She grew up in the log cabin her great-grandfather built when he and her great-grandmother homesteaded on the Kenai Peninsula on the Alaskan coast south of Anchorage.
After combining her random college credits to obtain an associate of arts degree from the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Ariel McLane spent her 20s bouncing around Oregon and Southern California working a varied assortment of odd jobs, still “trying to figure out the right career path.” She worked in restaurants and retail before learning about Oregon Tradeswoman, a non-profit that helped women explore careers in the construction industry. So, after completing that eight-week program and, later, a fiber optic technician class, McLane signed on with an industrial staffing services firm.
That led to jobs at a variety of construction and industrial jobsites, where she labored inside boilers, navigating spaces “so small I had to shimmy inside sideways to do work,” as well as digesters and tanks located at paper mills. She also worked as a fiber-optic splicer.
So how did McLane, now 32, recently come to receive the Dean’s Award as the most outstanding senior in Eastern Kentucky University’s College of Justice & Safety?
It turned out that all those arduous construction jobs convinced McLane of an even brighter future. Shortly after earning an online associate degree in occupational safety from Columbia Southern University, she traveled across the country in 2017 to enroll at EKU and will graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety, one of the college’s many nationally prominent academic programs.
“Originally, I was working as a laborer trying to figure out what trade I should specialize in,” McLane explained. “As time went on, I realized that I was really interested in the safety aspects of the job and making sure my co-workers were safe and taken care of.”
McLane brims with confidence today, but that wasn’t always the case.
“I think that one of the most challenging times for me was just getting to my first jobsite because I was so nervous” she recalled of her initial experience as a laborer. “I think that I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to keep up and that I’d fail. There was also an added pressure that I was putting on myself because as a woman going into a male-dominated field, you don’t want to be dead weight. If you’re considered to be dead weight, that could make it harder for the next woman that comes on that jobsite. I wanted to excel and avoid that. Thankfully, I faced my fear, started working, and I showed myself that I could do it.”
McLane found “99.9 percent” of her tradesmen colleagues to be “amazing, supportive and helpful. Once I showed them that I was a hard worker, they really accepted me, took me under their wing, and taught me a lot. There was only one time that someone refused to work with me because of my gender. That felt pretty awful, but I decided to keep my head down and work my tail off to prove him wrong. By the end of the week, his company actually offered me a job.”
Exhibiting the same work ethic at Eastern, McLane has found a similar level of support on the Richmond campus.
“Professors Gerald Haynes and Barry Spurlock both really helped me see my potential this past year, for which I will always have so much gratitude,” she declared. “All of the professors at EKU are totally stellar, and I really appreciate all the field experience they bring to the classroom. I’ve gained so much knowledge during my time here.”
Outside the classroom, McLane has honed her leadership skills as current president of the student section of the American Society of Safety Professionals, and gained valuable experience as a student worker with the University’s Fire and Safety program.
Looking back, McLane said it wasn’t so much a case of EKU changing her, but giving her the opportunity to discover “things about myself that were already there, but weren’t realized yet. I realized that I could move somewhere without knowing anyone and be OK, and I realized that I could simply be alone and embrace solitude. Through that solitude, I was able to realize what my priorities were in my life. So, I guess that I feel even more sure of myself and solid since I first started at EKU.”
The Dean’s Award from the University’s College of Justice & Safety recognized McLane’s academic excellence, service to the college, extracurricular activities and honors received.
“My time at EKU has been very special to me, and I am so glad I decided to pursue my occupational safety degree here,” she added. “I’d say that EKU represents the beginning, the foundation of a new chapter and a new decade for me.”
For more information about the Occupational Safety program at EKU, visit programs.eku.edu/academics/occupational-safety.