A transfer student from Diablo Valley College, Kathy Barrett graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in Art History in 1983. After trying out many possible careers, she returned to Berkeley in 1992 and spent 28 years working in various student services offices on campus. In 1997, she received an MA in Counseling Psychology from SF State, the first in her family to achieve a higher degree. After many years in the College of Letters and Science Undergraduate Advising Office, she moved to Comp Lit in 2005 and worked there until 2013. Up until her retirement in summer 2020, she worked in Engineering Student Services in the College of Engineering. Below she reflects on her experience.
Would you describe your experience working in the Comparative Literature department? What is your sense of how Berkeley has changed over the years?
Working in Comparative Literature was very different from most of my other positions at Berkeley. Previously I had been in the Undergraduate Advising Office in the College of Letters and Science where you advise all undergraduates in the College across all majors. You tend to meet with students only once and you don’t really develop long-term relationships with students. Also, you tended to have pretty limited contact with faculty.
Being in a small department like Comp Lit you get to know the students, as you see them quite often and you work with the faculty daily. My colleagues and I had an open-door policy, so students could just drop by anytime and sit on the couch and stay awhile. I also had the opportunity to work with graduate students, which was a student population I hadn’t worked with at all before. I think what was unique about Comp Lit was the caliber of the students. A student didn’t choose Comp Lit as a fall-back plan if they didn’t get admitted into a more “popular” major on campus. They chose Comp Lit because they loved language and literature—which in the 90’s and 00’s wasn’t the choice many students were making. Education seemed to have become more of a means to an end rather than the goal itself. So in Comp Lit I had the opportunity to work with some really, really smart students who loved learning.
In general the number of women faculty in the Departments has grown in the years since I was a student at Cal. I was an Art History major at Cal in the early 80’s and while the majority of my classmates were women, a majority of my instructors were men. I remember thinking, where do all these really smart women go, as I didn’t see them in academia? But that has definitely changed. While certainly women still have a ways to go in Engineering and some of the other hard sciences to have representative numbers, I think the liberal arts has really opened up and women are fully represented in these departments.
Advising has always been a pretty female dominated position. I think many of these positions started out as very clerical positions—as department secretaries. But that has changed over time as many advising duties moved to staff (away from the faculty) and the positions became more professional. I think a few senior faculty might miss having department secretaries, but most faculty appreciate the work that we do. As staff we provide consistency in the Department--meaning that while faculty rotate in and out of their duties as Undergraduate Faculty Adviser or Graduate Faculty Adviser or Chair; the advising staff provide continuity and institutional memory.
Would you say a bit more about your experience as a student at Cal? What was the campus like in the 80s? What was your sense of the gender politics at that time?
From a leadership standpoint the campus was pretty male-dominated. For instance my work study job was in the Financial Aid Office, which was completely staffed by women--but supervised by a man. And I think that was not unusual. In terms of my peers, we definitely imagined that we were pursuing a college degree to go out and be part of the work world that we would have careers and families, but we had options.
Do you remember much about the staff at that time? What was your experience of their relationship to students?
I did not interact with a lot of the staff and didn’t have a sense that many of my peers did either. Berkeley was sort of notorious for having long lines--for instance you had to get in lines every quarter to get your punch cards so you could register for your classes. So there was a feeling that if you saw a line of students you probably should be in it.
I’m sure students still experience staff as bureaucratic, but I think the campus has definitely tried to make advising more meaningful, rather than just transactional. I know that in the 70’s and 80’s many staff came up through the ranks, (especially women) which meant starting as file clerk or secretary and working your way up. So I think staff tended to view advising as more transactional, as that had been their experience working with students in the clerical positions that they previously held.
What are some of the notable ways that Berkeley has changed since you first started working here in 1992?
Certainly the rise of women into positions of power. To see so many top positions on campus occupied by women is awesome. To have Carol Christ return to Cal as Chancellor is really exciting. She is an incredibly smart, dedicated woman, who brings such caring and compassion to the position.
As for advising, I think the notable change is the growth away from advising as merely transactional toward something more transformational. Moving towards a more student-centered advising model and trying to provide as much personal attention to students and their concerns is challenging on a campus of this size, but I think it is now one of the goals of advising, which I’m not sure it always was before.