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Voices of VLACS: All You Need Is Jeep Love

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VLACS Instructor Sitting On Her Jeep

G-R-O-W.  That’s what the metal planters spell over Tara Michelle’s fireplace, each overflowing with a different plant. “I love the idea of the outside being inside,” she says. “I chose the word because it’s the idea that everybody should keep learning and changing and growing. I wanted it to be something that my kids see every day. I try to model that for them. I want it to stick.”

We Zoom through her house in Hampton Falls as she carries her laptop to show me a birch bark wall in a nook. “I built it myself,” she says.

I envision Tara in the middle of the woods, stripping a tree. My vision isn’t far from the truth.

GROW wall above fireplace

“It’s really fun living out here in the middle of nowhere, especially with a Jeep,” she says. “When we moved here, I looked up buying a birch bark wall for that corner. It cost something like $5,000 and I said, ‘That’s ridiculous! I can do that!’ So I did,” she says.

Tara’s drive does not prevent her from embarrassing her children or from using her beloved Jeep to help with her home improvement projects.

“We were out one day and I happened to see a fallen birch tree in the woods on the side of the road. I pulled over, ran into the woods and grabbed it. It was embarrassing for my kids because there I was dragging a birch tree out of the woods, but I put it on top of the Jeep, brought it home, let it dry out, peeled it, bleached it to kill the bugs and stuck it to the wall.”

She tells me about other adventures.

“When we first moved here, we found a boat in the woods. It was just there. We tied it to the Jeep and dragged it to the pond across the street. The kids and I threw our waders on — I always keep some in the back — and now we have a boat at the pond.”

Tara smiles, triumphant.

VLACS’s Director of Technology is no stranger to growth or finding creative ways to be her best self. She applies the same fun, can-do, work hard attitude to her home life as she does to her job.

The Concord native started her career at VLACS about six months after it opened. She was teaching health at Seabrook Middle School, heard rumors about cuts and started thinking about proactive steps to take.

“My interview was a 20-minute phone call. I don’t think I’d make it through the full-day interview or writing a haiku that we have now,” she laughs. Tara started as an adjunct instructor with just one student.  “My friends and family thought I was crazy. I thought, ‘trust me, this VLACS thing is going somewhere.'”

She was right. As VLACS grew, so did the need for more teaching capacity. She upped her student cap and taught 100 students in addition to her full-time job, overlapping at the two jobs for about three years before transitioning to a full-time position.

“My interview for that one was fun, too,” she recalls. “My kids were really small and the sitter was late. I blocked them off in the living room and I went outside to do the interview. I watched them through the window to make sure they weren’t destroying each other,” she laughs. “I think that’s part of everyone’s online story.”

Then she and her colleague, Elizabeth Whittington, filled the Student Support position, which helped students who were stuck, not making progress and who needed extra support.

“We came up with a protocol to help those students who needed it the most. Then I joined Tony’s team as a program manager supporting instructors, doing instructor walk-throughs and facilitating trainings. I did that for a few years and then in 2016, the technology position opened up.”

I ask her why she stuck with it. “For me,” she says, “I need to feel passionate about what I’m doing or else I’m not going to be able to make myself do it. I love the opportunities that we give our students,” she says.

She also likes finding innovative solutions to complicated problems. “When I saw the technology position, I knew I wanted to do it,” she says. Tara manages VLACS’s complex systems much the same way she builds a birch bark wall, or drags a boat out of the woods or inspires her kids to G-R-O-W every day. She just does it.

“We war-room,” she explains. “When big issues come up, we sit down, look at it, unpack the pieces and that’s the only thing we do until we fix it. That’s probably the most enjoyable part — solving problems, working together, and not causing panic.”

She attributes a lot of her success to the brilliant group with whom she works. “Nancy [Terwilliger] wants every aspect of her code to be clean and done right. It’s never rushed. It’s always quality. And Jamey [Correia] and Matt [Correia] care so much about security and automating processes.” On the tech helpdesk side of things, Tara says, “I know I can trust Lisa [Daley], Jewel [Ditson] and Kathleen [Terwilliger] to give their 212-degree customer service.”

When I ask her about new projects, she beams. There’s a new system for Adult Ed coming. A student information system. Salesforce plans. Data transfers instead of integrations. Enterprise systems. Migrations. Patches. Big problems. Little problems. Medium problems.

“I could set up an entire second team that mirrors my current team, and with no new projects added, we could all be completely busy for the next five years,” she says.

Her eyes dance. Just like when she tells me about hauling fun things out of the woods with her kids and the Jeep. If anyone can do it, it’s Tara, who will throw on a pair of waders and jump into pond scum at a moment’s notice, smiling the whole time. “The passion,” she says, “is so worth it.”

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