Outside of an organization like Santa Monica College, you may never hear of something called the Personnel Commission. But here—if you are a non-teaching employee—those first interactions with SMC are
generally with this same Personnel Commission, which handles everything related to
the recruitment and retention of non-faculty employees. That was a very long sentence
to get to the point, which is rather short: that meeting someone like Olga Vasquez, a personnel analyst—helpful, friendly, exuding a quiet grace—as someone hoping to
be or newly hired by SMC, can be the best possible welcome one could wish for.
In her supervisor Amy Gurjian’s words, Olga is “a driven individual who owns her work. She cares about the students and colleagues she serves . . . easily builds rapport with others and is well known and trusted across the college community.” (This sentiment has been repeated to the editor of SMC in Focus by other colleagues).
Olga says she “honestly just fell into [HR work].” But what brought her to SMC seems a series of lucky accidents—like finding out on the day of the deadline itself, that a Payroll job was open at SMC (Olga used to be a junior accountant at Charles Dunn Real Estate Services, and so payroll was a natural first step in what is a dream job for her.). Her love for SMC is palpable, as is how seriously she takes her work. Olga talked to SMC about her journey, how everything in her life—including being a bilingual child who accidentally got stuck in a Spanish program in school for years (her immigrant parents didn’t speak English; she didn’t speak up)—led “to where I am now.”
Our conversation has been edited for brevity’s sake.
SMC in Focus: Olga, could you describe what you do at SMC?
Olga Vasquez: I’m a personnel analyst in the Personnel Commission (which is often known as Human Resources, because it’s more of a government term, used more in the federal government or municipalities—not common for school districts), and I’ve been at the district [SMC] since June 2010.
SMC in Focus: What do you enjoy most about your role and being part of hiring people to work here?
Olga Vasquez: I love it because of the opportunity to transform lives. By giving someone employment, it changes not just that individual’s life but their family’s lives, too. The benefits at SMC are amazing—great salary, great work-life balance. And there’s a lot of room for growth.
I also love having the opportunity to help restructure the organization. We provide the district with direction on how their departments can be more efficient and serve our students better. We really have to think outside the box.
SMC in Focus: Tell us about some people and events that have been critical in shaping you to become the person you are today.
Olga Vasquez: Mainly I would say my parents. They both immigrated from Durango, Mexico, in the 1960s and ’70s. Growing up, it was instilled in us that you work hard, get an education, and try to be a good community member. My family moved to the border town of Mexicali, where I lived for two years, so my first language is Spanish. I was four or five years old when we came back.
For many years, I was enrolled in the Spanish program at school, because my parents didn’t speak English. It wasn’t honestly until the fourth grade when the teacher realized that I spoke English! Then I became a translator for all the kids who were immigrating from Latin America and Mexico.
So I went from a fourth grade Spanish-only class to the fifth grade and being placed in the magnet program—which was only English—with no support. It was a big shock.
SMC in Focus: What was the transition like?
Olga Vasquez: Very challenging. It wasn’t until the 11th grade that my high school English teacher realized I needed extra help in English, so in my free period she would tutor me.
Also, I was called a bus kid because I didn’t go to my local elementary or middle school or high school. I was bused into different areas of L.A. My high school was Bravo Medical Magnet High School, which is near the L.A. County + USC Medical Center.
SMC in Focus: Was there a point in your life when you embraced all of these elements in your background and experience?
Olga Vasquez: Honestly, I think it wasn’t until I started working, maybe as an adult, that I realized all my experiences have led me to where I am now. I finally had a broader understanding of people and their struggles and what could be happening in their homes.
SMC in Focus: Then flash forward to today, when you’re working in higher education, in personnel. How did you find your way into this career?
Olga Vasquez: I don’t know how anyone can know about human resources when they’re growing up, unless you have someone in your life who works in HR. I honestly just fell into it.
Math is my strong suit, so I did many years of math in high school. I even took it in summer school. After graduation, I worked in accounting. And one of the functions in that company for the accounting assistant was doing payroll. That’s really how I started, and I learned about human resources.
I had gotten to a point with that company where there was no place to go. I was looking for a job, and was being very prayerful, and this SMC job came to my inbox. It was like, oh, payroll specialist, and it closes today—apply. That’s how I found my way to SMC.
SMC in Focus: So you started in payroll, but now you’re in personnel. Tell us about that transition.
Olga Vasquez: For me, it was easy. Basically everything we do here I had done in my previous company, but on a smaller scale. I was already familiar with onboarding, hiring people and doing all that. So when an opportunity came to work in human resources, I went back to school and took HR courses to get my certificate. When there was a vacancy, I moved to HR as an admin clerk. You have to start somewhere. Even if you have experience, you start from the bottom up. I was thrilled. I’ve been working in personnel since 2015.
SMC in Focus: What gets you out of bed in the morning? What motivates you in your work?
Olga Vasquez: Serving the public. I’m a public servant. I have a fiduciary responsibility to do the best I can for the employee. It’s not just about SMC for me, it’s about the whole educational institution, and the good use of public funds. And inspiring others to be their best.
There’s always a lot of work, and only a little bit of staff. You just have to do your best and treat everyone with courtesy.
SMC in Focus: When you’re not at work, how do you like to relax?
Olga Vasquez: I like to relax, be home, have a cup of coffee—with cream.
I attend Pasadena City Church and lead a Bible study group every week. I also help with the children’s church program and serve on the board there. I’m involved in a lot of other things outside of SMC that bring me joy. So when I have downtime, I just completely relax.
Also, I recently got married. My husband runs a college baseball team with Arroyo Seco Baseball. They don’t just have baseball players, it’s a whole intern program as well. They have journalists, videographers, photographers. During the summer, two months is dedicated to supporting him and his work.
SMC in Focus: Tell us something unique about you that most people may not know.
Olga Vasquez: I like games. I like to play board games and card games. And I like to play pranks.
SMC in Focus: OK, so two spinoff questions. One: tell us your favorite board games.
Olga Vasquez: There’s this card game called Monopoly Deal that I love. Dominos is a staple at our house. And lotería, Spanish bingo.
SMC in Focus: And two: a prank you’ve played on someone, and how did it go down?
Olga Vasquez: It was for April Fool’s Day. I told my pastor that I was moving to Europe, and he believed me. He was like, oh no, who’s gonna run the kids’ ministry program? I was like, just kidding, April Fool’s!
SMC in Focus: Who are some mentors who have influenced you?
Olga Vasquez: Amy Gurjian, my current supervisor, is very encouraging in motivating me to grow on my professional side. Vice President of Human Resources Sherri Lee-Lewis was critical to my coming here. And before I transferred from payroll to HR, I met with Delia Padilla, and I job shadowed her. I just emailed them both and I’m like, hey, can I job shadow you one day? Also, Carol Long, the director of classified personnel and Karen Monzon, the personnel analyst who trained me and shared her personnel commission wisdom. Veronica Diaz, the budget manager, is also very wise and helped me understand the finance part of SMC.
In my previous job, the accountant who encouraged me to apply to SMC. Because initially, I started as a temporary employee here. I left my permanent benefit job and everything for hourly, no benefits and no guarantee of a permanent position.
Also, the leaders from the Bible study program are my mentors; they’re dedicated, wise women.
SMC in Focus: Do you see yourself staying for a long time at SMC?
Olga Vasquez: I love SMC. SMC changed my life. I came from the private sector, so it’s very different. Even though it’s not perfect—because no organization is perfect—from what I have experienced, SMC is definitely the most transparent organization that I have been in. And there’s a lot of opportunities for growth. So far, I still love what I do.
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