Sam Ewens is sort of a walking contradiction. But holy smokes, does she walk tall.
She admits she’s not a fan of school, yet her teachers praise her for her willingness to learn.
She says she’s not confrontational, yet from the moment she sat down to chat with me, she was an open book.
And I couldn’t help but notice one curious contradiction: the juxtaposition of a thoroughly soiled Oregon Hawks hoops camp T-shirt against finely manicured nails.
“It’s my brother’s wedding tomorrow,” she explained.
Above all else, she has boldly contradicted the chauvinistic stigma that women don’t work on wind turbines.
“I am girly-girl, but I’m not girly-girl,” Sam said. “I like things that girls like, but I did not see myself being a nurse. I did not see myself doing hair. I wanted to stick out.
“I like being different. So I picked the right career, so far.”
Unlike others who love their career path, however, this wasn’t Sam’s dream job.
After deciding she no longer wanted to be a mortician – it would’ve meant more school, farther from home – Sam became the first woman to take on the 2-year wind energy program at Highland Community College in Freeport.
“It’s funny, from time to time, it’s rare that a student comes in and grabs your attention,” Sam’s “favorite teacher ever,” Dave Vrtol, said in a phone interview earlier this week. “She shined. She’s got the type of personality, to be honest with you, that she just took control. She really wanted to learn.”
First things first? Learning to control power tools. Sam had never handled one before entering the program.
“It came difficult to me. I’d never touched electrical, hydraulics, PLCs,” Sam said. “It was like, … what is this stuff? If you’ve ever worked with electrical, it’s complicated stuff.”
“She approached me, and I said, ‘There’s always a first time,’” Vrtol said. “I remember the first time, and I can remember the last time she was working on a turbine. What a world of difference.”
The Highland program has three turbines and, for their second-year midterm grade, students must work in groups to take apart one of the ginormous windmills and re-assemble it. Oh, and then give a presentation about how they did it.
Vrtol says Sam approached him numerous times with innumerable questions throughout that project, and his initial impression of the raw, supremely talented prodigy was validated.
“That’s her absolute perfection side with it,” Vrtol said. “That was hard to pull out of her to begin with. But her second year, mid-term, I really started to see it.”
It wouldn’t be an overstatement to call Sam a trailblazer. After she became the first woman to take on Highland’s wind power program, and not only graduate but also win an award along the way, another young woman has completed the program. Yet another is enrolled for the upcoming fall semester.
Vrtol doesn’t shy away from preaching the gospel of Sam.
“Sam raised the bar for all of them,” he said. “I probably bring her name up whenever I get the opportunity in class. It might be a very male-dominated industry, but some of the most gifted people I’ve worked with are women. And Sam falls into that group.”
A different sort of hydraulic: Tears
Sam had a job, and a good one by many measures. She was working on rail cars for Nippon Sharyo in Rochelle, where she lives. The beauty of the Highland program is all the trades it teaches you prepare you for myriad jobs, not just those in the wind energy industry.
But she vividly remembers getting the call on her lunch break. And sobbing. After a super-swift interview process, she’d been offered a job with Suzlon, which contracts technicians to work on its 118 turbines in the area, 114 of them in the small town of Ohio.
“I cried because I truly care. A lot. I didn’t want to tell my supervisor I had to leave,” said Sam, who also admits she had grown comfortable in the job. “And I could go into that job sleeping. I knew it like the back of my hand.”
But Suzlon offered a few things Nippon couldn’t.
“The uncool part about that is that it’s all dead. It’s not alive,” Sam said. “It’s an assembly line, and it was very monotonous to me. It was a 3-day schedule, and they all felt like 24 hours to me.”
She’d also been offered jobs working on cellphone towers, but for less pay and the prospect of daily battles with weather conditions. Sure, the interior of a wind turbine can be an awful lot like a thermos – crisp and frigid during the winter and oppressively hot during the summer – but there’s little to no direct exposure to the elements. And, unlike the turbines Sam worked on during her internship, these have hatches you can open for respite. And heaters she can “curl up next to” during brutal winters.
But perhaps the tipping point in taking the job is that Sam believes in wind power.
“There are haters out there. It’s ridiculous,” she said. “Windmills have been around for how long? Granted, these are 10 times bigger, and they make noise. But it’s whooshing. Would you rather hear a train? What do folks have against them if they’re helping?”
Room with a view
Sam’s workday begins at 7 a.m. Whether it will be 6 hours or 16, she’s never quite sure.
But by mid-afternoon, she’s usually scaled three 300-foot turbines in order to clean and service them. Essentially, she does whatever it takes to keep them running like a dream. Sometimes, it might take an entire shift to troubleshoot one issue and get a turbine spinning again. It’s maddening for Sam, but ultimately drives her to solve problems better and faster.
She’s never been afraid of heights. In fact, when she gets a chance to steal a moment, she drinks in the sights and sounds of the world from her unique vantage.
“I enjoy being 300 feet up in the air and looking out. I’ve seen awesome views,” Sam said. “I can hear frogs by a pond 300 feet up in the air. At first I was like, ‘Seriously? You can hear that?’”
Sam’s been involved in sports since she was a wee tyke, so she’s used to having some dirt under her nails and, despite her self-deprecating style, is visibly strong.
“I know my little baby arms aren’t as strong as the guys I work with,” she said, “but strength isn’t everything. If you can be mentally stronger, that can be more important than physical strength.”
That’s a lesson she began learning in sports and has refined with some friendly reminders from guys like Eric Lambert, who has been working on turbines for about 3 years after also graduating from the Highland program.
“I love him. He pushed me to be better,” Sam said.
She says it took little time to fit in with the otherwise male crew. And she hopes that in a year, she can scale as many turbines as time allows in a single shift. Although that could be a slippery slope for someone with her determination.
All of 22 years old, Sam knows the world is her oyster. She knows she could someday make her own hours in a higher-up role with Suzlon. But, before she supervises people doing the work she now does, she wants to master the turbines’ operation.
“My biggest thing is I need to learn as much as I can, while I can, before someone looks down at me and says, ‘You’re in charge,’” Sam said. “I can’t wait for the opportunities to arise, but give me a couple of years. That’s all I’m asking. I love my job. Give me some time to enjoy this.”
That said, her goal is to move up in a few years, lest her body revolt.
“I feel as though I’ve found my career job, but I don’t want to be climbing at, like, 40,” she said. “My body would hate me by then.”
If she accepted a promotion, Sam could travel. But Sam, a Mount Morris native, likes it here. A lot. Sure, Vrtol and other confidants would always be just a phone call away. But one of those instructors is her uncle, Todd Vacek, who still takes classes while teaching at Highland. It’s nice having him nearby.
But the ultimate trump cards are her parents, Troy and Sandy, who have stood behind Sam all the way, giving her the stern push when she needs it and always being available for counsel.
“I don’t want to say this, but … Mom and Dad have been right … most of my life,” she said. “It’s crazy how things come back to slap you in the face. My dad didn’t give me the option: ‘You’re going to school.’
“I owe so much to them. I’ve learned a lot from them.”