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The future is what we make of it

"Tomorrowland," Disney's new mystery adventure film starring George Clooney and Britt Robertson, hits theaters across the country today. I was honored to be invited to host an advanced screening of the film in Raleigh on Monday, May 18. The following is adapted from my introduction speech before the screening.

In Disney’s riveting mystery adventure “Tomorrowland,” a jaded scientist and an optimistic teen embark on a danger-filled mission to unearth the secrets of an enigmatic place somewhere in time and space.

In a trailer for “Tomorrowland,” George Clooney’s character says, “What if there was a place where nothing was impossible? Where you could build whatever you are crazy enough to imagine? A place where you could actually change the world?”

What if I told you we were already there?

As the Chief Technical Officer of EducationNC, a statewide nonprofit dedicated to bringing North Carolina together to participate in a bipartisan conversation about education, my job is about changing the world and making it a better place for all students.

I am from the Triangle. Born in Raleigh, I grew up in Cary and Apex. And now I live in Durham where I’m raising my own family.

I am a web developer, a designer, a maker, and a mother.

I believe that we all have the power to change the world. And it’s never too early to get started. You are never too young to make a difference.

Let me share my journey with you.

I am one of a few people my age lucky enough to have grown up with a computer in my house. My dad is a systems administrator and, along with my mom, he has nurtured my love of computers and technology from a very early age.

When I was in middle school, my dad taught me the basics of HTML and 19 years ago, I designed and developed my very first website. It was orange and blue and was basically a long scrolling page filled with animated gifs that I thought were cool.

Web design and development quickly became one of my favorite hobbies. I would spend my free time designing and developing little websites for everything from my favorite bands to my favorite candy bars. When I was in high school at Cary Academy, websites were my favorite format for class projects. In 10th grade, my chemistry teacher, Mr. Rushin, recognized my passion and invited me to join the small website club, for which he was the advisor.

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I was one of nine students in the club, and the only girl.

In the website club, we worked together to redesign and develop the school’s website. The student-built website was actually up for several years, even after I graduated.

When I went to college, I struggled to find my path. I was a straight-A student in college and ended up graduating with high honors near the top of my class. But I never could figure out exactly what I wanted to do, only that I wanted to work in a field where I helped people. So I majored in psychology.

And still, all throughout college, I continued to make websites for fun. I never imagined it was possible for this hobby of mine to be a career.

When I graduated, I still didn’t know what I wanted to do, so in order to put off making a career decision, I decided to go to graduate school. I thought maybe I would be a librarian. I really loved everything I learned in library school and was ready to be a librarian when I graduated, but the cards were stacked against me. I couldn’t find a job in a library here in the Triangle, where I knew I wanted to live and work. Not because I wasn’t good enough, but because I graduated during the recession and right at the beginning of the state’s hiring freeze.

So I fell back on my web development hobby to help make ends meet. In library school, I had continued to expand my programming knowledge by taking a couple programming and database classes. I even redesigned and developed several websites for library departments across campus. So when I graduated, expecting to be a librarian, I found I actually had quite a large portfolio of website work and that is what helped me get a job.

I joined a small web design firm in Durham, where I soon became the lead web developer. I led a small team of developers through several large website builds, like Southern Season and the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. It was exciting work and so fulfilling to have a job that paid me for what was previously a hobby.

I had finally found my calling, and it was right there with me all along.

I got involved in as much of the local development community as I could. I joined WordPress meetup groups and attended WordPress conferences all across the state, called WordCamps.

Soon, I was invited to be a judge for the SXSW Interactive Innovation Awards.

My reputation as a good web developer preceded me and when EducationNC started looking for the chief staff members last summer, I was the first choice for chief technical officer. I jumped at the chance to build this incredible organization from the ground up.

And finally, I have found the perfect fit. In this role, I am able to marry my passions for technology and for helping people. My only regret is that it took me this long to figure it out. I have to say, for me, it was worth the wait.

But I don’t want you to wait. If you have a passion, follow your dream now.

Since we launched our website in January, we have heard students’ stories from all across North Carolina. There is constant student innovation all around us. 

Felix Vivongsy, an 11th grader at the NC State STEM Early College High School, helped start a robotics club at his school because there wasn’t one. Now the club has over 26 members.

Nadia Cohen, a 12th grader at Holly Springs High School, has been working in a plant and microbial biology research lab at NC State for an independent study because she finished all of her science courses her junior year and wanted to keep learning.

Hutch Whitman, a 9th grader at Cary Academy, has been to Argentina twice to study orcas in the wild because of his passion for animals, traveling, and photography.

You don’t have to wait until you’re older to make a difference.

Try joining – or even starting – a club that feeds your passion, whether it’s in your school or in your community. Tell your parents or teachers if you want to learn more about a topic that you love. They can help nurture that passion within you.

In the words of Damon Lindelof, “Tomorrowland’s” screenwriter,

“The promise of ‘Tomorrowland’ is that the future is what we make of it. We have to go out there and make that change ourselves.”

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© 2015 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Alisa Herr

Alisa Herr is the former chief technical officer of EducationNC.