"Crunch Time"

It’s August 23. Fall semester is looming. Birds are chirping. Loons are howling.  And the last-minute rush is on at the Administration Building.

By Lee Rasizer, CCA Public Relations Coordinator
As chaos goes, this wasn’t the pressed doors of a Black Friday sale or daily life on the Justin Bieber security detail.
 This is more like multiple loose ends, the shoelaces of a kindergarten class variety: Tie ‘em up; send ‘em off.
    It’s Thursday, Aug. 23, two business days before fall semester classes officially begin at Community College of Aurora.

   Students need their ID card photos.

     Procrastinators seek that course they just have to have but which may have filled long ago. Core classes such as English, Math, Biology and others  that are integral degree prerequisites often fall within those parameters, even though they’re offered on numerous occasions.
     Some financial aid requirements are only now being realized by late-arriving students and addressed with a countdown clock accompaniment.
     But CCA’s staff has the wherewithal to deal with these issues courteously and professionally.
     If this particular day, and many others like it, has its own soundtrack, Kathy Jackson, CCA’s official greeter, is the featured artist. The self-proclaimed mother of the college doles out “baby dolls,” “dears” and “love yous” even while activity swirls around her, confidently sending people in all directions like an Administration Building version of the NFL’s Peyton Manning, who’ll famously flap like a bird at the line of scrimmage to ensure everyone is on the same page.
     “I have a gift to see when people are lost and confused,” Jackson explained. “Nine out of 10 times, I’m right.”
     On this day, there’s plenty of confusion and loss. But those traits aren’t shared by the staffs tasked to deal with the waves of people and flurry of questions, some asked while wobbly children in the infant stage toddle in their parent’s midst to give the scene  a day-care feel. 
     Got an issue? Go there.
     Need an assessment? That-a-way.
    Have to see an advisor? Sign in.
     CCA workers deal with this every year around this time.  Besides, it could be worse. It could be about a week or so earlier, dreaded Aug. 15, when the first students fell off the rolls for non-payment.
     Signs are posted in block letters warning students they will be dropped from class unless they have financial aid awarded, a payment plan etc.  Another placard reads that fall payment is due within 24 hours of registering for classes.
     The fine print often gets lost: for example, with financial aid, it takes six to eight weeks to process awards from the first document submission.
     “You can see the panic,” said Tamaura Walker, an enrollment services advisor. “It’s like tax deadline day.”
     Deborah Hoefler, assistant director of financial aid, perhaps explained the fashionably-late-to-the-party vibe best as the semester draws nearer.
    “It’s kind of like if you don’t fix a leaking roof; then all of it sudden it bursts and you get a flood,” she explained. “That’s kind of what happens in here.”
     The flow of traffic into the CCA parking lot is steady as the day begins. One side is two-thirds full; the other slightly less crowded. But classes haven’t yet started so these people are headed somewhere.
     Some high school students are at CentreTech to partake in an ongoing ASCENT orientation. But veteran staffers know that the Administration Building will be ground zero for activity if not now, eventually.
     A few people mingle in front of the enrollment services desk at this early hour but it’s rock-group sized and not rock-the-boat dimensions.
     “It’s highly unusual to be this slow,” assistant registrar Valerie Sangiuliano said, peering at the clock on her computer screen. “But it’s only 10 o’clock, dude. … “
     A lot of knocking on wood occurs when these statements about small or non-existent lines are made, whether in enrollment services, financial aid, at the greeter’s desk or even tucked upstairs at the cashier’s office.
     Chaos is always just around the corner on these types of days.
    “This afternoon will probably get crazy right around lunch to about three,” predicted Nichole Creger, an admissions specialist.
     There was no such wait across the hall. 
     At financial aid, the activity was already in slam mode.
    Each time someone signs in at the kiosk in front of the financial aid help desk, a chirp can be heard throughout the room. This bird sound emanates from each of the adjoining offices, and is helpful on slower days when someone may be sitting at their desk and not see someone requiring assistance up front.
     Now that the morning rush is on, the couches inside financial aid are filled. A long dining-room sized table in the back is near-capacity. A line is forming out the door. The students stay calm, which, with each additional sign-in, only makes it sound more and more like a bird sanctuary.  Cheep. Cheep.
     But even with the bustle that surrounds them, with people surrounding their desk, making them appear the equivalent of caged zoo animals surrounded by onlookers, Ayanna Doyle smiles after helping a student.
     “Have a blessed day,” she says, before calling out another name.
     Angela Baty, Doyle’s co-worker, is asked if she ever feels as if she wants to call in the National Guard for assistance during these times.

