Behind the scenes: Support staff at Occidental

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Every department at Occidental has a heart, a corps of diligent staff pumping a paper bloodstream through its body. The atria and ventricles of this heart are support staff—executive assistants, administrative assistants and lab assistants. Without them, every department would be a heart attack waiting to happen.

“[Support staff] play a central role in the life of the college,” Dean of the College Jorge Gonzalez said via email. “They are often the first Oxy person that newcomers meet at the college and they are great at representing us … It is our responsibility to recognize their work and to thank them for their efforts.”

Support staff are often hidden behind their desks, tucked into the corners of administrative offices. But although students do not see as much of them as the professors they work with, if support staff like Carolyn Adams, Wendy Clifford, Patty Micciche and Chuck Oravec disappeared, Occidental College would grind to a halt.

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Wendy Clifford, senior administrative assistant for the music department, manages the front desk in Booth Hall every day and is often the first person people see as they walk in from the courtyard.

“Wendy is the true face of the department, for all of the students across campus who study voice or an instrument, who participate in an ensemble, who want to use a practice room, take a class, find a professor—you name it, and if it relates to the department, Wendy has her hand in it,” Music Department Chair Professor David Kasunic said via email.

Clifford has worked at Occidental for 23 years, serving in the international programs and UEP departments, as well as in an administrative position, before becoming an administrative assistant for the music department four years ago.

“It’s a hoppin’ place!” Clifford said of the department. “I can’t read music, I can’t carry a tune, I just ended up here just on sort of a fluke and it just ended up being a great fit. Artists are quirky and interesting, and it’s just sort of fun to be around them.”

Outside of the music department, Clifford works extensively with Rotary International, an international service organization that works with community clubs to aid international philanthropic projects.

Since joining Rotary, Clifford has annually organized a Christmas tree lot and pumpkin patch in Larchmont, Calif., a small commercial neighborhood in Central Los Angeles. She says the experience is akin to running a business on the side, as evidenced by the fact that Rotary raised nearly $30,000 last year through Clifford’s efforts.

One of the highlights of membership for Clifford has been attending the Rotary International Convention for the past five years, in places like Portugal, Australia and Thailand. Clifford and her husband have been invited every year by the president of Rotary International as sergeants-at-arms. If invited again this year, they will attend the convention in Brazil.

“I’m passionate about Rotary mostly because it just does some incredible things for people,” Clifford said.

In recognition of her Rotary work, Clifford was declared a “Woman of Larchmont” by the Larchmont Chronicle in August.

On the third floor of the Arthur G. Coons administrative building, Executive Assistant Carolyn Adams works at her desk outside the Dean’s office. She has a picturesque view of the campus where she has worked for 27 years, under the tenure of five different deans.

“She is a fundamental part of my office,” Gonzalez said via email. “Her knowledge about Oxy, her administrative abilities, and, most importantly, her interpersonal skills make her indispensable. I trust her judgment completely.”

Adams is still very much excited by life on campus and interactions with students. She lives across the street from campus and says she still feels the pulse of the campus community.

“I really like this place. You stay eternally young because there’s this new crop of students that comes in every four years,” she said. “We had board meetings last weekend and I saw one of the new board members was a student that I helped with his national awards several years ago.”

Before Adams came to Eagle Rock and Occidental College, she attended UC Santa Barbara. But in 1970, during Isla Vista riots broke out, Santa Barbara became the site of protests, arsons and the death of a UCSB student.

“I know this may sound like an exciting time for many, but I’ve always wished I had gone to college during another four year period,” Adams said via email. “I was scared and uncomfortable and ended up transferring to Fresno State to finish my degree.”

After graduating from Fresno State, Adams returned to Los Angeles and found a permanent job at Occidental College. Over the years, she has seen many changes in her workplace and on campus, especially in regards to technology.

“Email has changed everything in communicating with the rest of the campus,” Adams said. “For the most part, I think it’s a really good thing. The negative aspect is you really have to be very thoughtful before you send something out.”

Adams also observed that technology has changed the way she interacts with students and parents.

“What I notice about cell phones is that, if students have had an unhappy experience in class, the first thing they do is they call mom on the cell phone,” she said.

As a result, Adams gets a lot more calls from parents than she used to.

“I think there are more helicopter parents … parents that are very involved in their student’s education—which is a good thing—but too much so,” Adams said. “That’s part of the experience, is being away from your parents and making decisions.”

Outside of work, Adams enjoys spending time with her grandchildren and driving cross-country. This year she has her hopes set on traveling to Ireland, but in the past she has stayed on the continent; driving across the United States to visit her children on the east coast. On these road trips she has been to many tourist attractions, including the Field of Dreams, the Hoosier Dam, and the Hershey’s Chocolate Factory, but enjoys visiting small towns most.

“I talked to somebody at a travel show that said small town America is really disappearing,” she said. “So if you can, go see it, because you don’t know how long it’s going to last.”

