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Alumna Goes from Ballet Dancer to Welding Inspector at Newport News Shipyard

By Pat Olsen

Remember "Flashdance," the 1983 movie in which Jennifer Beals played a welder who dreams of being a professional dancer? Helen Gault '07 is living that life in reverse.

Gault was a ballet dancer who won a highly competitive apprenticeship at Newport News Shipbuilding in 2013. Now she's a welding inspector.

Her job is to follow welders and check the integrity of their work on the aircraft carriers and submarines that her employer builds. With cranes moving large ship parts, it's a busy shipyard—"a little city," Gault says. So the 34-year-old rides her bike through the work area, just as Beals' character did.

How did she get from dancing to shipyard work?

Gault worked for dance companies, including the Virginia Ballet Theatre/Todd Rosenlieb Dance, during her time as a student and for a few years after she graduated. "I had my toe in a lot of things during that time," she jokes.

In 2010, when Gault's dance company merged with another, leaving her fewer opportunities, she decided it was time for a change. She kept dancing and hunted for jobs unsuccessfully until she landed the apprenticeship in 2013.

She's found surprising similarities between her dance and shipyard work: In addition to relying on physical strength, "both involve being shown a skill or activity and repeating it, and they're both very hands-on." One difference: "To inspect welds I've had to crawl into some very tight spaces."

Gault credits her time at Old Dominion with preparing her for the mental rigors of the apprenticeship. "My ODU classes gave me the time management skills and self-discipline I needed," she says. "I had to attend lectures several times a week and then be tested on the material. It was up to me to study on my own, and research whatever I didn't understand."

At Old Dominion, she majored not in dance, but in biology. She attributes much of her drive to Deborah Waller, her professor in

entomology and ecology. "She had high standards and tore apart my first lab report," Gault says. "I took all her suggestions to heart and by the end of the term, I got an A," Gault says.

Gault still performs occasionally, but she's focused on her new line of work.

"I've had a lot of leadership classes and opportunities here, and I have my eyes on a supervisory role. I want to work my way up either at the shipyard or at our parent company, Huntington Ingalls Industries. The sky's the limit - I don't want to let anything stop me."

Pat Olsen is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, for which she first wrote about Helen Gault.

This article first appeared in the spring issue of Monarch magazine. To read more in the magazine, go to www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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