Tamara Farrell never had to look very far for inspiration.
Her mother, Melekte Amhayes, was the first person in her family to leave her native Ethiopia in the late 1980s and come to America with just $500 in her wallet. She settled in Washington, D.C., pursued an education and is now a physician’s assistant with a master’s degree.
“She’s always been my key point person and role model,” says her daughter.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Farrell, 21, will graduate April 30 from the Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences with two degrees achieved in four years at Pitt — a dual bachelor of science in economics and statistics and a bachelor’s degree in gender, sexuality and women’s studies. The young Helen Faison Scholar made the most of her time at the University, working in leadership positions and mentoring young students from diverse backgrounds.
Even though she chose a math-heavy major, Farrell’s experience at Pitt didn’t start out with college-level calculus. The Edison, New Jersey, native has always loved science and pictured herself as a molecular biologist. While she enjoyed bio classes at Pitt, she found the lab work repetitive and didn’t have her heart set on medical school. So, midway through her sophomore year, she switched majors and pursued the statistics-economics dual degree.
“I got As in high school statistics, so I realized I was good at it,” said Farrell. It turned out to be the perfect Plan B, and she worked tirelessly to reach her goal in her remaining time at Pitt, jamming 18 credits into her final semester.
Farrell got her first look at Pitt while still in high school and instantly “fell in love with the campus” and applied. After being admitted, she attended a dinner for students and was impressed by the comments of then-Dean of Students Kathy Humphrey, who is now Pitt's senior vice chancellor for engagement. “She said we could stop by her office if we ever needed anything,” said Farrell. “I felt like there was such a direct outreach to make sure students have every resource possible. Pitt is so invested in us.”
Farrell paid it forward her freshman year and became a Pitt Pathfinders member, hosting walking tours for prospective students. She joined the BRIDGES program and mentored underrepresented scholarship recipients. She took part in the Elsie Hillman Civic Forum event Never a Spectator, as well as the annual Panther Leadership Summit. She also conducted her own leadership workshops under Pitt’s Emerging Leaders Program after participating in the NEW Leadership Pennsylvania summer institute, part of a national network of programs designed to empower young women for political participation and leadership. She became a certified tax preparer and worked with the United Way to provide free tax prep for low-income families. And she assisted Pitt’s Black Action Society in roles as recruitment chair, social action chair and executive assistant.
“It was the Black Action Society that opened my eyes to the ways I could make a difference in the world. Being a student leader not only on campus but in the community was huge for me,” she said.
Academically, Farrell also made her mark.
“She performed marvelously in class,” said Pitt professor Paul Noroski, who taught her in Applied Econometrics and in Economics of Developing Countries.
“And over and above that, Tamara has a tremendous aptitude. I can see she is capable of great things. Having her degree of potential is rare in general. Few people I know are blessed with such extraordinary gifts,” he said.
Not everyone can wrap their head around courses like Calculus III or the Economics of Corporate Finance. But Farrell took to it naturally.
Through a program at INROADS, an organization headquartered in St. Louis that places ethnically diverse students in internships at top companies in North America, she was offered an opportunity at MetLife Investments in Morristown, New Jersey, the summer prior to her senior year. Soon, she was building a statistical model for valuating currency exchange rates.
It was the Black Action Society that opened my eyes to the ways I could make a difference in the world. Being a student leader not only on campus but in the community was huge for me.
“Statistics is often just predicting the future based on data from the past, which I find really cool,” she said. “And I love problem solving as a whole.”
Statistics, she said, has many applications, from predicting stock market activity to studying fish migration patterns.
Farrell said her supervisor has guided her along the way and became her mentor. “I had to learn a statistical programming tool called R. I had never used it, and he threw me onto it, so I had to figure that out.”
Several months after the internship, when the administrators at MetLife recalled Farrell’s ability to build statistical models, they decided to bring her on board. She begins her job as a structured finance analyst at MetLife on July 24.
She described her experience at Pitt as “nothing short of amazing” — the friends, the professors, exploring Pittsburgh on a bike and taking long walks, her favorite being from Point State Park across the bridge to the North Shore.
And as a young black woman entering a STEM career, she’s proud to be able to help pave the way for women like her who will follow.
Her family is proud, too. In addition to her parents, younger siblings and two out-of-state friends applauding her at the Petersen Events Center, she expects 26 other relatives to be cheering her on.
“My long-term goal is to find a way to utilize my technical skills to somehow improve the livelihoods of others,” she said. “The only way to do that is to make sure that I speak up, which is why finding my voice has been one of the most valuable takeaways from my time here at Pitt.”