Places of learning operate using a three-pronged partnership made up of students, faculty and classified professionals—those seeking an education, those delivering it, and those working in all of the spaces in between to support the school’s mission.

It’s the often unseen classified employees doing the heavy lifting outside of the classroom for thousands of Merced College students.

“I don’t know if it’s a cliché, but we really feel like the backbone of this institution,” said Angelica Ramos, the college’s Administrative Coordinator of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). “When people say ‘education,’ they automatically think of the teachers. Without us doing the groundwork and background things, our faculty wouldn’t have the students, the facilities or the materials to teach.”

Merced College joined schools across the state last month to celebrate classified employees like Ramos during the annual Classified School Employees Week, May 15-21.

“Merced College students deserve a beautiful campus with outstanding services and friendly faces to help guide them on their journeys, and our classified professionals work tirelessly to create this experience for them,” said John Pedrozo, president of the Merced College Board of Trustees. “We simply could not achieve our mission to ensure the success of our students without their skills, commitment and dedication.”

Among 750 Merced College employees, 280 (37%) are classified professionals who do vital work in maintenance, operations, security, transportation, academic assistance, student services, registration, facilities, financial aid, information technology, food services and more.

“We touch all parts of campus life,” said Events and Operations Coordinator Raul Alvarez, who is serving as the CSEA Chapter 274 president this year.

With the passing of AB 438 last year, classified school employees in the state of California are now treated more equitably alongside their counterparts. The bill requires districts to provide classified employees with the same layoff notice and hearing rights as certificated and academic employees.

The legislation brought equity to classified professionals, reinforcing their value to employers at the same time.

So what makes the Merced College classified team worth that fight?

“I would say our classified employees are all very skilled,” Alvarez said. “Each of them knows their trade really well. Job requirements have become even more detailed, and that has allowed people to come in here more prepared than ever and ready to hit the ground running.”

For example, Ramon Avila is an instructional support technician in the mechanized ag department at Merced College. In his role, he sets up tools, including heavy industrial equipment, for practical lessons and exams.

Alvarez said the current classified group at Merced College is a productive mix of “seasoned veterans and some new blood to reinvigorate things.”

It showed in spades while faculty and students both worked from home throughout the pandemic. At the same time, many classified professionals worked on campus every day. 

“We had grounds people and custodians cleaning and re-cleaning rooms and IT personnel providing laptops and troubleshooting all of the tech issues,” Alvarez said. “It was a lot of work going on behind the scenes to maintain the safety protocols and technology needs. I’m not sure if the students realized who was doing all of that work, but it was happening.”

Ramos, Alvarez and Avila kept emphasizing the dedication their classified colleagues show on a daily basis. There are public displays of it, like during graduation when an eclectic group of classified employees help organize a commencement ceremony the graduates and their friends and families can be proud of.

And then there are the hundreds of smaller daily things that contribute to how well the campus runs and how it feels to everyone who works or studies or visits here.

“Look at the football stadium,” Avila said. “The grass is green. The field is lined. The stands are clean. All of that takes time. People wouldn’t even notice it unless it looked wrong. But when they do stop and look, that’s us. That’s classified right there.”

Avila tells the story about the time a friend of his—Jimmie Neugebauer, a mechanic in the transportation department—showed up with a cart for him to use while preparing for an event. Neugebauer has worked at Merced College for years. He already knew what was going on and what was needed.

“The transportation guys see us moving stuff around and just come by,” Avila said. “That’s what Jimmie did. And I know he will always show up like that. I don’t have to ask. No classified staff is saying, ‘That’s not my job.’