PENINSULA WOMAN: Student follows path quickly opening up to more women

PORT ANGELES — Vanesa Prince Stoken took a chance on a wholly unfamiliar course — and found her path forward.

Ask her to explain composites, the program she began last fall quarter at Peninsula College, and she turns to a counterpart from about 70 years ago: Rosie the Riveter.

That “We Can Do It!” poster, showing the red-kerchiefed World War II factory worker flexing her muscles, is one of Stoken’s favorite pieces of artwork.

She’s a 21st-century version of the riveter with the rolled-up sleeve ­— updated on many levels.

At the North Olympic Peninsula Skills Center, Stoken is learning to build ultra-lightweight equipment, from surfboards to windmills for wind energy farms, with fiberglass.

The technology she’s mastering will enable her to find work with Port Angeles operations such as Westport Shipyard and Angeles Composites Technology Inc., aka ACTI, where a newly awarded contract with Bombardier Aerospace will mean 50 added jobs over the coming year.

Students in the composites program may also choose to take their Peninsula College degrees and travel. The standards are universal in this trade, says Dan Sweetser, Stoken’s instructor at the skills center.

“Composites are the wave of the future,” he believes. “You can move around, and do this in another state or country.”

As she works toward an associate of applied science degree, Stoken, 26, also credits the people who influenced her in girlhood.

Stoken is the daughter of retired U.S. Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mark Prince, whose nickname while in the service was “soldier monkey.”

She spent her first 12 years with him in Las Vegas; after he retired and Stoken’s parents split up, her father moved his daughter to Sequim, where she could finish growing up with family members nearby.

During her teen years, Stoken’s grandmother, Patricia “Pat” Prince, taught her plenty, including how to quilt and sew.

“I spent my life savings, when I was a teenager, on fabric for quilts,” she recalls.

And these days, Stoken sees the similarities between her new trade and the old craft.

“Fiberglass is woven glass; it’s fabric,” she says. With her knowledge of textiles, “I’m able to naturally get the hang of it.”

Stoken sought once before to become a college student while she was still a teenager. After several years of home-schooling, she enrolled at Sequim High School, in hopes of joining the Running Start program and taking classes at Peninsula College. But she was told she lacked sufficient credits, and even though she was 19, she was considered only a high school freshman.

That, Stoken says, was disheartening.

So away she went, out into the world of work.

One of the jobs she took was at Skydive Las Vegas, back in Boulder City, Nev. She jumped from planes — “I was an adventuress” — and learned about discipline and safety, two principles that would serve her well long after she left that business.

It was when Stoken applied for a job at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, ironically, that she was given a push in a new direction.

During the interview process, she met with the Department of Corrections psychologist, who told her, “You really should go to college.”

Money, as in the shortage of it, was a barrier. But Stoken applied for and received a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant to cover tuition and books for her first year of school; she’s seeking other financial aid to cover the second year.

“I’m good with very little money,” she says. “But I may have to take a break and work,” after finishing this first year.

Stoken and her husband, Travis, who works for his father Norm Stoken’s logging company in Sequim, are “staying steady,” financially. “But that’s not getting ahead,” and she’d like to have some savings.

Stoken’s future, especially with the associate of applied science degree, looks bright. In addition to area companies such as Westport and ACTI, there are manufacturers of snowboards, surfboards and cars like Stoken’s favorite, the Corvette, that need workers.

And Stoken has ideas of her own. She and Travis like to work on motorcycles together in their garage in Blyn, and she’s noticed that those vehicles aren’t really built for women. Stoken would like to change that and make bikes not only sleeker-looking but also more comfortable for female riders.

On a recent Saturday, Stoken drove in for an extra day of work at the skills center, where Sweetser and a team of students are building a special wheelchair table.

“I’m honored” to be part of this project, she said.

That positive attitude is typical Stoken, says Sweetser.

“She’s got to travel quite a distance to get here . . . she’s a go-getter” and serves as a role model for the younger students, he adds. “Vanesa has a good work ethic. She reads up on things and asks me about them. She’s always prying me for information.”

Stoken, for her part, appreciates the blend of people in the composites program. There are high school students and older college students, including some who, she’s learned, have lived through some tough times before making their way to the community college.

“To learn a trade,” Stoken says, “is a life-changing thing.”

This coming Saturday, Stoken will be back at the skills center for “Pizza, Pop and Power Tools,” a day of activities for middle-school-age girls. She’ll be among local tradeswomen eager to talk with girls about careers in construction.

Being a woman in the composites workshop is not an issue, Stoken says — but then again, perhaps it is in a positive way. With her working beside them, “the guys are respectful. It keeps everybody more on the level,” she says. “Some of the high school students will start to say something, and then they will think about it,” and skip it.

The variety of people in the course “keeps everybody pretty well-rounded,” she says.

Sweetser meantime, makes his classroom as much like a factory as possible, with music, a coffee machine and a professional atmosphere.

In the composites program, “you can make whatever you want out of it,” he says. Workers can stay in assembly, or move into design and engineering.

This trade doesn’t depend on large, masculine muscle groups, Stoken adds.

“In composites, you can lift up the parts when you’re done,” since they’re made to be as light as possible.

Walking through the skills center workshop, Stoken points out the tools of her trade: vacuum ports, belt sander, autoclave — “a pizza oven” — and the table saw she was once afraid of.

“We were good at this once,” Stoken says, referring again to Rosie the Riveter’s era. “And we will be good at it again.”

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Matthew Nash/ Olympic Peninsula News Group

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