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Sparks fly as 24-year-old welding student, Samantha Schreider molds two metal pieces together using a technique called shielded metal arc welding. This form of welding compared to variations like tungsten arc welding is the “messiest” because it results in a surplus of embers that requires adequate protection–like the yellow cow-hide jacket Samantha wears. Photo credit: Rosemary Montalvo

She Can Do It Too

June 8, 2020

She spends her nights crouched inside an industrial-looking booth, draped by yellow vinyl see-through curtains. Inside the booth is a small table on which a constructed hollow metal cube sits. With steady hands protected by thick padded gloves that are a little too big for her, she carefully positions the torch she is holding towards the cube. And like magic, a bright ball of light manifests between the tip of the torch and the corner of the cube. The intensity of the light pulses as she controls it with a foot pedal underneath the table–illuminating the entire booth.

After a few seconds, the light diminishes. Samantha lifts the black helmet she is wearing which looks like it came out of a 70’s science fiction movie. She has olive skin with a petite oval face that tilts downward to examine her work–inching closer to the cube. Her downturned almond-shaped eyes squint as she gathers her thoughts.

“It’s not hot enough,” she says.

The Center For Applied Technology, a building in the north-east side of El Camino College, somewhat secluded from campus, is where you can find Samantha Schreider. When the 24-year-old student is not with her family, she spends her time there–working toward a certificate of achievement in welding. She lives at Carson, California with her husband Cory Schreider who she married in 2016. After being certified, she hopes to become a diesel mechanic in the longshore industry in order to provide for their one-year-old daughter.

Finding her path

Welding was not something Samantha initially wanted to do. Like many young adults, she was unsure of what to do with her life after finishing high school. She did not attend college right away because she didn’t see the point of going while being uncertain of her major.

Her parents are separated and at the time she was living with her father. Her father and step-mother were supportive of her decision not to go college.

So she spent three years working at Target until the feeling of stagnancy weighed her down. Being in a retail job during the holiday season depressed her and she did not want to get stuck.

Then she tried different occupations. She worked as a job-coach, helping adults with disabilities succeed in a work environment for ICAN, a non-profit organization based at Hermosa Beach. After that she worked in a daycare for Hope Chapel, located in the same neighborhood as ICAN.

Between those jobs, Ruth Valdez, her 42-year-old mother living in Long Beach, encouraged Samantha to find a career to stick with. Ruth has always been blunt with her. She had Samantha when she was 18 and pushed her daughter to strive for a better life.

Ruth says she was a strict parent and maybe a little overprotective because she didn’t want Samantha “having a hard time in the long run.”

Ruth worked in the Los Angeles and Long Beach ports since 2004 and proposed to Samantha the idea of becoming a longshore worker and mechanic. She advised her to look into getting a certificate in welding.

According to EC’s institutional research and planning webpage, the college has given out 15 certificates in welding from the years 2017 to 2018. That is triple the amount that was given from 2014 to 2015, which was four.

“There are a lot of welding jobs in that industry[longshore] and so getting a certificate… is certainly going to help her get her foot in the door,” Executive Director of the American Welding Society Foundation, Monica Pfarr says.

Samantha was curious so she scoured the internet for welding content. She watched videos, went on Pinterest and looked up the hashtag “girlwelder” on Instagram. Her gears started turning when she saw women working in a field dominated by men.

Monica says that for the past eight years, the U.S. welding workforce has been composed of 5% women.

Samantha was intimidated and nervous, but she knew she had to “make a move.”

Her first welding course

Samantha was still working for ICAN when she enrolled at EC during the summer of 2017. She took her first welding course, Introduction to Shielded Metal Arc Welding with professor Dylan Meek. In the beginning she felt lost. The lectures were dense and flew over her head. The first time she entered a booth which the classroom was filled with, she didn’t know what to do. The booths in the classroom are where the students weld and each one houses the equipment necessary to do so. A booth which is now a second home to her, was foreign land at the time. She stared at the machine that powered the torch–confused. She felt like she “was being fed to the lions.”

Samantha felt scared but wanted to challenge herself. She was determined to feel the pride of accomplishment. So she went for it. She carefully observed her classmates and learned by example. At home, she asked Cory for advice because he works in construction and had background knowledge. Then she made friends in class and they “popped” into each other’s booths frequently for help.

Renee Newell, welding professor at El Camino College [left] and Samantha Schreider at “the yard,” an outdoor space at The Center For Applied Technology on campus, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. Photo credit: Justin Traylor
Renee Newell, welding professor at El Camino College [left] and Samantha Schreider at “the yard,” an outdoor space at The Center For Applied Technology on campus, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019. Photo credit: Justin Traylor

Samantha never got discouraged. The days she struggled only fueled her ambition.

Samantha says Dylan is a straight forward professor and she did not want to let him down. When one of her classmates didn’t show up one semester out of frustration from not making progress, Dylan “saw it coming.”

“I don’t want him to see that in me,” Samantha says. “I want him to know I mean it.”

Although welding was new to her, some things came naturally. When welders mold pieces together, the torch and the metal being welded form a bright arc that shouldn’t be looked at directly. This is why welders wear a helmet equipped with a lens shade dark enough to protect their eyes. When learning how to weld, it can be difficult for students to see the molten puddle of metal they are altering through this lens. But for Samantha, it came as “second nature.”

“She sees the puddle like immediately and so it becomes very easy to her,” Renee Newell, welding professor at EC says.

Samantha first got a glimpse of Renee during that semester in 2017. Renee walked into her class wearing a skirt, boots and striped socks. She immediately grabbed Samantha’s attention because she didn’t look like a traditional welder. Samantha loved that Renee was confident about expressing herself and femininity in their field.

“You could have both,” Samantha says. “You can have a skirt in the welding world.”

