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A close-up photo of a person wearing protective helmet and gloves welding metal.

Abigail McMillan had a four-year degree in one field and hours of study in another. But she lacked fulfillment, and more concerning, a well-paying career.

“I really needed a career,” McMillan said.

McMillan found her career — and a passion — in welding. Now, she works as an orbital tube welder for SpaceX, welding the intricate network of metal tubing to the outside of the spacecraft manufacturing company’s rockets.

It’s a long way from where McMillan found herself just two years ago. McMillan, 27, grew up in Fayetteville, graduating from Terry Sanford High School and enrolling at a four-year university.

“I got a degree in psychology,” McMillan said. “Then I did some traveling. I bartended for a while. I couldn’t really find a job for a really long time because nobody wanted to hire someone with a psychology degree.”

Looking for a change and a high-demand career field, she moved to Boston and went back to school for nursing at a private institute. Then, the pandemic hit. McMillan now thinks of it as a “great coincidence” for helping her realize that nursing wasn’t for her.

“I was realizing that I was miserable,” she said. “I was trying way too hard to live up to a standard I’d set for myself, and I wasn’t happy. The pandemic gave me time to do whatever I wanted.”

What she wanted was to try welding. Her wife, Yvia, who works in the building trades, gave her a small welder as a gift for Christmas in 2020.

“I spent a lot of time tinkering around with it in the backyard,” McMillan said. “I just decided that this was really cool and I want to pursue it. And it turned out to be a really big passion of mine.”

In spring of 2021, the couple moved back to Fayetteville, and McMillan enrolled in FTCC’s Welding Technology program to hone her skills and earn her certification.

McMillan found that welding tied into many of her strengths — working in a hands-on environment and focusing on specific tasks.

“It’s very meditative,” she said. “You get to get into your own zone. I thrive on the fact that I’m working independently and responsible for my own work. I can put my hood down and focus on exactly what’s in my hands at the moment.”

At FTCC, McMillan found a supportive environment among her fellow welding students and the instructors.

“It surpassed my expectations for sure,” she said. “I felt comfortable, and I felt like we had everything we needed to learn. It was a great experience.”

McMillan started her job search in her last semester, looking nationwide to keep her options open.

“I noticed that SpaceX was hiring for a lot of different jobs in a lot of locations,” she said. “It only took about a week to hear back from them after I applied. I think it was just good luck and good timing.”

McMillan sat for three interviews by Zoom before receiving her offer. On August 22, one month after she completed her certification at FTCC, she started at SpaceX.

“I absolutely love it,” McMillan said. “There are days that I would love to go home after work and just continue to weld because it really is like therapy.”

Learn more about FTCC’s Welding Technology program.