Home Cover Stories Colleen Merrill - Embracing Opportunities - March2012

Colleen Merrill - Embracing Opportunities - March2012

By Jennifer Hofelandalt

Within one conversation, Colleen Merrill has the ability to make you laugh whole-heartedly, give you goose bumps and bring tears to your eyes. And, of course, inspire.

Always being open to possibilities has shaped Merrill’s life – her marriage, her family and her career. By embracing opportunities, this 43-year-old has a home filled with love and a career that allows her to make an impact on the Oshkosh community and beyond.

Merrill began her story with a remarkable tale about how her husband, Tim, proposed (although jokingly) the first time they met. But, after a whirlwind romance, they were officially engaged just over a year later. “It was on Thanksgiving. I was in school at UW-Oshkosh at the time and had met him out. He was explaining he just bought a house, had a dog and now all he needed was a wife,” says Merrill. “And that was it. We just knew. We dated a year and that Christmas he asked me to marry him.”

She was in school at the time and decided to drop out. “I was in a tough place in my life and I tell my husband in many ways he was my savior,” adds Merrill. When they got engaged she began working for his family business. When they had their first child, Sadie, she worked three days a week. When Mollie arrived two years later Merrill cut down her hours, only working on Mondays. Two years later, when Nathan was born, they decided it was time for her to give up working outside the home. Four years later baby number four, Abbie, arrived. While the couple wanted to have six children complications determined this was as big as the Merrill family would be.

This energetic gal lasted three months after she stopped working before trying something new. “I had a Pampered Chef party at my house, which I’ve never done before,” says Merrill. “The lady said I should do this, and I laughed at first, but later thought it would be a good way to get out of the house.”

altMerrill sold Pampered Chef products for 14 years, usually landing in the top 0.5 percent of sales in the nation. She adds, “I earned trips and recruited over 100 women. It was a nice ride; it was a lot of fun.”

Realizing she had a knack for sales, Merrill was recruited to sell defibrillators for Philips in Northeast Wisconsin. She then became a CPR trainer.

When her youngest went to kindergarten, Merrill decided it was time to finish her degree. She went back to school fulltime and got her finance degree from UW-Oshkosh. As she was wrapping up her classes, she accepted a position at the University to do some grant management. Merrill says, “What I’ve found, and I think this is how life goes, you tend to end up where you were meant to be.”

With the Closing the Mathematics Achievement Gap (CMAG) Merrill was tasked with going to different Native American reservations and educate teachers on how to present the material in a way children could understand and build from there. She marveled at the profound results seen in a short amount of time. And, excitedly, it was through their findings that Merrill and the others working on the project were published.

When asked if writing a book was on her bucket list, she explains, “Not at all. And that’s why I believe things just happen if you are open to them.”

She adds, “It was one of those projects that was very sincere. It was an honor to be involved and make the community a better place – to see where there was a need and do the best I could to help.”

It was through this experience that Merrill fell in love with learning. She pursued her MBA while working fulltime. “I asked my family first if this was OK, and they said ‘sure,’” adds Merrill. “I didn’t realize how amazing they were until I was done. I don’t think I could have done it without their support.”

As she was just about to complete her MBA, Merrill landed her current position, Survey Success Center Manager for the Business Success Center through UW-Oshkosh. Much of her role is project management as she goes into companies, identifies their needs and determines what she can do to help. If the company’s needs involve market research or insights, she manages students to run a call center and collect data. The Business Success Center also places approximately 100 students in internships that typically wouldn’t have been available through the University.

Merrill reveals one of the projects she feels has been most beneficial to the community is the Back on Track program. Donors contacted her office, asking them to move their initiative forward. She says, “The goal was to take 8th grade students that were identified through WKCE testing as below proficient in two categories and as these students entered high school we gave them a mentor – our college students are their mentors.”

