Tara Lee Bertucci Perseveres

K. Patricia Bouweraerts
Tara Lee Bertucci Image

Tara Lee Holwegner Bertucci

December graduate Tara Lee Bertucci is so eager to share inspirations from her educational journey that she hardly stops to take a breath.

“I wanted to be the first in my family to graduate from college,” said Bertucci, age 61. “It’s been an incredible journey, I’ve had to learn how to interact with students online. I opened a Facebook and Twitter account.”

She completed her last final exam in December and will walk across the stage at Truckee Meadows Community College's 2018 Spring Commencement on Friday, May 11. There are several friends and family she credits with nudging her to the finish line—her husband Tony, son Shawn, former co-workers, and friends from her high school graduating class in Billings, Montana. Her friend Sherri Gadbois was her rock, keeping Bertucci on track.

But the one who stretched forward to propel her reach for the mark of an Associate of Applied Science, Business degree was her mother, Darlene.

Most Formidable Challenge

“My mom became ill with two types of cancer,” Bertucci said. “The last time we went to Montana to see her was in December 2016, and the chemo was really taking a toll on her. We took mom home for the last week of her life. During that last week she kept asking, ‘Tara, have you finished your homework?’”

She wanted to hold her mom’s hand and share stories together, instead of studying during that time at the end of the semester. It was her mother’s wish that she would finish her degree, though. Her mother kept nagging.

“She kept asking me when finals are, and I showed her my homework,” Bertucci said. “It was an honor to be with her there and ease her into her next life in heaven. She was hanging on until finals.”

Bertucci took all of her exams and showed her mom the results. Her mother died on Dec. 18, a couple of days after the last one.

“I ended up getting straight As, ended up on the Dean’s List for Fall 2016,” she said.

Mom will be close to her heart at Commencement.

“I’ll be wearing my mom’s pearl necklace and earrings,” she added.

Her mother had been feeding wild ducks every day before her illness prevented her from doing so—some days it was stale bread, some days corn. Bertucci kept feeding them after her mom’s death, and on Dec. 23 stopped to snap a few photos, which she sent to her niece, Amber.

Amber asked her if she had looked at the photos.

There in the image, the balding of ducks formed an almost perfect heart shape. Seeing this, Bertucci immediately knew it was her mom communicating with her a message that “all is well.”

Long Break from College

Returning to college in 2015 meant a lot to Bertucci. She had started her college journey at TMCC in 1989 but needed to quit in 1993 after marrying and starting a business. They were also raising Shawn.

“It was too much—when you own a business, you work all day and all night,” she said.

Their businesses were USAdvantage, Inc., a computer supplier for government agencies and educational institutions, and Amaranth Gallery, an art gallery in downtown Reno.

After those businesses closed, she worked for the State of Nevada Governor’s Mansion, and then for the Nevada Department of Taxation.

“It made me feel good to help small business owners learn how to file their taxes,” she said.

Bertucci was able to work on and complete her degree from 2015–Dec. 2017.

A Degree and the Future

“I’ve had the most incredible instructors ever; they took the time to help and made sure the students understood the material,” she said. “My instructors were kind and so very helpful. They taught me the skills needed and provided encouragement to complete my degree.”

One day, Bertucci saw the sign for the Disability Resource Center and stopped in to see what they offered.

“Jay and Gracie are incredible—Jay helped me with the paperwork, and Gracie was always a ray of sunshine,” she said.

She also credits the Admissions and Records Office.

“Petra spent time with me to see which of my old credits were still valid and put me on the path to complete my degree," she said. "When I needed to switch my classes from physical classes to online classes, they took the time to ensure I took classes that I needed to complete my degree as quickly as possible.”

An associate degree brings to Bertucci the confidence she has lost suffering from Complex Regional Pain Syndrome due to an injury to her foot caused by an uneven floor. Because of the constant pain, doctors surgically inserted a Boston Scientific Neurostimulator Implant near her spine as a method of treatment.

“I’m totally off pain medicines,” she said. “I hope to share this so others can know that this is possible for their injuries. We have veterans here at TMCC who may benefit from this surgery if they have injuries like this or chronic pain.”

The injury did not stop her studies.

“I was taught by my dad, ‘If you can crawl, you can go to school or work,’” she said. “This has stayed with me even after both my parents have passed on.”

Bertucci graduates as a member of the Phi Theta Kappa honor society and has bright hopes for a good future now that she has her long-awaited degree.

“Hopefully it will allow a future employer to see that I’m more than just mature and walking with a cane, but that I’m willing to learn new things,” she said. “And that I have a strong work ethic and determination. Old dogs can learn new tricks.”

She would like to inspire non-traditional students to persevere, as well.

“I don’t care if you’re 90 years old, if you want to go to school, you should do it—don’t let anyone discourage you,” she said. “I hope that someone will be encouraged to return, or begin, their TMCC journey.”

For more information about TMCC's Re-Entry Center, please contact the Counseling Center at 775-673-7060.