Je Nell Padilla doesn’t think she’s worthy of a profile on Berkeley News. She doesn’t “have a cool hobby like mountain climbing or scuba diving,” she said recently, adding that she also doesn’t “play the banjo.”
“I’m just a really ordinary person who loves her job,” she insists. And while that may be true, Padilla, who has worked at UC Berkeley for almost 20 years, is anything but ordinary.
Her friends describe her as warm, welcoming, dedicated and loyal; one of the staff members on campus who make the campus a community, not just a place of work.
“She’s next-door-neighbor kind of person,” said Mark Brindle, a colleague who has worked with Padilla for the last few months. “First she’ll listen — that’s the important thing — and then she’s quick to pick up on things that interest you. You get a feeling that this person really cares about me.”
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On paper, Padilla’s job is to review and analyze programs for students living in the campus residence halls. What kind of community do they expect, Padilla asks each day, and is Berkeley helping them build that?
And while Padilla loves her job, that’s only part of what makes her a remarkable colleague.
Each semester she hires and mentors a squad of senior statistics students, teaching them not just how to analyze data in a professional setting but also how to prepare for job interviews or post-graduate life. Padilla has meant so much to the students that years later, they send her notes when they get married, change cities or earn big promotions.
She also volunteers with the Alianza Staff Association, which mentors Latinx and Chicano staffers, and is the treasurer and secretary of the Staff Alliance for Disability Access (SADA), a staff organization that advocates for UC Berkeley employees with disabilities.
There, Padilla, who uses a mobility scooter, puts her impeccable listening skills to work to help staff members with any combination of physical, psychological, learning and medical disabilities.
“I don’t know everything about every kind of special disability,” she said. “I know what mobility disabilities are like, I know that if someone has a hearing impairment, what to do; somebody who has a visual impairment. But somebody who is coming in and they’re on the spectrum? What kind of environment do we need? What’s the best way to impart the information?
“I don’t know a lot,” Padilla added. “But I can ask questions, and I can listen to the answers.”
That openness is remarkable, said Brindle, who first met Padilla when she got involved with the disability alliance in April.
“She worked the front desk at one of our employment fairs,” Brindle said. “A lot of people were stressed out or overwhelmed when they arrived. Within about 30 seconds she calmed each of them down and got them where they needed to go.”
Padilla is also helping SADA put together a UC-wide teleconference on disability that will take place tomorrow (Wednesday, October 10) in honor of National Disability Employment Awareness Month.
“She is always trying to get people to talk to each other, to increase their network and mentor each other,” said Katie Dustin, a project manager with Student Affairs.
She’s a next-door-neighbor kind of person.”
– Mark Brindle
Dustin turned to Padilla when she wanted to start a professional group of program analysts, now called the Cal Assessment Network. Padilla said she was happy to help, but Dustin realized Padilla had all but already done what Dustin was setting out to do.
“It turned out she already had a community she was working with,” Dustin said. “She let me into her community.”
For Padilla, none of this seems remarkable. Asked about her dedication to UC Berkeley, she pointed to her colleagues in Student Affairs who answer calls at 2 a.m., ready “in a heartbeat” to take care of problems in the residence halls or handle a student crisis.
“They’re amazing and incredibly dedicated to what they do,” she said. “I don’t answer calls at 2 a.m.”
But Padilla is, of course, dedicated too. She regrets that she can’t do more, that she doesn’t volunteer on the weekends or stay late to run meetings. But she spends just every moment of her day make connections and making sure UC Berkeley feels like a safe, welcoming place for students and staff.
And with just a few months until retirement, Padilla hasn’t for a minute considered coasting her way out the door.
“I’m working with my boss to try to figure out how before I leave I can leave some sort of legacy and training behind,” she said. “I want people to know that when they put on a program that they met their goals. That they accomplished what they wanted.”
Contact Will Kane at firstname.lastname@example.org