Renee had a “look” and she was “serving it.” Samantha too likes to express her personality through her welding wardrobe. One outfit she wears consists of a mustard yellow long sleeve shirt, black Dickies overalls, Vans sneakers and socks that have a green alien print design. However, she only wears Vans when she knows a class session won’t require boots.

But what really revved Samantha’s engine was having a female welding instructor at EC. It excited her to be able to learn through a woman’s perspective.

“I wanted to experience class through her eyes,” Samantha says.

A woman’s perspective

Monica says she’s noticed a rising female population studying welding in the schools she’s visited. She expects it to continue growing but believes some women may be skeptical to pursue the field due to misconceptions of an unclean work environment and getting “picked on” by male coworkers.

Monica says the women working in welding she has met can attest against it, but for Samantha, that is not entirely the case.

Samantha gets along with her male classmates, but once had an off-putting experience with one of them.

She received a distasteful joke from a man she occasionally interacted with during class.

The man walked into her booth and asked her if she was Mexican–like him. She confirmed that she was, so he followed up by asking her if she spoke Spanish. After admitting she was not fluent but could understand the language, the man proceeded to ask “te pegan?”

In English, it translates to “they hit you?”

It was the man’s way of expressing interest in Samantha. The man laughed, thinking he delivered a light-hearted joke but she did not find humor in the expression.

“In my head, I’m breaking it down to–that’s your way of asking do I have a man at home that beats me?” Samantha says. “That is how you ask me if I have a significant other?”

Samantha gave the man a disgusted look. She retorted by letting him know she did not appreciate his words and revealed her married status. The man awkwardly left the booth after realizing what happened.

Later into the semester, the man apologized to Samantha and they have not talked since.

“Women in the field have to have a little thicker skin, little things can’t bother you, off-color jokes can’t bother you,” Renee says. “You have to be better because you are being judged.”

The unexpected

By the time she completed her first semester at EC, Samantha was already eager for the next one. What she did not know, however, was that she wouldn’t return to school until a year later.

A week before the fall semester started in 2017, Samantha started to feel so sick that she called off work from ICAN.

Over the phone, Ruth advised Samantha to go to urgent care to benefit from the health insurance she was under. Cory was at his construction job so Samantha drove herself over to Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center at Harbor City.

She told the doctor her symptoms and after a couple of tests, the doctor revealed she had a stomach flu. Then the doctor asked if she was aware of her pregnancy. Samantha was two weeks pregnant. It took her by surprise and she couldn’t believe it. She asked if the doctor was joking and once the reality of her situation sank in, she asked for a moment to be alone.

Then Samantha called Ruth. She was nervous to tell Ruth the news but she looked to her mother for guidance. When Ruth answered the phone, Samantha immediately began crying.

“I’m going to be a grandma?” Ruth asked.

She kept crying. She expected Ruth to scold her because she was not done with school. Samantha was aware of the sacrifices her mother made for her and she thought she would be disappointed. However, Ruth assured Samantha that everything would be ok and that she could still finish getting her certificate.

“I’ll babysit,” Ruth said.

Samantha Schreider, 24, [right] with her mother, Ruth Valdez, 42, and her 1-year-old daughter, Emma Schreider, at Shoreline Park in Long Beach, California. Photo credit: Rosemary Montalvo
Samantha Schreider, 24, [right] with her mother, Ruth Valdez, 42, and her 1-year-old daughter, Emma Schreider, at Shoreline Park in Long Beach, California. Photo credit: Rosemary Montalvo

Samantha still wanted to attend EC while being pregnant. She emailed Renee, who she was already registered to take a class with, about her situation. She asked Renee if it was possible to still take the course. Renee advised against it and told her to prioritize having a healthy baby first, then return.

Samantha kept track of the calendar and the closer she got to her pregnancy due date, the more she questioned if she could actually return to EC. Although she had people who could babysit for her, she wanted to be there for her child. She didn’t want balancing school and work to interfere with spending quality time with her future daughter.

During her pregnancy, Samantha transitioned from her job at ICAN to working at Hope Chapel and she was with them until maternity leave. Cory supported Samantha so she didn’t need to go back to work. They wanted Samantha to return after she gave birth but she refused.

“Already going back to school is time away from her and I want her to know me,” Samantha says.

On June 19, 2018, Samantha gave birth to Emma Schreider at Kaiser Permanente South Bay Medical Center. She returned to EC during the fall of that year.

A newfound passion

Samantha inspects the silver twiggy rod-like object that is holstered inside the tip of her torch. After removing her well-worn oversized gloves, she pulls the piece out. She has a slightly frustrated look on her face.

“I’m going to need another one,” she says.

She exits the booth through the yellow translucent vinyl curtains. Finding herself inside a factory-like classroom, she walks past similar booths–each one containing other students welding away.

Leaving her classroom, she struts through the Center For Applied Technology corridor before arriving at a counter. The counter is accompanied by a spacious large window.

The woman behind the desk has pale skin and vibrant blue hair. Samantha lifts the rod to eye level–showing it to her and asks for the proper name of the item.

It’s a tungsten. Samantha has a cheery look on her face. She finds absolute joy in everything she is learning.

Samantha has found a deep passion for welding. It amazes her to watch someone manipulate something as solid as metal. When she sees the sparks flash across the windows of her classroom while walking toward it–her heart skips.

When Samantha is at school, she gives it her all. Since studying welding takes time away from being with her daughter, she wants to feel good about the effort she puts in. She doesn’t have time to “mess around.”

However, the certificate she is earning isn’t only for her family. It’s also for herself. She would be heartbroken if she spent her life not going after anything. Graduating high school was not the only thing she wanted under her belt.

“I never get tired of saying ‘Im going to school for welding,’” Samantha says. “Right away I feel proud.”