CHARLESTON, W.Va. — When the Bayer production unit she worked for closed, Peggy Gunter decided to take her life in a whole new direction.
For 38 years, Gunter worked at the Institute plant. She handled the logistics of raw materials — ordering materials to manufacture product and shipping product when it was made.
“There’s really no link at all between what I did there and what I decided to do,” Gunter said.
This week, Gunter — at the age of 63 — will graduate with an associate degree in web design from BridgeValley Community and Technical College in South Charleston. After graduation, she plans to focus on her business, Serendipity by Peg, a web design and consulting firm focused on connecting seniors and technology.
“I decided to do something that I’d never done before,” Gunter said. “And to do something I wouldn’t have to work for someone else. I worked for someone else for 38 years — I want to work for me now.”
When her production unit closed in 2012, Gunter’s union filed a petition for worker retraining with the Labor Department. She could either have retired, or used the $25,000 retraining grant to go to school.
“Anyone that is offered free education should take advantage of it,” Gunter said. “I never went to college. I graduated in 1969 from East Bank High School.”
While she had some reservations at first, Gunter wanted a challenge. She wondered if she could handle the work. She wondered what the other students would think of her.
Gunter started out taking two developmental algebra courses. Because of the developmental math courses, she ended up taking four algebra courses back to back, she said.
She aced each course — although, she said, it wasn’t uncommon for her to spend four to six hours focusing on her studies once she got home.
The math courses provided the foundation for the coding courses necessary for her degree. Coding serves as programmed direction for a website, and it must be entered line by line to avoid any errors in how the website functions.
Coding has been the most difficult for Gunter, who is a visual learner and prefers to focus on the design aspect of a website.
The design comes easy, but not the coding, Gunter said.
She would write lines and lines of code and practice relentlessly until she figured her problems out and improve her coding skills.
Jason Spencer, a professor at BridgeValley, had Gunter in several classes through her time there. He described her as a methodical and determined student who rarely missed class and never feared asking questions when she didn’t understand something.
She’s also made some great friends while there. “I thought I wouldn’t have anything in common with [younger students], but just the opposite has happened,” Gunter said. Gunter said she learns from them and has tried to be a mentor to them.
Looking back, Gunter’s favorite part of the journey has been proving she could achieve that goal at an older age. A lot of people asked why she would do this to herself, why not just retire, Gunter said.
“As you get older, if you’re not careful and you don’t have something to really light your fire, then your fire goes out,” Gunter said. “It’s something to keep me going.”
She is looking forward to being as busy as she wants to be while still having time to do things for herself and family. Gunter has a young granddaughter.
Her husband, kids and granddaughter have all been supportive of her going to school.
Gunter hopes to supplement the family’s income and really help others.
“I want to focus on bringing technology to seniors,” Gunter said. A lot of seniors have a need for understanding and using different technology, but it can be intimidating, she said. Though she doesn’t have a teaching background, Gunter said she’s a patient and approachable person.
“I’d like to work one-on-one with people who have technology needs,” she said.
She’s already helped author Fran Simone. Simone’s publisher had set up a website for her, but she wasn’t comfortable navigating it or creating a personal touch to it.
Gunter mentioned she was learning web design. Simone enlisted Gunter’s help. It was serendipity at its finest, Gunter said.
After graduation, Gunter will focus on building her business presence. She plans to bolster her business’s website and launch a Facebook page. She’s also been placed on the resource list for the Kanawha Valley Village People seniors group.
“It’s about sitting down one-on-one and explaining how technology works on a level that seniors can understand,” Gunter said.
Spencer and Gunter have talked a lot about the projects she has lined up postgraduation.
Of all his students, Spencer said no one has ever showed him what they’re working on for after graduation, saying most expect to just be hired after graduating.
That shows me how determined and engaged she is, he said.
“It’s thrilling to me that she’s found something she is passionate about and she’s able to actually succeed in it,” Spencer said.
Reach Caitlin Cook at firstname.lastname@example.org, 304-348-5113 or follow @caitlincookWV on Twitter.