The Computer Gal Logo - Laptop with coffee and plants
FVCC helped McDougall reboot her life

By CANDACE CHASE
The Daily Inter Lake

Computer instructor and consultant Nora McDougall does more than pay lip service to the difference education can make in a life.

She lived it.

Just 10 years ago, McDougall qualified for food stamps with five children and a job that paid $6 an hour.

"In 1994, I was a whooped puppy," she said with a laugh.

Back then, McDougall could never have imagined herself running with the big dogs in the business world.

Yet today at 42, she makes a good living consulting for businesses as she completes a graduate degree in computer science. She travels back to Flathead Valley Community College on weekends to teach continuing education computer classes.

Her education erased panic over broken down cars and the drudgery of hand-me-down clothing.

"Now when my daughter needs an outfit for a skiing trip, I can buy it for her," she said. "I just can't say enough good about Flathead Valley Community College."

Many local residents know McDougall as part of the comedic computer teaching duo she formed with Mary Conklin. Though they now teach separately, the two invented people-friendly classes for computer phobics.

While team-teaching, the two played off each other's comedic personalities.

"We called it the Nora and Mary Show," McDougall said laughing. "We sing, we dance and we do windows."

The approach calmed the phobics and kept their students paying attention. She compared their approach to that of a guest speaker at a convention.

"You have to be funny or you lose the audience," she said.

McDougall deemed teaching classes with Conklin a major step on her journey of transformation. But she began learning to confront change as early as 10-year-old.

The daughter of missionary parents, McDougall was born in Germany.

"My parents just happened to be in Germany when I decided it was time to come out," she said with a laugh. "My family was from Montana."

She lived an international life as a child, including a stint in Spain and going to school in Morocco.

"I've got a picture of me at 7 years old with a passport getting on a ferry to cross the Straits of Gibraltar," she said.

Hardly the world-wise sophisticate, McDougall flashed the camera a smile missing several teeth and framed by hair sticking out every which way.

At 10, she was more than excited when her parents prepared to return home to Montana.

"I had always considered myself an American," she said, .

Once she arrived on home soil, a couple of her Butte classmates gave her a short course on Montana culture with their fists.

McDougall survived elementary school and graduated from high school with a 4.0 GPA and was seventh in her class of over 500 students. But instead of pursuing academic life, she got married and invested her time in raising three girls and two boys.

"I loved being at home with my kids," she said.

With money in short supply, McDougall made a nerve-racking step into the job market once the children were in grade school in Bigfork.

She remembered thinking that no one would take her seriously with all those years devoted to her family.

"I thought I wasn't good enough to be in the world of business," McDougall said.

But the former owner of the Bigfork Eagle, Marc Wilson, saw McDougall in a different light. He hired her as his administrative assistant when he owned the paper in 1994.

The pay was low but the first day on the job brought her face to face with her future. She had to use a computer to make an ad.  "I didn't even know how to use a mouse," she said.

About six hours later, McDougall finished up the quarter page ad.

Her job as Wilson's assistant broadened her exposure to computers when he started a new venture designing Web sites for newspapers. McDougall took a huge step into a community college class in Web site design.

Soon, she switched roles and was teaching others at work the new tricks she learned in night class. McDougall's job expanded to customer service, technical support and client training.

As she succeeded dipping her toe into college, McDougall said a novel idea came to her.

"I could take more classes, get a degree and a better job that pays more than $6 an hour," she said.

With the help of multiple scholarship programs, McDougall began working on an associate's degree in computer science.

She worked every day, drove from Bigfork to take classes at night and then rushed home to multiple loads of laundry and piles of homework. Each morning, the grind started all over again for five years.

McDougall gives the community college a lot of credit for encouraging her and providing the means to get ahead. But she also points to her own contribution.

"I did great but a lot of it has to do with how much work you are willing to do," she said. "It takes people with a lot of gumption."

McDougall raised the bar for herself again when she tested to win a prestigious board of regents scholarship. As top scorer at Flathead Valley Community College, she received a scholarship to the four-year Montana college of her choice.

McDougall chose the University of Montana at Missoula where she earned a bachelor's in international business and computer science.

She hasn't stopped there. McDougall faces about three more semesters working at the graduate level on a master's degree in computer science.

"I'm the old lady in classes with 20 somethings," she said with a laugh.

Describing them as the long-hair, ripped jeans crowd, McDougall says she finds herself surrounded by chess-playing, Mensa geniuses. She said the challenge of high level math leveled a bit of cockiness that she developed over her academic successes.

McDougall advises older people returning to college to not worry about fitting in. She said they shouldn't assume younger students won't like them.

"If you have a sense of humor and smile, they definitely respond," she said. "If you don't let the age barrier get in the way, neither will they."

McDougall said her age, business and life experience gave her a huge advantage in applying computer science to the real world. She serves as a buffer between business people and programming.

"I don't advertise," she said. "People hear about me."

Clients appreciate her ability to communicate in plain English how computers can help them. McDougall determines which mundane tasks a computer can take over to free up small businesses for more productive and creative work.

Her dream for the future involves continuing to help small Montana businesses find national and global success through Web sites. Through her computer classes, she has seen students combine hard work and Web site know-how to build great businesses.

McDougall recalled a Bigfork body shop owner who wrote an estimating program that he has marketed nationally. Another former student found success by building her Cowboy-Gifts Web site for her Cowboy Collectible business.

"It's a beautiful, beautiful site," McDougall said. "She's got distributors all over the U.S."

McDougall said she loves grilling her students to find out their occupations and interests. Their ventures have included raising packer goats, renting out portable toilets and inventing a camera that mounts on skis for tracking high-speed, extreme action.

"Teaching computer classes, I get to have my finger in everybody's pie," she said with a laugh.

McDougall marvels at how education keeps stretching her horizons. And now, she finds satisfaction putting computers into other people's horizons.

"It's cool to feel that I'm contributing to the world," McDougall said.
    
    Reporter Candace Chase may be reached at 406-758-4436 or by e-mail at cchase@dailyinterlake.com

Special thanks to Scott Crandell of the Daily Interlake for permission to use this article!

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