Volume VII, Issue 4 | August 30, 2021

The Backbone of Transfers

Maria Bonin is the quiet, steady force behind all that goes on at SMC’s Transfer Center. This specialist, who is “honest, hardworking, creative” is also described as ‘The Ambassador of Transfer.’ Maria talks about a day in her life, what sustained her during the pandemic, and why she loves her job.

For 30 years straight, Santa Monica College has enjoyed a success that has almost become synonymous with the college’s name: #1 in transfers to the University of California (SMC is also #1 in transfers to USC, Loyola Marymount University, and is the leading transfer college to the Ivy League Columbia University west of the Mississippi. While there are reasons visible to the external eye for this extraordinary success—high-quality, equitable instruction; dedicated counselors; and more—there is another force, one lots of people on campus know about, a force with a resounding laugh and whose name is Maria Bonin. Maria’s official title is “Articulation & Transfer Specialist” but ask anyone of the leaders alongside whom Maria has worked and it quickly becomes evident that this “honest, hardworking, creative” Corsair is the quiet, efficient force behind the Transfers Center.

“Maria has worked at SMC for a very long time,” says Sara Nieves-Lucas, current SMC Transfers Center director, “and she knows almost everyone. She has an amazing work ethic and is always thinking outside the box. The university representatives absolutely love her because she treats them as if they were SMC colleagues but also because she knows that the representatives are here to help our students. She is the backbone of our center!”

SMC in Focus also asked Maria’s former supervisors—former Transfer Center directors Dan Nannini (who hired Maria) and Janet Robinson; as well as Articulation Officer Estela Narrie—what they thought made Maria the force that she is. Their responses—sent separately—had several things in common. They all thought Maria “thinks out of the box.” That she is the epitome of professionalism.

“If I had to sum up Maria's career . . . it would be to call her ‘The Ambassador of Transfer,’” says Dan. “Best thing I ever did was steal Maria away from the Admissions Office!  She was kind, professional, and got to know everyone she worked with on a personal level, so that when she needed their support, they gave it willingly.  She had the respect and admiration of counselors, students and staff, too!”

“She is always student focused and her passion for helping students is at the heart of everything that she does,” Janet Robinson said. “Another trait that Maria possesses is her impeccable attention to detail . . . her meticulousness won’t allow her to do any task without bringing 110% effort.” In summary, Janet said, “If you want to get something done, and done right the first time, have Maria on the team.” And as to how Maria always goes above and beyond, take these two examples, Janet says: Maria worked tirelessly to launch SMC’s first-ever (due to Covid) online college fair in Fall 2020 and make it a great experience for both students and university representatives. And in the pre-pandemic days, it was “customary” for Maria to do impromptu events like “Waffle Wednesday”. She’d bring in ingredients for counselors and student workers to make their own waffles in the kitchen – “just because”—to bring joy, not to mention the delicious smell of waffles cooking, to all in the department.

“Big heart, big laugh and the backbone of the Transfer Center,” says Sara.

SMC in Focus is proud to present this exclusive interview with this essential hero, the backbone of the Transfer Center. Our interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

SMC in Focus: Every transfer coordinator, starting with Dan Nannini, and then Janet Robinson and now, Sara Nieves-Lucas, says you’re that force behind the scenes, the quiet person who makes stuff happen. Can you describe a day in the life of a Transfer and Articulation Specialist? 

Maria Bonin:  A lot of it is communicating with the outside world—meaning the four-year reps who come to visit campus and meet with our students. I coordinate their visits, whether that’s a tabling event, scheduling one-on-one appointments or assisting with a student workshop.

I also have to balance the Transfer Center director’s needs and the Articulation Officer’s need. We’re a trio. Our three positions intertwine. The Articulation Officer works with the four-year schools to develop an agreement that sets the requirements students need to successfully apply and transfer to those institutions. The Transfer Center is the flip-side of the coin, where we connect students with the four-year schools coming to campus.  

SMC in Focus:  You’ve been in the Transfers Department for a long, long time. Why have you stayed?

Maria Bonin:  Because of Dan [Nannini]. He taught me the transfer world and was a mentor for me. Dan allowed me to have a voice as a classified employee, to work alongside him as a colleague, not as a subordinate. Together we developed a lot of processes, came up with different ideas to see what worked. We paved the transfer path for students. And I’ve been able to train the new incoming Transfer Center directors. That’s a unique thing.

SMC in Focus:  Did you ever attend SMC?

Maria Bonin:  I took a few courses here, but fresh out of high school I went to FIDM. It didn’t turn out to be exactly what I wanted. Life changes. My husband and I bought a house, and when I was pregnant with our second child, I started working here at SMC.

SMC in Focus:  You grew up in the neighborhood, right? Where did you go to school?

Maria Bonin:  I grew up in the Pico neighborhood, attended Will Rogers Elementary School in the 1970s, John Adams Middle School, and then Santa Monica High School.

SMC in Focus:  What are some of your early memories of SMC as a child in the neighborhood? 

Maria Bonin:  When kids wanted to cross through SMC, we had to sneak around and make sure we didn’t get caught by campus security. It wasn’t a community-friendly school back then. The only time we were permitted to come on campus was in the summertime, when the pool opened to the community. Every day, we would come like clockwork. It cost a quarter to get in, and all the neighborhood kids lined up and waited for the doors to open. We were in the pool all day until closing.

