Did you hear the one about the woman who went straight from commercial fishing to working at a state legislature? Or from the governor’s mansion to a five-star restaurant across the country to a small-town school? And if those tales don’t give you whiplash, how about a dash of roller derby?
Each of these are chapters in the storied career of one woman, Mary Rawlins of Oak Harbor (Wash.) High School, a SkillsUSA advisor who first joined as a student in 1982. “This organization changes students’ lives, it really does,” she says.
How? “The leadership skills, the connections,” she explains. “Having been a state officer, I went on to work with the Alaska state legislature in several capacities.”
Nothing about Rawlins’ career path could be considered a straight line, however. “I went to college,” she adds. “I found that college really wasn’t for me. I worked. For several years, I commercial fished.” Even after landing the legislative position, she returned to Prince William Sound to work in the summer.
Still, something was missing. “My mom suggested I go to culinary school when I was a senior in high school,” Rawlins says. Even as a child, she’d loved international cookbooks, but her immediate reaction was, “ ‘Why? Because I’m a woman, you think I should be in the kitchen?’ And it took me 10 years to realize that’s where I really needed to be.”
Rawlins went to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America. After graduating, she landed a job back in Alaska as chef to the governor. “ ‘Well, we assume you can cook,’ ” she remembers hearing at the interview. “But everything else — those leadership skills, the confidentiality, the professionalism from the legislature — is what really landed that job.”
Over two years later, Rawlins left the governor’s mansion for another Washington — not D.C., but a village in Virginia by the same name. She worked at the renowned Inn at Little Washington, which is rated as having one of the top restaurants in the world.
“I had a toddler, which was not conducive to the restaurant industry,” she says. “A job opened up teaching culinary arts at the local high school, and I did that for 10 years and built the program.” Rawlins started a SkillsUSA chapter her first year there, eventually winning top honors in the national Student2Student mentoring program.
A rough-and-tumble renewal
By 2011, the fourth-generation Alaskan was longing to be back in the Pacific Northwest. “I Googled ‘culinary arts teaching positions Washington,’ and I lucked out that there was a teacher who had a wonderful program already established who was retiring,” she says. “It’s been an amazing fit.”
But first, she had to activate a SkillsUSA chapter at the high school on Whidbey Island. “The first few years, it was about the competition, because that’s the easy piece to get students into,” Rawlins notes. “But the last couple of years, we’ve been really getting into the leadership piece.” She now helps train the state’s student leaders and even has a reunion every year with her own officer team from when she was in high school.
At the age of 45, she was introduced to another pursuit: roller derby. “You’re always learning. You’re out of your comfort zone,” Rawlins describes the sport. “I’ve never been a great athlete. I’ve always been a great teammate, because I push hard and I work hard.”
And when she’s asked, “How do you have the patience to deal with some of the students you have?” Rawlins has a ready answer: “Well, I get to go and hit people twice a week!”