HARTSVILLE, S.C. – Cheryl Smith decided on a whim to leave her job at Sonoco Products Company in Hartsville to seek another adventure before she retires.
“I was a little bored in my job,” Smith said.
Staring at the walls of her office cubicle a couple of years ago, Smith decided she didn’t want to end her career by “just settling.”
Her son, Raleigh, was about to graduate from Vassar, and there was nothing really tying her down, she said. Raleigh would be going into the Peace Corps, starting his own adventure.
“About every seven years I get that itch to see something new,” she said.
On a whim, Smith said, she went online to usajobs.gov in search of a new job. She found one in the United States Foreign Service for an office manager specialist. She took the Foreign Service exam and thought she would never hear anything from it.
“I still can’t believe I was selected,” she said.
Her initial reaction to the confirmation notice was that it was spam email.
“They wanted to confirm a time I could come to Washington (D.C.),” she said
“I just got tenure and celebrated my third anniversary in July,” Smith said.
“I never thought about traveling until I joined the Navy, and I still hate to pack,” she said.
She spent 11 years in the United States Navy, enlisting in 1981, right out of college.
“I got a degree in sociology (from Francis Marion University) when there were not a lot of jobs in my field,” she said. ‘I didn’t want to go back to school, so I joined the Navy to see the world. And I did.”
She was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia. Her first overseas assignment was in Italy.
“Which I loved,” she said.
She returned to the United States to Charleston, purchased a house only to find out her home port was being changed to Guam, an island in the Western Pacific.
“It is about eight miles at its widest point and only about 32 miles long.” she said. “The highest speed you could travel was 35 miles per hour.”
Once she got out of the Navy, Smith went to New Orleans as a software troubleshooter.
“Raleigh was born there,” she said. “I was a single mom and decided to move back here to be near my two sisters.”
She took a job with Sonoco Products Company in network support. It wasn’t long until she found herself part of a large layoff.
“I was an unemployed, single mom,” she said.
She took a job with ASC Technology testing software programs.
“I ended up as a teller at Mutual,” she said. “That was when I decided I needed a better job and a more stable income and went back to Sonoco.”
Smith was working in internal audit as administrative support when, at the age of 56, she decided to change the direction of her life.
“That was a job that enabled me to get the job I have now,” she said. .
Her first assignment was The Hague in the Netherlands.
“I was there about 21 months,” she said.
She said that job was a second-level assignment and much desired.
“I was lucky to get it,” she said.
It was her first choice of places to go.
After the Netherlands, Smith was an office manager specialist at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.
She said the places were very different. In Afghanistan she was not allowed to leave the embassy.
It was an assignment she requested so she could piggyback it with a request for Australia. She leaves Aug. 7 for Australia.
“I will work for security in Australia,” she said.
“I can only do nine years,” Smith said. “There is a mandatory retirement at 65.
“I just want to see a little more of the world before I retire. Before I come home to sit on my front porch in Hartsville.”
Smith said she has always known she would return to her hometown of Hartsville, where she grew up and where her two sisters live.
Smith said she has made friends from all around the world.
“It is sad when you meet and make new friends and have to leave,” she said. “And do it all over again.”
Smith said the only downside of her new job has been that she has to interview for every new assignment.
Smith said Afghanistan is a dangerous environment.
She said she never got to leave the embassy to mingle with the people.
“I could have been working anywhere,” she said.
Smith said there were about 8,000 people in the embassy in Kabul and about 4,500 of those were in security.
“In Kabul, I always felt safe. We were on alert to look for danger,” she said.
Other places are more dangerous, she said, because people become complacent.
“They are soft targets,” she said. “That is more frightening than living in my bubble in Kabul.”
She recalled two incidents, one when a popping sound was heard and another when there was a explosion that shook the buildings.
“Our one big treat was on the first Friday and Saturday of the month; we got two days off in a row,” she said.
Smith said the hours are long. Work often means six days a week and 12-hour shifts.
She is looking forward to Australia.
“I have always wanted to go,” she said. “I will have my own apartment, next to a manmade lake.”
She said she hopes to do some traveling to see the country.
“I want to explore, to live in the ‘Land of Oz,'” she said.
Smith said her son has inherited her love of traveling. She said he went to Australia in the sixth grade with People to People as a student ambassador.
She said he, too, wants to apply for a Foreign Service job.
“Hartsville will always be home,” she said. “I will come back. For a small town, it has so much to offer. It is so diverse.”
Her advice to others with an unfilled dream is that it is “never too late and you are never too old to try something new.”
Whether it is going back to school, starting a new job or something else, Smith said, “you want know if you can do it unless you try.”