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Friday, September 24, 2021

The role of professional staff in student-run organizations

HANNAH LEE / AGGIE

Career employees provide guidance

Before starting his job at Unitrans, Anthony Palmere had worked for public transportation systems in larger cities that he found to be bureaucratic and restrictive. At Unitrans, however, Palmere said that working alongside students was a “breath of fresh air.”

“The students […] were so enthusiastic and willing to try new things,” Palmere said. “They saw it as a service that they wanted to provide and make improvements to.”

Palmere, who is the general manager of Unitrans, has worked the organization for 17 years. Unitrans operates under ASUCD with the oversight of both career employees as well as student employees.

“We still want the students to be running the operation, because they do a great job of it,” Palmere said. “We want them to be able to have that experience and be able to say that, honestly, they ran the system.”

For various student-run and student-based organizations on campus, there are paid, professional staff members who assist with the operations of the groups and provide guidance to the student employees.

“Students on campus are given so many opportunities to take charge of different organizations, whether it be KDVS, or The Aggie, or the bus system, or Picnic Day,” said Dr. Andy Jones, a lecturer in the University Writing Program. “I think it’s important for students to have room to try things out, make mistakes, try different perspectives and not be limited by the vision or the direction of, say, a faculty advisor.”

Jones has worked with students in a number of capacities, including as a volunteer host at KDVS, where he hosts the show “Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour.” With this program, Jones works under the public affairs director and general manager at the station, both of whom are students. One year, the public affairs director happened to be a student in one of Jones’ classes.

“I told my students that in the interest of full disclosure, they should know that the public affairs director […] was in the class, that she was one of my students and that she could, at any moment, fire me from my volunteer job,” Jones said. “But that would have no bearing on my evaluation of her work.”

Like KDVS, student authority is encouraged and promoted at Unitrans. Amelia Bizjak, a Japanese and managerial economics double major and operations manager at Unitrans, said the organization is balanced in terms of oversight and agency.

“It’s a very horizontal structure for a company,” Bizjak said. “At interview panels, when we’re hiring our replacements, […career staff] will provide slight input, but they want to make sure that the students are there making the main decisions. Even when they’re screening for new career staff, […] they’re trying to find people who are not looking down on students.”

Bizjak said the atmosphere at Unitrans is professional, but also casual and fun. Jenna Wetzel, a fourth-year psychology major and Unitrans human resources manager, has an amiable relationship with Palmere as well as the assistant general manager, a career employee she works closely with.

“There are only certain cases where I’d go straight to [Palmere], but his office is the one right next to mine so I feel like I can just walk over,” Wetzel said.

Similarly, Kelsey McDonald, a fourth-year communication and psychology double major, said that students in the Marching Band-uh! will occasionally walk into interim band director Tom Slabaugh’s office just to chat. The Band-uh! currently has two career employees.

“People come in and just talk to Tom randomly if he’s sitting in his office,” McDonald said. “There’s a really positive relationship there between career staff and students.”

At the Band-uh!, McDonald said the two career employees provide guidance rather than direction to the students. For example, the Band-uh! was interested in performing at the upcoming San Francisco Pride Parade festivities, but not in the parade itself due to the heat and long hours.

“We knew we wanted to perform in the event and [Slabaugh] supported us and then gave us the idea of [finding] out other ways,” McDonald said. “We’re playing in the grandstands before the parade, on the street. That was all on us.”

Both Jones and Palmere encourage students to pursue their own ideas. Palmere, who has worked at Unitrans for 17 years, said he believes it is important to allow students to try ideas, even ones which have been tried in the past.

“We don’t try to put down ideas,” Palmere said. “We don’t encourage people to make mistakes, but we want people to have the freedom to be able to do what they think is best based on the information that is available to them. We have to allow for people to fail at times and learn from those mistakes.”

Career employees will often outlast student employees at these organizations. The long-term experience of career employees provides the organization with a sense of historical background and context. According to Bizjak, the turnover rates for student employees at Unitrans is especially high, so the perspectives and knowledge of the career employees is helpful.

“In general, whenever we come up with ideas, there’s a historical precedent and [career employees] can [provide context],” Bizjak said. “They’re just trying to give us insight. It’s really nice to have them there to [know] about what’s been going on in the past.”

Students, in addition to these authority positions, do have school commitments. Bizjak said the career employees recognize academic demands and provide assistance to students in the case of conflicts with work and school.

“If we have a midterm coming up or a lot on our plate, they totally understand and are willing to help out,” Bizjak said. “They definitely empower us to be in this professional organization setting and understand the inner workings of it. Overall, they’re trying to make sure [it] is working for everyone in the company.”
Written by: Hannah Holzer – features@theaggie.org

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