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UW-Oshkosh students work with the struggling students during their study hall. Merrill adds, “The results of this have been amazing. We have received letters from these high school students saying, ‘I only go to high school because my mentor is there,’ or ‘I am learning how to set goals and do things I never thought possible.’”

This program has expanded to include high school seniors that are borderline college-bound. The Business Success Center arranges to have college students checking in to see what the seniors are doing, Merrill adds, “These are value-added things we are able to provide.”

Merrill also went to a local retirement community and collaborated with the college’s art department. She found two UW-Oshkosh faculty members willing to think outside the box and bring beauty into the lives of seniors. Merrill says, “Their hands may not do what they want them to but they can put their hand on a college student’s as they paint or create. These are populations that typically don’t cross paths.”

A local manufacturing company was in the red for three years before Merrill took a team into the business. She says, “We did some strategic analysis, gave them a new direction and they are now showing a profit and hiring.”

She tried creating a program for Green Bay Packer players, hoping to be part of the transition as they leave sports, but that hasn’t taken off yet. “I am fortunate to be granted the freedom to come up with ideas and create projects,” Merrill says.

She adds, “Whenever I go anywhere, I tell people, ‘Ask me what you need. I bet I can figure it out for you.’”

While Merrill’s experience gives her the know-how for many of the projects, she is also backed by the University and a campus full of faculty willing to help out.

Merrill lives her personal and professional life with extreme passion. She keeps her eyes wide open to opportunities to make a difference in the life of one or the lives of many.

Working at the Business Success Center has given Merrill the chance to build on her platform and promote her mission of making the community a better place. She joined the Oshkosh Civility Project, an initiative started by the Oshkosh Community Foundation and UW-Oshkosh a year and a half ago to encourage people to be civil to each other – pay attention, listen.

Merrill goes into organizations as a volunteer and gives presentations on the topic. “I was in an office not long ago and there were tears on how awful the workplace was – the bullying, the hostility. I listen to what is happening at schools. You turn on the news and listen to the politicians or read blogs about people criticizing one another. I’ve experienced it, my husband has experienced it, and my kids have experienced it. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t.”

She continues to say it is something that can be fixed. “It is a chain reaction. Being kind to one person makes a difference.”

And kindness has always found its way back to Merrill. She ends with a story about an encounter she had when running her first marathon. She explains by the time she reached the 26-mile mark, she thought she had a full 1.2 miles to go. “By that time I was done, and I started to walk. Someone from the sideline started cheering for me, shouting my number, telling me I could do it. She came off the sideline and ran the rest of the way with me. It was her kindness that took me to the end.”

Up Close and Personal

How old are your children?

Sadie (21), Mollie (19), Nathan (17) and Abbie (13).

I saw on TV not that long ago that all three of our girls’ names are in the top 10 dog names. (She laughs.)alt

What books are on your nightstand?

Right now I am re-reading a book I received for Christmas, “Think and Grow Rich.” It was a gift from the director of the Business Success Center, Doug Jarmusz, which is very in line with what I typically read, which is positive, self-motivating and inspirational books.

What are your guilty pleasures?

I enjoy a pedicure or massage, but I don’t feel guilty about it. I’ll schedule an appointment if I feel I’ve earned a little pampering, but I have an issue with sitting around too long.

If I walked into your home, what is your style?

I like very warm colors. Most people feel at home when they walk in. It is very relaxed, but I do like things put away. I certainly want people to come in, kick off their shoes and have a glass of wine.

How would your friends describe you?

I have a zest for life, and maybe that I’m a little crazy. I have done a Muddy Buddy race and am signed up for Warrior Dash this year. There is nothing I won’t try once.

What is something few people know about you?

When the movie “Tomb Raider” came out I played Angelina Jolie at the local movie theatre. It was a marketing thing with a local car dealership and Hollywood was promoting the movie. They paid for the clothes and had my hair done so I looked like her character, Lara Croft. Someone jumped off the roof, I had to beat him up and drive off in the Jeep. It was hysterical.

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