By Ann Butler
Fort Lewis College alumni Tara Trask and Ramona Pierson visited campus last week on a trip that was equal parts reunion, reflection and inspiration for students.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Trask for a story on alumni last year. She majored in psychology and learned about using her field to profile potential jury members and analyze all parties involved in a trial under the tutelage of Dr. Phil McGraw. McGraw is better known for his daytime talk show, but he came to national prominence after consulting for jury selection in a trial pitting Texas beef producers against Oprah Winfrey. (That’s a case Trask worked on with him on Winfrey’s behalf.)
Trask, who started in McGraw’s office answering the phones, is the inspiration for Marissa Morgan in the new TV show “Bull,” which McGraw co-created. She said while her background is different than Morgan’s – who worked in counterterrorism – the relationship between the two characters is pretty spot-on.
During the initial interview, Trask told me about her former roommate and close friend, Ramona Pierson, whose remarkable story has been optioned for a book and a film. I don’t believe I can do it justice, but I’ll try to hit the high points.
Pierson began studying pre-med at the University of California at 16, but ran out of money and joined the Marines. She was out running when she was struck by a drunken driver. It is no exaggeration when I say it is a miracle she survived, but among many injuries, she lost her sight.
Undeterred, she pressed forward, attending Fort Lewis College and earning her psychology degree in 1994. She thought about going to medical school, but decided “nobody wants a blind cardiologist.”
Later regaining her vision, Pierson founded SynapticMash, an education software company that was later acquired by Promethean World, Inc. Today she is CEO of Declara, an artificial intelligence-enabled social learning platform based in Silicon Valley. She recently signed a movie contract with Sony and TriStar to create a film about her life.
In an interesting twist, Pierson had never actually seen the FLC campus or Trask’s face, so the entire trip was revelatory for her. The dynamic duo met with several classes and toured the campus. Both entrepreneurs, they made themselves available for a Q&A at a Hawk Tank workshop.
Pierson even gave a lecture on “Artificial Intelligence and the Transformation of Deep Learning in Technology.”
Both women consider Fort Lewis a seminal part of who they have become, the place where they formed world views, learned how to dissect situations and confront challenges.
It is easy sometimes for Durangoans to disconnect from the college or regard it as a place to go to concerts or maybe lectures in the Professional Associates series. But as the education reporter, I often speak with students, meet professors and see what is going on in classrooms and activities.
I am, quite frankly, jealous of the education that is happening at our Campus in the Sky. And it’s always cool to see what that education has led to for the thousands of graduates who have gone into the world and succeeded with their newly minted bachelor’s degrees.
Thanks to Pierson and Trask for coming back to share those experiences.
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