SMC in Focus:  What do you enjoy about Transfers?

Maria Bonin:  The whole thing. Working for students’ success. Seeing the end-product: students transferring. Hearing their stories. Seeing them on our social media. It gives me a good feeling. 

SMC in Focus:  This past year must have been hard. What motivated you to get out of bed in the morning?

Maria Bonin:  The transfer world is very busy, so I couldn’t just take a mental-health day off. The emails were out of control. It was hard to communicate both internally and with the four-year schools. We couldn’t be on the ground, couldn’t just pick up the phone and call people on their extension or visit them in their offices. The four-year schools were also trying to figure out ways to continue providing services. We had to cancel our Spring Fair, which was devastating. With everybody working from home, we had to find new ways to deliver the many important spring workshops we offer our students. We were able to pivot all the workshops to virtual offerings. We already had Zoom, but we quickly started to research different external platforms. We joined forces with a few other groups on campus and were able to purchase other platforms to host our events.

SMC in Focus:  It was a very successful year, I hear.

Maria Bonin:  Yes. More than 220 schools registered for the Fall 2020 Fair. That’s the largest ever.

SMC in Focus:  Why do you think that is?

Maria Bonin:  We have a lot of out-of-state and international partners who visit the campus on a semesterly basis, but that doesn’t necessarily coincide with our transfer fair. Normally, they may have limited resources and need to pick and choose if and when they travel. Many weren’t able to travel at all last year, so the fair being virtual actually allowed them to participate. We also saw our numbers go up with student attendance in workshops.

SMC in Focus:  Not being on campus, what did you miss the most?

Maria Bonin:  The community part. Though we’re a big department, we really enjoy each other’s company. It was nice that my immediate group, Team Transfer—that’s Sara Nieves-Lucas, Estela Narrie and Erika Knox, our Completion Counselor—were able to hold weekly meetings. We huddled for three hours every Tuesday. There was so much to talk about. We’d start the meeting checking in with each other to see how everybody was holding up. Then we conducted our business.

SMC in Focus:  Your sister works at SMC as well, right?

Maria Bonin: Yes. Martha Romano and I actually started working at the same time in, though people didn’t know we were related. We both started in Admissions in 1989. Then she worked in HR for a while, and I didn’t see her so much until she went to work in the library. That’s when we started going to lunch together every day and walking to the beach. We still do that Monday through Friday.  

SMC in Focus:  Later on your dad joined the club. How did that start?

Maria Bonin: Two years ago my mom passed away unexpectedly. When that happened, my sister and I decided my dad needed to have family around. We were meeting for lunch on campus every day, but then we decided to start going over to my dad’s house.

So we get together at lunchtime at his house, and we eat. Then we’d finish off our workday. Afterwards, we go walking, come back to my dad’s house and have happy-hour with him. It turned out to be good not just for him but also for me, because it breaks up my routine. Otherwise, during the pandemic, I might just have stayed at home and worked the entire day.

SMC in Focus:  He lives close to campus?

Maria Bonin:  My dad is an SMC neighbor. He’s on 16th Street, right across from Receiving. My parents were fortunate enough to buy their house, back in 1985.

SMC in Focus:  It sounds like a very close-knit family. Do you have other siblings?

There’s five of us. I’m in the middle. Martha is the oldest. There’s a brother between the two of us, and I have two younger brothers.  I [also] have two boys and a girl. Andrew is 26. Annabella is 19. And Anthony is 17. And there’s my husband, Hank.  

SMC in Focus:  When you’re going through a hard time in pandemic, does that family structure sustain you?

Maria Bonin:  Absolutely. My mom was very family-oriented. She had a lot of followers—basically, family and friends who visited her. That’s how we grew up. As you get older, those are the values you appreciate and you want to hold onto and continue with your own kids.

SMC in Focus:  How do you recharge? 

Maria Bonin:  For me, it’s prayer. My mom was very religious. Growing up, we went to church every Sunday, like clockwork. For me that really helps. Being around family and friends helps as well. It’s therapeutic.

My parents went to Saint Anne, on 20th and Colorado. We were going there with my father until the pandemic hit. Then we started watching mass virtually. We haven’t been back yet, even though we’re all vaccinated. Because cases are still rising.   

SMC in Focus:  What does Maria do for fun?

Maria Bonin:  Lately, nothing really. I talk a lot with my family. We watch the Dodgers games, take walks down to the beach. That’s really beautiful, having the beach so close by that you can walk down every day and unwind.

SMC in Focus:  Do you think you’ll work at SMC until you retire?

Maria Bonin:  Absolutely. I’m too old to restart anywhere else. I’m looking forward to retirement. Everybody says it’s so great.

SMC in Focus:  What are your plans after you retire?

Maria Bonin:  My husband and I would like to travel. We want to see Italy and Ireland. And there are so many places in Mexico we still haven’t explored. So much history. My parents are both Mexican. We come from a very small town in Jalisco. I haven’t been there since 2003, but I’m going back this month to learn more about my roots.

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