By Jay Sea
A lifelong City College faculty member retires this month, ending an era of human-to-phone receptionists and moving the college to a more automated system for telecommunications at this school.
Victoria Barrera, Switchboard Operator in the Information Technology Services department, has worked at City College for forty years and has seen the school change through decades, under many different chancellors. Originally hired in 1980, “Vicky” remembers when inter-campus communication was more, as she put it, “family oriented.” Even then computers were a main component of the job. ITS is the team responsible for maintaining the phone support system for the college.
Born and raised in San Francisco, Vicky’s career began through her mother, who worked at a Sears store as a phone operator. In those days her mother was on a bowling team, and Vicky remembered when she accompanied her to one of the tournaments (which they won) where a woman on the team also worked with her mother as an operator, but also at City College. That woman was Emily Moi, and she met Vicky that day and asked if she wanted a job. Vicky, fresh out of high-school, excitedly said yes and took her first and only job at City College. When asked why she’s now retiring she said, “it’s time.”
One might imagine City College’s phone system to be a room full of boards and wires like from the very early days of telecommunications, “corkboards” as Vicky calls them. But, when she started at City College, in 1980, the corkboards were already gone. Their remnants remain even today as, in her words, “a hole in the room” of the switchboard office where they used to be. Vicky recounts what could be considered some very analog methods employed for years as the school’s means of directing calls through the campus. She spoke of when she had to write from memory a paper ticket for each call, referencing call details by rote and organizing them in small boxes. She said that went on for at least five years, when she first started.
When reflecting on her professional time at City College, Vicky harkens back to a time when campus culture was more “family-oriented, everybody helped each other.” Over time she feels that she has seen the quality of campus culture “go downward,” describing how now departments have stopped answering and students have become more disgruntled. “Folks aren’t warm on the phone anymore,” she said. When reaching out to other faculty for supporting students’ needs over the phone, she’s increasingly met with responses like “we don’t do that.”
Despite the challenges of the job, working at City College has made her happy. “I loved it,” she said when asked about how she felt working with the campus population every day. Tim Ryan, ITS supervisor and Vicky’s boss spoke highly of his employee doing “a tremendous job.”
“She’s a wonderful asset to the city, and a valuable service to the public,” he said.
A proud SEIU union member, Vicky’s role as phone operator is recognized as an official civil servant job for the City and County of San Francisco.
Department management responded to inquiry about the future of the role of phone operator as evolving, incorporating more features of modernization but still having some “human interaction.” Vicky is currently unaware of any human filling her role. As far as she knows, the department plans to go fully automated as soon as possible.
Vicky’s last day at City College is Feb. 21.