Making the Switch

In the midst of the Great Resignation, people looked to GEOINT as a new career option. We spoke to one woman who recently made the leap.

For the past 26 years, St. Louis resident Sara Lopez has worked in education. She’s held various positions—reading tutor, parent liaison, middle school advisor, college prep program advisor, and more—throughout her career. But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Lopez craved something new, much like the millions of other Americans who quit their jobs during “The Great Resignation,” a term coined in May 2021 to describe the large number of employees voluntarily quitting their jobs.

To explore other career options, in March 2021, Lopez joined a non-profit organization called Rung for Women, which provides resources and support for women who want to improve their careers. It was there that she first heard of geospatial intelligence (GEOINT).

“In one of the career classes, an instructor mentioned GEOINT and it caught my interest,” said Lopez, who’s originally from Pasadena, Calif. “The first thing I wanted to know, though, is if you have to be ‘sciency’ to work in GEOINT. They said no, so I went for it.”

The first thing she did to familiarize herself with the field and its big players was to attend the Geo-Resolution Conference at St. Louis University in September 2021.

“Everything was completely over my head because I had never heard of this field,” said Lopez, a mother of three, who graduated from Cal State-San Bernardino with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies and a minor in Spanish. “But I tried to take away as much as I could.”

Lopez attended her first USGIF Symposium in St. Louis in October 2021.

She left the program with names and email addresses, many new contacts on LinkedIn, and a burning interest to join the GEOINT industry—a global industry that is projected to grow from $63.61 billion in 2021 to $147.58 billion in 2028, according to Fortune Business Insights.

The following month, Lopez attended USGIF’s annual GEOINT Symposium in St. Louis.

Though overwhelmed at first, Lopez committed herself to networking and learning. “I made so many connections and asked so many people what’s the best way to get started in the industry and everyone told me to just jump in feet first…It was amazing.”

That Symposium solidified for Lopez that she was on the right track, and it also gave her pause. As a 44-year-old Latina woman, she was clearly in the minority.

“One of the first things I noticed was that the room was filled with a lot of white men,” she said. “There weren’t that many women, and there weren’t that many women of color.”

Determined to change that, Lopez enrolled in a data analyst training course through the Rung for Women program to learn more about the basics. Then she joined several GEOINT-related organizations, including USGIF and the Urban and Regional Information Systems Association.

“I knew that if I wanted to get ahead, I had to learn everything I could and get involved as much as possible,” she said. “Trying to switch careers at my age can be tricky.”

Lopez on her first day of work at T-Kartor USA.

Turns out, it was the right time for Lopez to switch. After interviewing with a few companies for a job, in May 2022, she was offered a position as level 1 geospatial analyst for T-Kartor USA, a geospatial software provider headquartered in St. Louis.

Her first assignment? Extracting objects from satellite imagery.

“I’ve been able to handle it so far, and I’m enjoying it,” she said. “But I know it’s going to get harder.”

In addition to her full-time job as an analyst, Lopez, who enjoys scrapbooking and exploring Route 66, is also a full-time student at St. Louis Community College–Florissant Valley earning a degree in American Sign Language (ASL). She hopes to one day serve as a trilingual interpreter in English, Spanish, and ASL.

Eventually, Lopez would like to combine her skills as an educator, analyst, and interpreter. And while she’s not sure that position even exists, she’s excited to see what comes next.

“I’m still looking into what I ultimately want to be,” Lopez said. “This field is so big and I’m enjoying the journey.”

Main image: Lopez celebrating a graduation with family and friends.

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