    “It’s up for debate,” she replied with a smile. “I’ve been telling everybody I feel like a Marine on the front line.”
     But this is specialized work even some of America’s finest fighting men are ill-equipped to battle. As Hoefler explained, the paperwork and knowledge necessary to process the kinds of documents, take calls, and answer the questions is so specialized, “There’s no one to call,” she said matter-of-factly.
     So, each chirp has to be taken in stride.
     At least, as Hoefler noted, “90 percent of the students are really pleasant and grateful for our help.”
     Many of these students follow workers’ movements whenever they stray from their desks like a tennis ball at a competitive match, looking for some sign that they’re next in the cue.
     “You have to learn to be a really fast talker,” Baty said about dealing with the busier moments. “Luckily, for me, I’ve always been that way, so I can get ‘em out as fast as possible.”
     Her style must be contagious. At 1:20 p.m. financial aid is slowing down. The lines are gone. The couches have one occupant instead of three or four. This could actually count as a lull, even though the main college operator already has fielded nearly 100 calls to this point.
     “Don’t jinx it,” administrative assistant Jennifer Viera snaps jokingly.
     At enrollment services, it’s about 2 p.m. and the building noise is beginning to resemble the marshlands. While financial aid has its bird sounds as their sign-in cue, that side of the building is notified of incoming traffic by the warbling, rising pitch of the loon.
    History reveals that the loon call replaced the bark of a dog that was first instituted by advisor Libby Broughton. That dog – which was affixed the name Peanut Butter, still lives on at CCA, however.
     A search in the Banner student information system will even bring up the ol’ pooch. The name’s used for training purposes to this day.
     But right now, this is no walk in the park. 
     The relative quiet of the morning that Creger predicted has given way to all-hands-on-deck proportions. 
     “It’s just a fun time of the year,” director of advising Rene Simard quipped.
     There’s a two-hour wait for one of his staff but in 60 minutes, the numbers of students requesting help is cut by two-thirds, even with a shortage of advisors on this particular afternoon.
     More technology is employed to efficiently usher through the masses. Those needing one-on-one counsel are given a pager device, similar to the ones used at restaurants when waiting for tables.
     But, as Simard explained, there’s a plus to arriving at this late date, too, particularly after mandatory orientation sessions all spring and summer have given students a better idea of what to expect as first-time college students. 
     This is no longer start-from-scratch material but “there are little things,” needing attention.
    And giving it to students are focused people putting blinders on and plowing through the ebbs and flows of the craziness.
     “The spurts happen and it’s unpredictable,” Walker said. “But it’s manageable.”
     On this day, people like Jon Adams, Huria Tossa, Walker and Safa Khairalla are on the front lines in the admissions area.  It’s Jill Zzynskie, Rob Hatcher and Helen Broadbent helping man the desk at financial aid.
     Less conspicuous, Lareesa Radcliff is tucked back in an office in the back hallway of enrollment services with the door closed. It’s mid-afternoon and the CCA operator is fielding her 130th call of the day. She’s previously worked similar roles at T-Mobile, at medical complexes and the Indianapolis Hilton, where 250 to 500 calls daily were common.
     “As long as I have product knowledge,” she said, “I’m good to go.”
     The phone interrupts her thought. “Thank you for calling Community College of Aurora, may I help you? ….”
     The staff up front constantly huddles with Cusack, Sangiuliano, Simard and others to ensure the right information is getting doled out at the proper time.
     “I hear everything in my office and when people come in and are abusive or yell, they keep their cool no matter what,” said Megan Harris, an admissions counselor in the Center for Outreach and Recruitment, whose desk is just a few steps away from the enrollment services ‘pit’ where much of the activity in that area occurs. “And they know about everything there is to know to have asked about.”
     This efficiency this day, though, comes nearly with a price .
     “Things were so busy,” registrar and director of admissions Kristen Cusack revealed., “the boss almost died and nobody would have known.”
     Seems Cusack was back in her office crunching numbers and drinking a Diet Coke. “It was my last sip,” she recalled.
     Indeed, it almost was.  Her beverage slipped down the wrong pipe, and as she pounded her chest, she simultaneously processed the irony of a Sangiuliano e-mail popping up on her screen while she was in full cough mode. Cusack knew the message emanated from just a few feet away.
     In the end, though, Cusack knew the incident was part and parcel of these busy times. No choking allowed.
     And in the quiet that followed, ‘I’ll help the next in line …’ could be heard faintly in the distance.
    “This college enrollment student services staff here: best in the state,” Sangiuliano said proudly. “No, best in the USA.”
     The day is nearly over, but the waves of people continue to filter in at 4:30. Children can be seen coloring at the back table of the financial aid office. Lines are forming at both doors and the greeter is greeting.  The MyCCA kiosks don’t have any openings.
    A woman on a cell phone carries her pager down the hall. 
    The 24-hour payment policy is explained for the umpteenth time.
     It’s business as usual on one of the usual busy days. Or maybe not.
    A woman standing near the enrollment services welcome sign dons a light jacket, and inside, something moves. 
    A Chihuahua pokes his head up into the Administration Building light ever so slightly and looks around.
    Maybe, it’s Peanut Butter.


Captions: From top, (1)  a line forms outside of Enrollment Services, on Aug. 23 as students seek  guidance that will allow them to tie up all the loose ends for the beginning of classes that open in just a few scant days. The rushes weren’t sustained, though, but instead went in a series of waves throughout the day as CCA employees remained on task and efficiently eased out the traffic. (2) Greeter Kathy Jackson does her part, leading students in the right direction. (3) A sign shows the situation in black and white. (4) Financial aid is always a popular locale just before the semester begins.



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