It didn’t take long for the worst day in Tara Turley’s life to turn into the best — one that’s now led to some national recognition.
Six years ago, Turley was laid off from a management job at a call center which let her and her two daughters live comfortably. The firing was unexpected, and seemingly left few options for Turley, who opted not to go to college after graduating from high school.
“It was devastating,” said Turley, 37, of Alum Creek. “I didn’t know what I was going to do because I didn’t have any formal education. I had gone to school at night, but I mainly just had the experience from the 13 years I worked there.”
She had one glimmer of hope — her father had recently opened an electrician business. She had always been good with her hands, and after she and her husband were divorced, she was the kind of woman who opted not to call a plumber and fixed whatever needed fixing herself.
Six years later, Turley is a licensed electrician and confident in her abilities. She used her experience on the job and an apprenticeship with International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 466 to gain college credits from BridgeValley Community and Technical College.
She has already earned an associate’s degree in applied science from the college, and she is just three credits shy of earning another technical studies degree.
This week, Turley was named the 2016 American Council on Education’s Student of the Year and will be honored at the council’s March 13 national conference. She was chosen from a pool of applicants across the country and will receive a $1,000 scholarship to help her continue her education.
The ACE offers credit recommendations to colleges across the country to help account for experience adults have gained through their time in the military or on the job.
“Tara’s dedication to her family and community and determination to set high goals and persevere in the face of challenges exemplifies the qualities we seek in ACE’s Student of the Year,” said ACE President Molly Corbett Broad in a news release. “Tara’s commitment to her education should serve as an inspiration to nontraditional learners everywhere.”
Like many adults, Turley was confronted with the choice of paying for college with onerous student loans or jumping headfirst into the job market. The prospect of making $30 an hour as a 20-year-old made that choice easy.
After her company eliminated her position, Turley felt her family was in trouble. They never went without eating, but her wallet was tighter than ever.
“For a while, we would go out to eat or something, and my daughter would whisper to me, ‘Was that too much Mom, was it too much money?’” Turley recalled. “They could see me struggling. I’m ecstatic about how far we’ve come. I told them all along the way that you can’t give up, don’t ever give up.”
After getting help from her father, she went through a 44-week program at the Ben Franklin Career Center in Dunbar to become a licensed electrician. Then in 2013, she was accepted into the local electrician’s guild and was entered into a five-year apprenticeship program.
Members of the apprenticeship program meet almost every Saturday of the year for further intensive training on how to be an electrician. In addition to brushing up on basic skills they learned previously, they occasionally partner with instructors from BridgeValley to learn advanced skills.
“I’ve learned a lot of hard lessons, and honestly, I wouldn’t have learned them if I hadn’t lost my job,” Turley said. “The worst thing that ever happened to me became the best thing that ever happened, and I would do it again, too. I wouldn’t change it.”
For one, she learned that a woman joining a male-dominated career isn’t all that scary. When she first started as an electrician, she remembers growing nervous when someone would watch her work. Now when she describes her career, she almost forgets that she’s usually the only woman in the room.
Turley is working on the renovations of Building 3 (sometimes known as the old DMV building) at the state Capitol Complex, and it’s easy to spot her roaming the unfinished halls. She wears a bright pink hard hat covered in candy skulls and an even brighter pink shirt.
“The degree — that’s just for me,” Turley said. “That’s something I wanted for so long. I’ll always have it. It’s something no one can take away from me.”