vogt] said in the interview that spoke directly to me,” Jen said.

Jen developed an interest in science and astronomy through homeschooling her children in those subjects. But she remained skeptical about pursuing a new career in optics. “I felt my time for that kind of career had come and gone. I didn’t have the [knowledge of] advanced math or calculus,” she said. Still, Jen called MCC to learn more. Her timing could not have been better. With a new semester starting the following week, Jen enrolled in the two-year applied science associate degree program in September, 2021.

By her second semester, Jen was working part time as an optics technician with IDEX Health and Science. That summer, she began working at IDEX full-time and continued while she resumed classes in the fall. “The program was so flexible with evening, weekend, and virtual classes. There were so many avenues for support between professors, tutors, and my employer,” Jen said.

Jen earned her associate degree in May 2023 and took an Optical Technician position at Vertex Optics. She still enjoys music as a hobby, playing trumpet in a concert band and at different churches. Thinking back to the television story that lured her to optics, she can see why Dr. Vogt claimed musicians had success in the field. “Playing an instrument is creative, but it also requires a physical skill with your hands,” Jen explained. “There are many small physical skills you need to master in optics, while solving problems creatively.”

A career in optics also offers Jen a sense of fulfillment similar to what she experienced in music. Leading a band, Jen has an inherent understanding of how different instruments play distinct roles in creating one large, coherent movement. Now her role as an optics technician is an important part of a different movement. “I’m really proud to be part of the manufacturing community in the U.S.,” she explained. “It’s important that we make great products here. Optics manufacturing is a huge part of that, and that makes me proud.”