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Michelle Farmer

Paralegal Studies '03

Oil Spill Disaster Offers Unique Opportunity

Initial reports about the explosion that occurred on April 20, 2010, on the Deepwater Horizon, an oil rig drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, called it a disaster. Yet no one could possibly have foreseen that oil would continue to flow from the well unchecked for nearly three months, nor that it would turn out to be the largest accidental marine oil spill in the petroleum industry's history.

What Michelle Farmer (paralegal studies '03) didn't expect was that she would play a part in that history.

A month afterward, President Barack Obama created the bipartisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling to determine the root causes of the explosion and to provide recommendations for future drilling. The 60-member commission had six months to hold public hearings, produce working papers, meet with stakeholders and key players, and submit a final report to the President. To pull it off, the Commission needed people who could get things done.

As it turns out, Farmer was one of them. She previously had worked for Deputy Chief Counsel Sam Sankar at a corporate law firm. When he was appointed to the Commission, Sankar asked her to join them. "I was working as a consultant when I was offered this full-time job for eight months. People thought I was crazy but I said, 'It's a once in a lifetime opportunity.' How many people could say they had done this?"

Farmer, whose title was Executive Legal Assistant, soon found herself organizing hearings, overseeing the administrative staff, and doing anything else that needed to be done. "We had office space in D.C. and we worked ridiculous hours to produce a nearly 400-page report in six months plus hold a multi-day public hearing each month," she says, recalling a nine-day period during which she worked 135 hours and wrote a paper for the M.B.A. she has since earned from the University of Maryland.

Farmer says her degree from then-VJC made her a productive professional even before graduation, much less on the Commission. "I know people who have degrees in political science who start working in the legal field and don't know what's going on," says Farmer, who has also worked for the U.S. Attorney's office. "My classes gave me an exposure to the real-world setting that graduates from other universities just didn't seem to have."

As for the Commission, its findings were presented to President Obama on Jan. 12, 2011. Farmer, who now works full-time for the University of Chicago's Office of Federal Relations in D.C., will work with the nonprofit aspect of the Commission and help produce "report cards" on whether recommendations are being implemented-and she's thrilled to still be involved in the project.

It's one of those scenarios that could never be duplicated. We all got along because we were all working toward the same goal. I never thought I'd love a job that much.

"It’s one of those scenarios that could never be duplicated. We all got along because we were all working toward the same goal. I never thought I’d love a job that much."