When Marissa Bell made the short move from her Rogersville, Tennessee, home to the University of Tennessee's Knoxville campus, she knew which boxes she wanted to check.
"I've always been athletic -- gymnastics, running, swim team in high school, and I love the outdoors," she says. "So I knew that, at UT, I wanted something athletic, outdoors and on the water, if possible."
She made the novice women's rowing team, but didn't last long -- because at the end of the first semester, she and two teammates were promoted to the varsity team and awarded scholarships.
"One of the biggest turning points of my life," says Bell, now in her third year as vice president at Chattanooga-based Waterhouse Public Relations.
"I remember the novice (rowing team) coach talking early on about developing good habits. That's what I learned on that team, and it's something I use to this day," she adds. "I'm very organized, detail-oriented and ambitious. I joined every club I could think of -- Stock Market, French, Spanish -- and having those good habits enabled me to do that."
Albert Waterhouse, president of the PR firm that bears his name, says Bell is his "right hand."
"Marissa runs the day-to-day," he says. "She's the ultimate professional.
"She's not only smart, but she's very intuitive -- which is just as important as being smart because, in our business, you've got to be able to see around the corner."
Bell was looking around the corner in 2020 when the pandemic slowed down or stopped practically everything.
"I decided that would be the moment to pursue a master's degree" online at Boston's Northeastern University, she says.
"I decided to jump right in -- I took two courses per semester, which wasn't advised, and I treated it like a second job," she adds. "I'd get up at 7 in the morning on Saturdays and Sundays and basically work all day, into the evenings."
The workload was daunting, Bell admits, but she relied on her life experience.
"I grew up on a farm," she says. "Cattle, vegetables, fruit. I did all those farm chores every single day -- hay for the cows, everything -- and put up all our food for the winter every year."
The same drive that spurred Bell to earn a master's degree in just 13 months moved her to accept a variety of professional challenges -- from three years as a producer at Chattanooga's WTVC to three more with the City of Chattanooga to the Chattanooga Tourism Co., and now a second stint at Waterhouse.
And away from work, she's built on her collegiate rowing experience.
"I've raced in the Head of the Hooch for several of the past 11 years," she says. "I picked up cycling 10 years ago, and I still love running. I've done the 70.3-mile Ironman and a few marathons as well."
Bell says she does some of her running, and mixes in some coaching, for Girls on the Run, an organization that its website says aims "to inspire, empower and strengthen" girls in the third, fourth and fifth grades.
"You're coaching them up," she says, "helping them deal with character issues, positive self-talk versus negative self-talk and navigating interpersonal relationships."
In a professional setting, Bell has given time and energy to Young Professionals of Chattanooga, where she is immediate past president, and the Public Relations Society of America's Lookout Chapter, where she's scheduled to serve as president-elect next year and president in 2025.
"Having a great quality of life and a lot of things going on in the community is why I anticipate being in Chattanooga long-term," she says. "There are endless challenges and opportunities here, which feeds a part of me that's never satisfied."
* AGE: 35
* HOMETOWN: Rogersville, Tennessee
* EDUCATION: University of Tennessee (communications); Northeastern University (corporate/organizational communications)
* HOBBIES: Endurance sports, including distance running and cycling, and world travel