A professor at my Alma Mater, Calvin College, is teaching a course to students about integrating their faith with their vocation. I told him a little about my story, and he asked me to record a brief clip he could play for his students. Since I’m not good at extemporaneous talking, I wrote it out ahead of time and thought I’d share it.
Hello, my name is Becky Bertram. I graduated from Calvin in 1999 with a degree in Art History and German and a minor in Art. Although I believed I wanted to be an Art History professor and do good in the world through the nobel task of molding young minds, God had a different idea about how He would use me.
It was at the height of the dot com era and most of my friends were going to be 5th year seniors. I wanted to stick around in Grand Rapids for another year and thought, “I’ll do this Internet thing for a year or two, just so I can tell my grand children, ‘I was there at the beginning.'” Well, ten years later, I’m still doing the “Internet thing”.
The path wasn’t obvious for me, though. During the dot come era there was really probably one graphic designer for every programmer. My brother had given me a book called “Teach yourself HTML 4.0 in a week” when I was senior and I read it over that Christmas break. I decided that I wanted to use my minor in Art to do some graphic design work. When May came, I went through the phone book, calling up people and asking for a job.
One company did hire me, and it just happened to be the year that Amway was building their e-commerce site called Quixtar.com. Graphic designers would create photo spreads in PhotoShop, and my job was to “slice ‘n’ dice” them and convert them to an HTML page. It was a fun environment, being the classic dot com workplace, complete with pizza and Nerf guns.
I wasn’t really happy with my company, so after a year of contracting out at Quixtar, I decided to switch companies. I got hired by a company in town that specialized in programming, not graphic design. I found myself at company meetings where I felt like people were speaking a foreign language. Much like my first time in Germany as a 16 year old, it sounded like they were speaking one long sentence. Eventually I was able to pick out TLA’s (three letter acronyms) that sounded familiar.
Still, the fear haunted me constantly that, one day, someone would notice that I didn’t know how to program, and I’d be history! I went out and bought a 1,000 page book that was a study guide for the Microsoft Certified Solution Developer exams. Several nights a week I went to Schuler’s Bookstore and camped out with a cup of coffee and the book and did my best to memorize what I was learning. None of it made sense whatsoever, but I memorized none the less, and I eventually passed the exams. When I was 24, I got a job working for Verizon.com, and suddenly I went from programming in VBScript, a procedural “language”, to programming using the .NET Framework and C#, which was object oriented. Suddenly a light bulb went off and all that I had memorized made sense.
To highlight another thread of this story, I had grown up in North Carolina, where Wycliffe Bible Translators has a whole campus devoted to technology, called JAARS. Since I already had an interest in language, and I had this technical experience, I toyed often with the idea of working full time as a missionary with them. I spent hours on the phone with various contacts at Wycliffe and even went so far as to fill out the application. The last step in the process was meeting with your pastor. In contrast to being a college professor or being a missionary, working in the corporate world felt very unholy. When I met with my pastor, he was very astute and told me straight up, “Becky, it sounds like you don’t have a passion for being a missionary, you just think it will be easier to be surrounded by Christians and doing the ‘right’ thing, than to work in the secular world where it’s tough going sometimes. Just because working in corporate America isn’t easy, doesn’t mean that’s not where you need to be.” It really shocked me, but I knew he was right.
Several weeks after that, I met a woman who had lived a rather wild life, whom I had invited to a Bible Study I had helped organize at Amway for some of the ladies in our group. She only attended once, and I didn’t feel like I had really impacted her life in any way compared to other folks I had fostered relationships with. But when I met her, I found out that she had married a good, Christian man, and had straightened her life out. She told me how much she appreciated me reaching out to her during that part of her life. It confirmed to me that I was where I needed to be.
It turns out that I was able to volunteer with Wycliffe for 6 months several years ago, after having been a programmer for several years. I continue to have an ongoing relationship with them, and feel I probably offer more help to them by being able to bring my outside experiences to them, than I would have been able to help them by being within the organization. I have also had the opportunity to set up numerous web sites for my church and to help in other ways in the community.
To sum up this story, I had one idea about what I wanted to do with my life, but God had another. Although it took me about 3 years, I finally did admit that I really like what I do, and what’s more, that I’m good at it. I feel like God has given me an opportunity to be a representative for him in places I could never reach as a “professional” missionary, and he’s also given me opportunities to serve him using the skills I’ve acquired in the market place. I’ve been self-employed since I was 25, and have never lacked work. God has taught me to trust Him in ways I never dreamed possible, and has allowed me to develop a talent I didn’t know I had.