This 37-year-old single mother from Tornado, West Virginia, has been struggling since losing her job as manager at a call center six years ago, but that incident turned out to be a major turning point in her life.
Now taking online classes to earn a Regents Bachelor of Arts degree with an emphasis in Business Administration from WVU, she hopes to open her own business someday. But just a few years ago, her world came crashing down.
After her management job was eliminated due to downsizing, she was devastated. It was unexpected and she had worked there 13 years. Although she had always taken night classes part time, she had no formal education.
What was to happen to her and her two daughters?
Tara's father had once owned an electrical business, and since she had always been good with her hands-after her divorce she fixed things around the house herself-she decided she would follow in his footsteps.
She went through a 44-week program at the local career center to become licensed and was then accepted into the electrician's guild and entered a five-year apprenticeship program.
"I've been an electrician for five years and that is my full-time job now," she said. "I have been working in the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 466 out of Charleston, West Virginia, since 2013. I have done so many different things and it has been amazing!"
Tara is often the only woman on the crew and stands out because she wears a pink hard hat. She is currently working at the Toyota plant in Buffalo, West Virginia, but has previously worked at Glenville State College on a 3,000-seat sports arena, renovations on the old DMV building at the West Virginia Capitol Complex in Charleston, as well as some elementary schools and a new cancer center that opened in Charleston in 2015.
One of the most important ways she has used her skills was to assist flood-ravaged southern West Virginia in the summer of 2016. She and her union brothers went to Clendenin and began assisting people who had at least part of their homes left and began restoring their electrical service panels.
"I helped whenever I could for a few weeks, but some of my brothers were there for months, selflessly giving their time and services," she said.
Tara has used her on-the-job experience, plus her experience as an electrician apprentice, to earn a Board of Governor's degree from BridgeValley Community and Technical College in southern West Virginia.
Her hard work and excellence have been recognized nationally.
Last year, she was selected from a pool of applicants from across the country as Student of the Year for 2016 by the American Council of Education (ACE), which awards adult students who have used on-the-job or military training to earn college credits. She won a $1000 scholarship and was honored at the organization's national conference in Washington, D.C.
Tara was selected for the award based on her dedication to her family and community and her determination to set high goals for herself and to persevere in the face of challenges.
"Tara exemplifies the qualities ACE seeks in Student of the Year," ACE President Molly Corbett Broad said. "Her commitment to her education should serve as an inspiration to nontraditional learners everywhere."
Now Tara is continuing to broaden her horizons further as she earns her bachelor's degree from WVU Online. "This is my first time with online classes, ever," she said.
"Working full time and raising two pre-teen daughters, plus going to apprenticeship school 20 Saturdays a year does not leave much wiggle room. I'm still adjusting, even after all this time, but I'm determined to do this."
Tara said she chose the Regents Bachelor of Arts degree with a minor in Human Services and a minor in Business Administration because she realized that with her on-the-job experience and previously earned college and apprenticeship credits, she will be able to graduate must faster.
"I feel like this degree will make me more rounded and more valuable in the future, no matter what I do," she said. "It is something no one can take away from me."
Her advice to other nontraditional students is to never give up.
"Even when you feel like you have nothing to go on, don't quit," she said. "You are stronger than you know!"