At the Rutgers Biomedical Health Sciences’ power plant, Gloria Tillery’s all-male coworkers have grown fond of her eccentricities – from the personalized hard hat she wears with her name across the front to the soft pink paint that adorns her office walls.
But it wasn’t always easy to find acceptance in a male-dominated world. Some time after her 1995 arrival at the plant as a secretary, she decided to become a boiler operator, which required certification and training.
But when she enrolled in a course for her first boiler license, the students there were unfriendly. “In the break room, the other male students would drink coffee and order food without ever including me,” Tillery said. “One day I went to go help myself to coffee, and one man yelled at me saying, ‘Hey! Put a quarter in the cup! You think that sugar pays for itself?’”
No matter. Tillery would get her coffee from McDonalds. Nothing was going to stop her from learning all she could about the business.
Years after that encounter in boiler school, Tillery no longer feels like an outsider. She has since colored the Rutgers power plant the same way she has brightened other aspects of her life: with an ambitious approach, optimism in adversity and, most important, pink lipstick.
When Tillery started at the plant, she often worked past her shift to absorb information about the boiler industry. Fascinated by machine parts and operation protocols, she probed upper management about the equipment she was ordering.
“I would eat lunch at my desk so I wouldn’t miss any emergency phone calls related to the campus or hospital,” she recalled.
There were other challenges. During those same years Tillery pursued her career, she was a single mother of a child, Nita, who was battling lung disease.“I’d get off work and then go to see her at the rehabilitation center,” said Tillery. But as heartbreaking as Nita’s illness was, Tillery could not help being buoyed by her daughter’s optimism.
Nita supported her mother’s aspirations and encouraged her to push further in the field, “‘Ma’, she would say, ‘just believe in yourself. Most of all have faith. Say ‘yes I can!’ and you will.”
Tillery would go on to pass four levels of exams, eventually reaching her gold seal license, the highest level of boiler certification.
Today, she is only one of two women in the state of New Jersey to have achieved the gold title.
Her accomplishments recently earned her a promotion at the RBHS plant to acting head supervisor. Now Tillery’s responsibilities include monitoring all power plants on campus, preparing requisitions managing staff schedules and using computer programs to maintain regular checks on machinery.
One of her most important new tasks is monitoring the machines that provide energy to the Newark University Hospital. The plant supplies hot and chilled water as well as electricity to the building, which hosts hundreds of patients each day.
There also has been sadness. After a long struggle and escalating stays in the hospital over the years, Nita passed away last October.
With the death of her daughter, Tillery has plunged even further into work. Someday, she dreams of opening her own boiler school, strictly for women. She hopes it will be a welcoming place for women to learn how to succeed in a male-dominated business.
“I see the gold seal license on my wall, and every time, think of my daughter telling me to believe in myself,” said Tillery, “I want to teach women everything I know -- for them to learn about what they can really do.”