Five years ago, Charleston, W.Va., Local 466 member Tara Turley was, in her own words, broken.

Tara Turley, right, receives her Student of the Year plaque from ACE Board Chair Judy C. Miner, chancellor of Foothill-De Anza Community College District.
Photo Credit Tim Trumble for ACE.

Laid off. Limited skills. A single mom.

“I was left with nothing,” Turley said about being laid off from her telemarketing management job after 13 years at the only company she had ever worked for. “When I was let go, I felt something I never had before: helpless. I was a failure.”

March 13, Turley was something else: Union member. Fifth year inside wireman apprentice on her way to holding a journeyman ticket no one could ever take away that would mean a lifetime of work on her terms. She was also a college graduate and, on that day, the American Council on Education’s 2016 student of the year, speaking from the podium to more than 350 people about the journey in between.

“Today I am not only mended, but humbled and honored to accept this award,” Turley said. (Watch Turley’s speech)

ACE runs a program that helps people get college credit for on-the-job training, including in the military and apprenticeships. The student of the year award is given to an individual who has benefited from the use of ACE credits who “demonstrates outstanding achievements in their community or workplace while successfully balancing demands such as family, career and education.”

Mary Beth Larkin has been involved with the committee that chooses the winner of the award for years, and every year she reads through each of the 50 to 60 applications for the $1,000 scholarship. This year was different.

“This is the first time it was unanimous,” Larkin said. “For her persistence in what she is doing, the difficulty she was in and her determination to get out from under it. There is love of her work, love of learning and there is just an obvious devotion to her community that came through. She was everyone’s No. 1.”

Turley went to work at a telemarketer right out of high school and never looked back. She rose through the ranks, first to trainer, then sales consultant, then management. Then, suddenly, she was redundant. Eight months after her promotion, the company was sold, and she was shown the door.

“I had nothing to fall back on. I started there at 18. I thought I had a career already. I thought I would retire there,” she said.

Instead she had two girls to take care of and no way to do it.

“I was looking at maybe getting work at McDonalds,” she said. “Maybe.”

But Turley’s father had opened a small electrical contracting shop and Turley asked him if she could learn how to do that.

Eunice Bellinger, president, BridgeValley Technical and Community College; Tara Turley; Thomas Samples, director, Charleston Electrical Apprenticeship Program.

“I have always been hands-on, doing projects around the house since I was a girl,” she said. “And I love hard work.” 

Turley went to a local vocational school, took a 44-week electrical technology course and started working with her father, seven days a week. In June 2013, after a year working with her father, she applied for the inside apprenticeship and was accepted. Her father, she says, shuttered the shop as soon as she did.

“He didn’t want to be doing it anymore, but he took work just to keep me working,” she said.

Using the ACE program, after two years, Turley had enough credits to get her halfway to the associate in applied science degree from BridgeValley Community and Technical College she earned in 2016.

To win the student of the year award, it is not enough that someone simply use ACE credits and do well in school, though. Winners are selected for how they use the skills and education they are earning in service to their community.

Turley got her chance in June 2016, when historic flooding shattered parts of West Virginia, especially the small town of Clendenin. Hundreds of homes were washed away, 26 people died and power was out for tens of thousands.

Turley and her brothers and sisters form Local 466 returned to Clendenin for weeks, rebuilding houses and reconnecting lives.

“It was awful there. Our local went in with material to help these people start over,” she said. Turley says she was “only” there for two weeks and wanted it said that other members of Local 466 were there for much longer.

“There were people there for weeks and weeks,” she said. “Their dedication to workmanship and commitment to community are unmatched, and I feel so grateful to be part of such a wonderful organization.”

Turley’s application required a recommendation and hers came from Tom Samples, director of the West Virginia Joint Apprenticeship Training Committee.

“She’s a single mom with two kids, plus a college student, plus working on construction sites and, somehow, she also found a way to keep top grades and perfect attendance with both her employer and the apprenticeship,” Samples said.  “She is the best of what this Brotherhood can be and she deserves every good thing that she receives. She has worked for all of it.”

From the podium, Turley thanked her parents, ACE and then she thanked the IBEW.

“The IBEW has armed me with invaluable skills and knowledge that have allowed me to not only attain a degree, but also give back in ways I never thought I could,” she said.