Transferable Skills
Published
Rhonda Lahm

There is a particular Nebraska Wesleyan memory that has stayed with Rhonda (Remus) Lahm (’80) over the years, and it involves a dog named Spot.

Lahm distinctly remembers her final exam in Comparative Physiology. It was a one-question test that went something like this:

You’re sitting at your kitchen table, watching your dog, Spot, chase a rabbit in the yard. Spot chases the rabbit until he collapses. What is happening physiologically in Spot’s body?

Lahm wrote for three hours about what was happening to poor Spot.

“What an incredibly effective test that was,” Lahm reflected. “Once you started breaking it down, you realized how much you understood about these systems—‘OK, Spot ran out of oxygen, which means this was happening to the circulatory system and that was happening to the skeletal system and so on. It just made so much sense.”

To Lahm, that exam wasn’t just about physiology. It was about deductive reasoning and critical thinking. It tested her writing skills. It showed her that a science education was teaching her about so much more than just science.

Lahm grew up on a ranch just south of North Platte, Neb. She spent the first seven years of school in a one-room schoolhouse, where she was one of ten students. She later attended Kearney State College for one year and then transferred to NWU because of its reputation in the sciences. Lahm had a clear plan: she wanted to major in biology and then go to medical school.

Besides Spot and his fateful chase, most of her memories still reside in Johnson Hall, where she lived all three years and was also a resident assistant.

“They used to say that the women of Johnson Hall were ‘GDIs,’” she said with a laugh. Lahm elaborates: GDIs stood for “gosh darn independents” in certain circles and something a little stronger in others. Her laugh suggests which circle she occupied.

“There was this great dichotomy in Johnson Hall,” she continued. “We were a very unified and close-knit group, but at the same time we weren’t afraid to challenge the norm and do things our own way.”

As an RA, she received $60 a month the first year and $85 a month after that, and she could get a double room for the price of a single. To afford tuition, so also relied on scholarships, student loans and additional jobs.

Determined to get her money’s worth, she took as many classes as she could fit in her schedule. She took philosophy. She took logic. (“I thought I was pretty logical until I took that class.”) She took classes in education, macroeconomics, sociology and writing.

“Nebraska Wesleyan gave you a collective education,” she said. “What makes you successful today regardless of job, regardless of degree, is your ability to transfer a skill set. In every job, you need to be skilled in decision-making, relationship-building, teamwork and communicating, and Nebraska Wesleyan taught you all of those skills.”

She credits NWU for giving her the ability to transfer her skills as a science major to a variety of different and perhaps unexpected career paths—from corrections officer to state patrol to heading the Nebraska DMV.

Before applying to medical school, Lahm decided to get a job and pay off her student loans. So after graduation she went to work at the Department of Corrections as a corrections officer. It was supposed to just be a paycheck. But she enjoyed the work and was soon promoted to corporal. Three years later, on a whim, she decided to apply to the state patrol.

“I applied to the patrol partially thinking, ‘There’s no way you can do it,’” she said. “I was challenging myself.”

That year the patrol had 1,492 applications and hired 20 people. Lahm was one of them.

She went through training and started her patrol career in Lexington, Neb. She subsequently spent more than 25 years on the patrol in a variety of divisions—traffic, road operations, drug investigation and the training academy as a supervisor. She was promoted to sergeant and later promoted to the rank of major of administrative services.

In 1990, Lahm became pregnant with her first child. At that time, she was teaching in the anti-drug program, DARE. The position required her to be in uniform. The patrol didn’t have a maternity uniform, so Lahm made herself one.

“In the past it was typical for a pregnant patrol officer to just work in the office and do busy work,” she said. “But I didn’t want that. I just wanted to do my job. After some meetings and phone calls and letters I was permitted to make a maternity uniform.”

The uniform she made was identical to the standard uniform except there was band at the bottom and a button and zipper along each side. Shortly after her son was born, patrol officers from other states began contacting the Nebraska state patrol to inquire about the uniform. Other states began using her design.

Lahm retired from the patrol in 2008. She earned a master’s degree in management and leadership from Doane College, and the following year went back to work as a driver’s license examiner. Then, nearly three decades after she was first commissioned as an officer, Lahm came back to the patrol in a civilian role to become their first records manager.

Lahm thought she’d stay in that position until she retired, but she was asked to transfer her skill set once more.

In 2013, she was contacted by Governor Heineman’s administration about becoming the director of the DMV.

“It was a hard decision,” she admitted. “I knew this would not be a 9-5 job, and I knew it would take a lot of energy and full commitment to the agency. But, in the end, our children were in college and I was confident I could do the job well.”

Lahm was later reappointed by Governor Ricketts in 2015.

“DMVs get a bum rap,” she said. “But my employees here are incredible. They are committed to serving the people of Nebraska, they care, and they do their jobs so well. I feel incredibly blessed and grateful.”

As director of the DMV, she utilizes many of the skills she learned at NWU—communication, leadership, teamwork, thinking outside of the box, and problem solving.

And when there’s a problem she can’t solve, she sits back, takes a breath and asks herself, “What was happening to Spot?”

Lahm has been giving back to NWU since she graduated, making annual gifts to the Archway Fund and supporting the Glen Dappen Endowed Scholarship in honor of her advisor and beloved professor.

“I have a roof over my head, food to eat and a job I love, and I get to do the things I love like seeing my grandkids,” she said. “So giving back and giving others the opportunities I’ve had brings me greater joy than anything else I could spend my money on.”

She paused, collecting her thoughts. “My parents were not wealthy,” she continued. “I was certainly not deprived in any way, but I know that it can be a struggle to get an education. And I believe that an education is critical. It doesn’t matter what you study; what matters are the skills and life lessons you learn that allow you to take many different paths. I’m a perfect example of that.”

 

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