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College of Natural Sciences Creates a New Formula for Staff Recognition

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People petting small animals from a petting zoo.
Associate academic adviser Nicole Williams, center, pets a chinchilla during the College of Natural Sciences Staff Celebration Day. Photo by Joshua Guenther

Before her morning meeting, Keniahkiw Weso had an important work engagement to attend: a cheese tasting.

On June 13, several staff members from The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Natural Sciences convened for the complimentary tasting from Antonelli’s Cheese Shop right on campus. Others painted wine goblets, enjoyed a chair massage or took Latin dance lessons.

The activities were part of the college’s third annual Staff Celebration Day. Rather than celebrate with a traditional cake and balloons, the college offered an assortment of activities to make sure everyone had something to enjoy. Throughout the day, staff members had the opportunity to play with puppies, take part in a community coloring project and even go rock climbing or bowling.

“There’s been nothing like this at other jobs. I mean, we have staff volunteers who go out of their way to get different kinds of donations, and they have a banquet for us,” says Weso, a program manager for the college. “It’s really well thought out, and it’s something that I look forward to after the semester ends. It’s a treat.”

For Allie Quill, an administrative associate for the Computer Science Advising Office, the event is an opportunity to relax, especially before summer orientation sessions ramp up.

“I feel like (this event exists) just to give the staff a day of relaxation and enjoyment, to say, ‘Hey, you guys are doing really good work. Here’s some fun stuff that you all are interested in. We want to care for you guys,’ ” Quill says.

Staff Celebration Day’s origins date back to 2013. That fall, the college created the CNS Staff Committee to explore issues staff members said they were facing and develop solutions.

The committee reported concerns about “lack of community” and “lack of understanding and appreciation of staff roles in CNS.” These concerns were linked to turnover and a feeling of isolation due to the widespread nature of the college’s offices.

To help overcome these issues, the college’s events team partnered with the committee to create Staff Celebration Day, according to Tiffo Carmichael, a financial analyst and former committee member.

“Over the two years that I was involved, it definitely grew to be one of the key focal points of the committee because it was definitely the biggest deliverable that we could give the staff to be able to show that we were talking with them and working with them,” Carmichael says.

At June’s celebration, Dean Paul Goldbart gave words of thanks and had personal anecdotes for each recipient of the staff awards that were handed out during an afternoon reception.

“This day of celebration is totally warranted. … Nothing, nothing we do happens without staff. We appreciate, I appreciate you every single day,” Goldbart says.

Kelly Quinney, executive assistant in the Department of Astronomy, says the appreciation does not go unnoticed.

“We’re all working more and doing more with less people, so it’s always nice to be appreciated. And it’s nice that the college is doing something special for the staff to appreciate us,” Quinney says while petting a Great Pyrenees puppy.

This day of celebration is totally warranted. ... Nothing, nothing we do happens without staff. We appreciate, I appreciate you every single day.”

Dean Paul Goldbart

Amid the dog petting and rock climbing, one activity focused on giving back. To participate, staff members handled measuring cups of polyvinyl alcohol, boxes of Borax and latex gloves. In the spirit of CNS, the staff members were experimenting … with a slime recipe.

The slime was one piece in a gift bag assembly line that also included stress balls, snacks, stickers and handwritten notes. The bags went to the organization Communities In Schools to be distributed to students experiencing poverty.

Like most other activities during the day, this service project incorporated the college’s specialty: science. Underneath the slime recipe, there was an explanation of how the sodium tetraborate forms bonds with the polyvinyl alcohol. Staff members even practiced trial and error when the slime recipe did not work at first.

The service opportunity lasted most of the day to allow staff members to pop in between the other fun activities. Guillermo Alvarado, an academic adviser, stopped by between the cheese tasting and the reception.

“I thought it was actually cool of them to incorporate a service project into this day, and it’s still fun stuff that we’re doing, so it’s perfect,” Alvarado says.

Staff members created 75 gift bags, which hit their goal right on the nose.

Although Staff Celebration Day focuses on treating staff members and helping the community, Weso says the benefits go even further. With CNS sprawling across departments and campus buildings, this event is an opportunity to make connections and meet people.

“Staff celebration isn’t only about recognizing the staff,” Weso says. “It’s about camaraderie and providing opportunities for other staff members to get together, meet each other and form those connections so that when opportunities come up to work together, there’s already that goodwill.”

Quill sat next to unfamiliar faces and met new people at the cheese tasting. Ruperto Ruiz and Tyler Miller, co-workers at the McDonald Observatory’s offices on the Austin campus, conversed between bowling turns and took selfies. Alvarado volunteered to help with the reception and greeted almost everyone who walked through the door.

“It’s just really cool to see all the different people that work because I don’t see a lot of these people on a day-to-day basis,” Alvarado says.

To bring this event to CNS staff members, events manager Heather Leigh spends about half a year planning. On top of coordinating raffle prizes and activities, she makes sure to get feedback to make next year even better.

“I have to say, this is one of the most gratifying events we coordinate,” Leigh says. “It is truly a ‘feel good’ day and very rewarding to communicate through the event that our college truly values staff.”