Administrative Assistant Patty Micciche is one of only two people serving the 56 professors with offices in Swan Hall. She covers six departments overall: history, American studies, English, psychology, sociology, cognitive science and philosophy.

“I couldn’t imagine a better administrative assistant than Patty,” Associate Professor of English Leila Neti said. “She’s thoughtful, efficient, intelligent and has been absolutely indispensable to the students and faculty in Swan. We feel very privileged to work with her.”

As a photography major fresh out of Fitchburg State University, where her father taught, Micciche landed a job in the admissions office of the Berklee School of Music in Boston. After four years, she packed her bags and headed for the west coast. But her next stop wasn’t Occidental; it was the bright lights of Hollywood and a career in post-production.

“My main client was Grey’s Anatomy, and I worked on that show for eight seasons,” Micciche said. “I also worked on Private Practice, we did sound for Lost, we did sound for a bunch of shows on FX; it’s just sort of a long list.”

At a certain point, however, post-production’s appeal began to dwindle.

“I just left,” Micciche said. “I specifically wanted to work [at Occidental]. I like it. I wanted to work somewhere where I felt more like I was contributing, with a different value system.”

On campus Micciche considers her office the hub of Swan, where professors come to get whatever they need. Besides sorting professors’ mail and having any supplies they may need on hand, Micciche and Faculty Services Assistant Krizia Oasin do much of the organizational work for the departments.

“We do a little bit of everything: from monitoring department budgets, organizing parties, organizing speakers, buying airfare, organizing transportation, booking hotel rooms, proctoring exams, putting signs on doors when professors are out sick or they’re late,” Micciche said. “Anything can come up, and with seven different departments it’s going to be varied … If something’s happening in [Swan], we will know about it.”

Micciche lives only two miles from campus with her husband. They enjoy exploring the city or renovating their second home in Joshua Tree when they are not attending school events.

Over the last five years, Chuck Oravec has added a whole new dimension to his job as lab supervisor: helping students conduct individual science experiments.

“My second year [at Occidental] I just got talking to some students, and a professor said these guys are interested in doing a project … That is kind of how it started,” Oravec said.

Since then he has helped students with several projects, including building a solar car, launching a high-altitude balloon into outer space and even building a machine to help conduct tests on the Fiji Hill solar arrays.

The solar car is outfitted with a solar panel on top, a GPS to measure how fast it can go and an Occidental student card swipe mechanism to start it. Powered by several batteries and the solar panel, the car makes for a quick trip around campus.

The high-altitude balloon Oravec helped construct ended up climbing 100,000 feet into the atmosphere before popping and floating back down to earth with a parachute. The box landed in a gunnery range on a military base and Oravec had to be escorted out to the exact GPS coordinates by military personnel to retrieve it.

The solar array project is perhaps the most practical for the campus. In response to dust building up on the Occidental’s solar arrays, Oravec and Yingshuang Zheng (sophomore) built a simulation robot to determine the ideal time to clean them.

“Our project was to build a solar-panel recording and simulating robot to simulate all the output power of solar arrays on upper campus,” Zheng said via email. “I was new to all electronic stuff at the beginning, and [Oravec] was always the one who I can turn to for help. He encouraged me to do everything by myself.”

 

Oravec’s current project is helping students create small, motorized cars that can drive around the quad without the aid of a driver.

Each of these experiments allowed students to get a much more personal and hands-on approach to their interests in science, and Oravec is there every step of the way.

“I get right down with the soldering iron, and I do this with the students. What I try to do with students is find what they are interested in … And I find a project for them to do,” he said. “But it all involves electronics and microprocessors.”

Oravec is also involved in the Solar Cup program as a volunteer adviser. The program is put on by the the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, and allows high school students to create solar-powered boats and then race them in the springtime.

“This semester, we are probably going to get some Oxy students involved to do a little bit of outreach, go to the high schools, inspect the boats and teach them workshops on electronics and motors and buoyancy,” Oravec said.

Oravec’s interest in electronics and his degree in physics set the foundation for his earlier careers.

“I studied physics and went to school in Ohio,” he said. “I have never really worked as a physicist, I mostly worked in electronics. My hobby has become my career pretty much, so it worked out kind of cool.”

It was before college though, that he became interested in science and technology. While in the Navy, Oravec operated radios in Germany during the Vietnam War era. He was given the luxury of choosing where he wanted to be stationed based on his performance in radio operating class. Many of the other men in his class ended up going to Vietnam instead.

After the Navy, Oravec went to school at Miami University in Ohio and graduated with a degree in physics. His post-graduate jobs—teaching people about microprocessors and selling equipment that his company made—allowed him to travel around the world, including to Australia where he worked on signage for the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

“I was there like two years before the Olympics, but I got to go on the Olympic park and we were figuring out where all the signs were going to go,” Oravec said.

Oravec’s wealth of time in the professional world has made him an integral part of both the campus community and of the overall experiences of countless science majors.