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Inspire Leadership: Tara McWhorter

Tara McWhorter, director of New Student & Family Programs (NSFP), was all smiles as she shared her experience running for the board of directors within her professional organization.  For her, association leadership is all about your love for an organization, and what you will be able to contribute overall to the membership.

Headshot of Tara McWhorter

Tara McWhorter, director of New Student & Family Programs

In NSFP at UT, Tara oversees the orientation and transition efforts for the campus and has taken a lead role in the strategic move towards increased retention efforts.  For NSFP and other offices, the premier organization for these focus areas is NODA Association for Orientation, Transition, and Retention. “It’s not just looking at what we are doing to get these students here and engaged in the college experience, registering for classes, and meeting their classmates and peers. It is also about focusing on the transition and retention experience such as welcome week, the first day of classes, and ensuring that there are programs and resources available to retain students.”

As higher institutions have started investing more resources and initiatives towards retention, NODA recently expanded their efforts to include both transition and retention.  “This is great because now there are more people at the institution that can come and participate.  There is programming at the conference for offices like First Year Studies that connects to key focus areas, such as retention.”

January 1, 2019, was Tara’s first official day as a NODA board member.  Previously, she served in multiple association roles including program chair for the 2016 Annual Conference in Indianapolis, as well as the 2014 Annual Conference Committee Member, Annual Conference Advisory Committee from 2014-2018, and the Nominations Committee from 2016-2018.

When Tara decided to take the next step in the association, she was highly supported by her supervisor and mentors in the field. The voting period was open for three weeks, which added to Tara’s anticipation and excitement.  “I was really nervous!  It was open for so long – like 3 weeks.  I wasn’t sure if they would call or email me, so I checked both all the time.”

Tara is an expert in logistics and planning, but she will have a more holistic experience in this new role. She will have increased focus on the association budget, finding creative ways to maximize the budget, evaluate policies and government legislation, and will focus on strategic planning and how to continue as the premier association for orientation, transition, and retention.

The decision to apply to the board of directors wasn’t easy.  Tara advises future applicants to “Think about where you are personally and professionally.  For me, knowing that this is a 3-year commitment in a position like this was a whole different level of dedication.  There would be additional travel, so it was important to get support from my family, my team, and my supervisor.”

“Evaluate what are you willing to put into it, and what are you wanting to take away from it.  I took a critical look at my goals, and I knew this experience would make me a sharper professional.  Ask yourself what are you going to gain from this experience?  This is a volunteer position, so you also need to consider how this will help you, your staff, your university, and the students you serve.”

Tara is also considering larger goals in the future, and this was a great way to learn more about what that could entail.  “I think I want to be president of NODA at some point, so I pushed myself to run for a board position because I knew that would prepare me and provide the bigger picture knowledge to continue to lead.”

For professionals that are new to an association, Tara recommends volunteering.  “I went to NODA as a grad and didn’t really know anything.  But I decided that it was something that I wanted to be a part of, and volunteering helped me gain insight into what it takes to run a national conference.  I met a lot of people and continue to make those connections – you get business cards for a reason!  When someone hands you a card, write on the back what you discussed with that person to help you remember conversations to connect with them later.”

Tara was lucky to have mentors in the field that gave her a little nudge to apply for the role in NODA.  “My mentors forward leadership opportunities that I am ready for and it validates and supports me. It is important to note that it is ok if you don’t get a specific position, it doesn’t mean that you aren’t great!  It just means that you are not what was needed in that exact moment.  A no always leads to a yes, so be comfortable with yourself, fine-tune your skills, and keep trying.”

Tara recommends that if you want to take on a leadership role in an organization, make sure to start with your ‘why’.  “Are you wanting to get this experience to say that you have had this experience or are you wanting to learn more and to give back?  I decided to run for the board position because I need to learn what it is all about and find a greater appreciation for the association and the work that it takes.  I know that I am a great professional, but the position requires so much more than that.  It really pushes you to grow.  It is not about just building up your resume.”

Tara’s passion and commitment to the profession is contagious, and her critical evaluation of her own skills and what she brings to the table is thought-provoking.  As we look to the future of orientation, transition, and retention, UT is lucky to have Tara McWhorter leading the way and pushing our campus to improve.