Spend a few minutes getting to know Rhonda Hocker, and you’ll swear you just met one of the most interesting people on the planet. I mean, how many people do you know who have gone from medical assisting to guarding the nation’s nuclear arsenal as an M60 machine gunner? She’s a Gulf War veteran who flew over Kuwait after the invasion by Saddam Hussein. She’s a registered nurse, earned her master’s in nursing, and is now pursuing her doctorate.
What’s even more amazing? There was a time in her life when the only expectation of her was to graduate high school. “To see me today, you don’t know my past,” Hocker says.
Hocker is joining Butler Tech as associate director of adult healthcare programs. She will lead the educational team for practical nursing, medical assisting, medical billing and coding, phlebotomy, and state tested nurse aide training.
Your connection to career technical education dates back to attending Great Oaks in high school. What influenced you to make that decision?
I didn’t have terrible grades, but I knew that college wasn’t for me. At the time, my goal was, and the only expectation was, just to finish high school. I didn’t like traditional high school the 9th and 10th grade years. Going to vocational school was a great option.
One thing that really excited me was that I could leave high school with a career and enter the workforce without going to college. Having a job making more than minimum wage. I chose medical assisting, because I thought the medical field was something that was interesting. Once I got to Scarlet Oaks, there were so many programs that I didn’t even know existed. I saw cosmetology, I saw HVAC, I saw police officer. I saw all these kids like me who were not planning on going to college and wanted a career. It was amazing.
Why did you later look into the military?
I was looking for something more challenging, so I chose to go into Air Force. My father was really upset about that (laughing) because he was a Marine, so he wanted me to continue the family tradition.
When I got into the Air Force, all I did was study. I was like, I just can’t shake this “school” thing. I thought I’d just go into the military, and you’d just do your job. But the military is really geared toward education. Everything was education-based, even to be promoted.
[In the military] I was a police officer, but I guarded missile silos. We have nuclear weapons up in the north, so that was my job. I was the 60-gunner, because I was most accurate on that weapon. I ended up getting injured, because it was a heavy weapon to be deploying. I ended up going into transportation, where I learned to drive everything. I would drive backhoes, street sweepers, buses, tractor trailers.
I did have the honor of driving some of the people you see in Washington now. Some of the generals who are now in posts, back when they were in active duty. I would pick them up and take them to their meetings or dinners.
What did you do when your military service came to an end?
Since I was so good at taking tests, I found myself taking the exam for the post office. I remember one day delivering mail in Avondale, and one of the fire trucks went by me. They asked how many days a week do you work? I said, “six.” They said, do you only want to work two? I said, sure! So I signed up.
There were probably 5,000 to 6,000 people taking this (firefighting) test, so I figured what are the odds. But I got a phone call that I scored in the top percentage. I moved on to the physical agility test and passed that. A year later, I’m going into the recruit class. I was one of four women. When I was on the fire department, they had maybe 12 or 13 women out of 650 firefighters.
I was on a truck company. It was very hard work. That’s the ladder. Your role was more search and rescue as your initial function when you pull up to a fire. Depending where you’re seated in the vehicle, you’re either going up on the roof or going in for search and rescue.
How did you switch from firefighting to nursing?
About 80 percent of our job was EMS. I enjoyed that part of the career. Back during that time, the recession hit. A lot of people were losing their jobs. And I made a decision. If I have to pick a job, I want a career where I’ll always have options. Even if I lost my job, I could still go somewhere else and work. That’s why I decided on nursing.
It wasn’t a lifelong dream, but I do love customer service. I love working with people. My husband says I have the gift of gab. That’s really where my journey was. I went into nursing and then just wanted to try different things. I tried everything, from working in telemetry, float pool, orthopaedics, hospice care, home care, just a little taste of everything.
When I decided to go to nursing school, all I knew of a nurse was bedside care. I never knew that there was any other thing that I could do. So as I’m working, I’m seeing nurse consultants coming in, nurse practitioners, nurse educators – all these different things, and I’m like “wow” – you do that? That’s an option for me? Well, yes, but you have to have education. You have to go in for more.
What was the best piece of advice you ever got?
The only thing that was expected of me was to graduate high school. The best advice I have is what I gave myself, and that is to never give up. If there’s something that I want, I have to go after it. I have to make sacrifices for it.
You have to stay positive within yourself and know why you are doing what you’re doing. You can’t look for external things that are going to get you through. You have to dig deep within yourself and want it for yourself.
What do you do for fun?
I love sports. I love whether its college or professional. I love basketball. On Sunday, it’s football! Everything that needs to be done is done by Saturday night, because then it’s football.
What excites you most about joining Butler Tech?
To have the opportunity to make a difference in students’ lives. In every job I’ve had, I’ve made a difference. I’ve always helped people and feel good doing that.
I’ve always been on the end where I’m the one implementing the change. Now hopefully I’ll be on the end where I can see the change the whole way through. But it’s still helping, and it’s joyous.