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I’m a Berkeleyan: Diane Coppini’s campus career began as a student-plumber

By Gretchen Kell

Diane Coppini, director of engineering technical sevices at UC Berkeley's Facilities Services, leans against a white Facilities Services vehicle. She is wearing a beige blazer and jeans and is looking at the camera with her hands folded at her waist.
Diane Coppini is director of engineering technical services for UC Berkeley Facilities Services. (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)
Diane Coppini, director of engineering technical sevices at UC Berkeley's Facilities Services, leans against a white Facilities Services vehicle. She is wearing a beige blazer and jeans and is looking at the camera with her hands folded at her waist.

Diane Coppini is director of engineering technical services for UC Berkeley Facilities Services. (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)

I’m the youngest of my parents’ seven children. I was born and raised in Northern California, up in Humboldt County, in Fortuna. My dad was a truck driver. The timber and fishing industries were huge then, and Dad primarily hauled logs. My mom was a waitress who eventually bought her own restaurant.

I was planning on going to Humboldt State and majoring in journalism — my grandmother was in Humboldt State’s first graduating class — but I became a stay-at-home mom. I eloped after high school with my boyfriend, in 1987. My parents weren’t thrilled with me for running away and getting married, but they rallied and quickly got on board. They were Depression-era children: My dad left school for World War II, came home and married my mom, and she quit high school before she graduated.

A year later, our first son was born, and two years later, identical twin boys, and then five years later, we divorced.

I needed to find a job, but had no marketable skills. I hadn’t gone to college and had mostly been out of the work force.

At that time, it was pre-computers, so I picked up one of the weekly free papers and saw ads for a receptionist, and a laborer for a plumbing contractor. I didn’t have the wardrobe to be a receptionist, and all I basically needed to be a plumber was a pair of work boots. The man doing the hiring looked me up and down and said, “I have nothing today, but tomorrow you can come and dig a ditch.” At the end of each day, he asked me how I did and if I’d like to come back. At the end of the first week I told him, “If this is a real job, you don’t have to invite me back. I’ll just show up. Is this a real job?” He said, “Yes.” I showed up Monday morning.

I was digging ditches for sewer lines and water mains. I got stronger and better at it. I received a lot of on-the-job training. I ended up in Sacramento, working for a bunch of different mechanical contractors. Construction jobs were easy to get if you showed up and worked hard.

I worked 15 years, ping-ponging between doing projects at prisons, building strip malls and hospitals, and high-end remodels in San Francisco. I wasn’t in a union and had no vacation or sick leave. To take time off meant not making money. I was always the only woman on the job. I was sexually harassed a lot. When I was doing a juvenile hall expansion, there was an old-school boilermaker guy, a welder, who thought I couldn’t do anything right. I was his apprentice. He’d yell at me every day. I’d get in my truck and cry all the way home. But in the end, he shook my hand and said, “I’ve run off a lot of men, and you stuck around.”

Diane Coppini, a campus staff member, poses with her three sons outdoors. Her sons are young adults.

Diane Coppini, on Mother’s Day 2018, with her sons. Alex is beside her, Chris is behind Alex, and Chris’ twin, Nick, is behind Diane. (Photo courtesy of Diane Coppini)

I’ve always been who I am, and if my parents were still alive, they would tell you I came out this way, but working in the field made me tough. I have thick skin. I like to think I treat people the way I want to be treated. I don’t think I’ve ever treated someone the way that boilermaker treated me. I haven’t been abusive.

When I began working at East Bay MUD in 2004, there were three other women who were plumbers. The first step to getting the job was to take a three-hour video test with about 200 other people in an auditorium at Cal State East Bay. The test was given in two auditoriums at the same time. If you passed that part of the test, you would be invited to take the physical test. It consisted of things like shoveling sand into a raised bed within a certain amount of time, making sure it was level and above a line drawn inside the box. If I remember correctly, there were eight stations with different timed tasks. If you made the cut, there would be a panel interview that would end in a list of ranked applicants. I was ranked No. 12 on the list to get hired, out of 450 people that started the process.

When I was a plumber at East Bay MUD, they had a tuition reimbursement program, and I could move into management with 24 college credits. It was a clear path out of the ditch and into the office. So, I went to school at night.

