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By John Bailey jbailey@hickoryrecord.com Hickory Daily Record

HICKORY – For Tracy Hall, making connections, opening doors and creating opportunities are just part of her equation for success, something she’s been eager to share with kids since graduating from California State University, Chico in 1987.

Since 1989, she has gone from establishing summer day camps in Napa, Calif., to helping students see the relationship between their education and local careers in Catawba County.

"I care about kids, and I care about community. Those are my two greatest passions," Hall said.

As Catawba Valley Community College’s Director of Education Matters, Hall oversees a program that has helped build a bridge between local businesses, school districts and government. It was CVCC President Garrett Hinshaw who envisioned Education Matters in 2009.

"Education Matters was a brand new concept,” Hall said. “There was nothing in place yet, so I found it exciting to have the opportunity to help create it from the vision of Dr. Hinshaw and all the business leaders in our community.”

Her biggest impact locally might be with the Extreme STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) tours she started in 2012 through Education Matters.

This past year, the Extreme STEM tours broke the 10,000 mark (10,727) in number of students involved. The program has grown from just the Catawba County Schools district to include Hickory Public Schools and Newton-Conover City Schools.

The tours introduce eighth-grade students to the academic pathways they’d need to follow to get into a science/technology career by taking them into local businesses.

“There are going to be kids who walk through a company and say this is not for me, but when you see a kid and you see the lights go on, then you know you’ve made a connection,” Hall said. “There was a boy walking in front of me last fall, and he turned around to his friends and said, ‘this is the best day ever. It’s totally fulfilling my inner nerd.’”

Building partnerships

CVCC Director of Student Activities Bo Glenn is one of those local resources Hall likes to reach out to for STEM tours at the community college campus.

“We brainstorm and work it out so everything flows very smoothly,” Glenn said. “She’s a lot of fun, is very dynamic, has a lot of great ideas and is enthusiastic about making sure the students get the most from the day.”

With STEM tours, Glenn likes the idea of helping eighth-graders think about science and math and technology and their future early.

On the business side, Hall said she heard the need for more and better soft skills as well. From this came the idea of the Education Matters Career Prep Conference for high school seniors.

Hall wanted to create something more interactive than a typical college/career fair for students, providing them an opportunity to present their portfolio to local business leaders and engage in mock interviews.

“When we started with Education Matters, I was focusing on the school piece, and we started developing portfolios with high school juniors,” Hall said. “Sophomores were taking pre-tests for work keys.”

STEM tours were added to get the younger students focused on thinking about these paths as well.

This has been the professional pattern in her life.

Connecting wants

When she worked for the City of Napa in California, she developed new summer camp programs and summer classes. It was where she learned the value of building strong partnerships. The city partnered with local school districts and the local community college in Napa.

In 1994, Hall moved to North Carolina and became the special events director for the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro. She went on to work as the director of the Sedgefield Presbyterian preschool and kindergarten in Greensboro (1999-2004).

Eventually, she got to work for the Catawba Science Center (2004-06), and again, she got the chance to help develop programming to connect science with children.

“It’s about having great resources and great experiences and educational opportunities to offer kids,” Hall said.

Those resources come from her ability to connect with both education and business leaders and helping them figure out what they need from each other. She built on that idea as the public information officer for Hickory Public Schools (2006-10).

In 2009, Hall received the chance to bring all her previous experiences in education and planning together at CVCC, encouraged by former HPS Superintendent Ric Vandett.

“With Education Matters, I’ve got to know CEOs, presidents, owners of companies, and I’ve developed relationships with them to create experiences for kids like the Extreme STEM tour,” Hall said.

Thanks to these partnerships she’s built with local businesses, she’s able to put kids right into a realistic setting where they can experience what it would be like working in field like the health industry.

“At Graystone Eye, the kids actually get to see an eye injection,” Hall said. “There are kids who go, ‘that is cool. I love it,’ and then there are kids who go, ‘that is not for me.’”

This is the type of experience she wants to create for the students.

“When I meet with local businesses, I tell them, ‘let’s not just take the kids on a tour and walk through and hear about your company,’” Hall said. “What you want to talk about is the career path and what you want them to do and why they should want to work for you over another company.”

Other counties are following the model she’s created to start their own STEM tour programs. Recently, she conducted a regional training with 30 individuals.

Hall was born in New Jersey and has lived in Illinois, Wisconsin, Tennessee and California. She’s married to Jeff Hall, and they have two children, Trevor, 22 and Caleigh, 20.

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