It took me two and half years to do community college. I started in 2005 at Berkeley City College. I found it super-interesting. They had a program for adult learners called PACE, and I got an AA in liberal arts. I remembered how much I liked school when I started, and I decided I wanted to transfer and finish my degree. So, in the fall of 2007, I applied to UC Berkeley.

I had a friend who worked in Facilities Services who said there were a couple plumbing positions open, one in housing and dining and one in Facilities Services. He told me that I should apply. I heard from housing within weeks. I interviewed, but they hired someone else. In April 2008, someone at Cal called and said, “Do you still want to be interviewed?” I said, “Sure,” because I didn’t know how I was going to swing going to Berkeley if I got in and working for East Bay MUD. There was no night shift, and classes at Cal were mostly during the day. On May 1, I got email saying, “Congratulations, welcome to being a transfer student,” and the next day, I got a call that I got the job. I started work at the end of May and worked through the summer, then started class in fall 2008.

My twin sons and I went to the welcome event at Pauley Ballroom and heard Chancellor Birgeneau talking about how many transfer students had applied to Cal, and how many got in. I think about 6,000 had applied and 2,500 got in. That’s when my sons were finally impressed with my accomplishment.

Diane Coppini, director of engineering technical sevices at UC Berkeley's Facilities Services, poses for a portrait outdoors on campus. She has on a beige blazer and has a short haircut.

“Even on bad days,” says Coppini, “I still love my job, I’m still trying to make things better, to fix things. It’s all about supporting research and education.” (UC Berkeley photo by Julian Meyn)

My major was media studies. I was really in school just for personal growth and satisfaction. I wasn’t thinking it would advance my career. I did a lot of sociology, anthropology, political science, media studies core classes, and they were all really good. I read the research that my instructors had done, and it was amazing. At that point, I was in my 40s, attending class in work boots and Carhartts. I had great support from my managers and co-workers. They allowed me to work a flexible schedule, taking classes when offered and just working earlier or later as needed.

On weekends. I wrote papers, studied, and hung out with the kids as much as possible. I didn’t have a life beyond that. My oldest son was already grown and out of the house. The twins were 17, going to school with their dad in the South Bay and visiting me on weekends.

After I graduated in 2010, I stayed at Facilities. I worked in the campus’s utility plumbing shop for about 18 months, was the lead of the indoor plumbing shop for a few years, and then interim manager of a fire and safety group. And then, for a few years, I was interim director of what I am doing now at Berkeley. It has been a quick 15 years working at Cal.

In 2010, I was watching for passage of the Affordable Care Act. My oldest son Alex had a cracked tooth, and I thought, “If this passes, I can put him back on my (health insurance) plan.” And so, during open enrollment, I put him on my insurance. Then, on Christmas Eve, he had a massive seizure. We were driving up Highway 80, almost to Truckee. His health insurance coverage was supposed to take effect Jan. 1, and I thought if I took him somewhere, that his diagnosis would become a pre-existing condition. So, I asked him, “Do you want to go to the hospital? But he said, “No, I just want to go to sleep, I have a headache.”

We had Christmas, we came home, and on Jan. 2, we made him an appointment. He hadn’t had another seizure. But after an MRI and CT scan, my phone rang, and the neurologist we’d seen in the morning said Alex had a brain tumor.

Part of staying at Cal was the security of knowing he’d have health insurance until he was 26, and he was 22 at the time. Over the course of his illness, he had two craniotomies, chemo, radiation, cyber knife radiation, experimental light therapy where he had to wear a cap with electrodes … all kinds of treatments. He was a trooper. He died a week after his 30th birthday at home, with me and his best friend by his side. It should be noted: We had one hell of a birthday party that he thoroughly enjoyed.

At the beginning of his illness, I knew that I could unclog sinks and toilets at Berkeley for the rest of my career if it would make the environment more conducive to learning and research. I wanted to do my part to help someone find a cure for cancer. But I’m also not a person who just settles.

Today, I feel like I’m at the pinnacle of my career. In my position as director of engineering and technical services at Facilities Services, I like being the glue that keeps my teams — the Energy Office, Energy Management Systems (EMS), Engineering and Technical Services, the Cogeneration Plant, Fire Life Safety Services and Preventative Maintenance — working in concert and keeping our utility grid and buildings operating and safe.

Even on bad days, I still love my job, I’m still trying to make things better, to fix things. It’s all about supporting research and education.