A day with Jill-of-all-trades Tamara Rice

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Author: Damian Mendieta

On a cool spring morning at the Office of Student Life (OSL), the day has gotten off to an unusually early start. Tamara Rice, Assistant Dean of Student Development and Director of Student Life, has been running back and forth since dawn, alternating between answering calls inside the office and making last-minute preparations for the evening’s concert at the Greek Bowl with the rapper Common.

The day was supposed to begin at 7 a.m., and Rice was fine with that. But an early morning incident presaged a tough day ahead.

At 6 a.m., Campus Safety called to notify Rice that a delivery of barricades arrived on campus. That was good news for Rice. Then the bad news came-the crew wouldn’t unload unless they were paid on the spot.

“I was running in my pajamas,” she says.

By 8 a.m., she is fully dressed in jeans and a blue polo. But just as I am getting my pen and notepad out, Rice beckons me to follow her to the Facilities office, where she grabs car keys for the fleet of Bengal Buses that will pick up Common and his crew at LAX later in the day.

As we are hustling out of her office, department assistant Genaro Cabrera notifies her of some meetings she’ll have before noon, and Assistant Director Devon MacIver tells her he has made a fresh batch of coffee.

Rice halts and takes a gulp before catching my eye. “Coffee: very important, Damian, very important.”

Everything related to student life is overseen by Rice; Springfest, the upcoming Founders Day celebrations, Greek Life activities, even posters in the Tiger Cooler must receive her approval. Student events take place left and right at Occidental, but the weeks of work that go into producing them go mostly unnoticed. Rice makes sure her behind-the-scenes duties are so well run that they are almost invisible. It is the Director of Student Life’s job to ensure that the bureaucracy of planning runs as smoothly as possible.  

Throughout the first half of the day, Rice is tranquil and composed. It is like the calm before a storm. As her staff rushes in and out of their respective offices, Rice makes a few calls about sound equipment, then about the Food Trucks that will park alongside Thorne Hall before the concert begins.

At 10:30 a.m., right before lunch, we take a short trip through the back rooms of the Marketplace, the mysterious kitchens that students see for fleeting moments as dining staff go in and out of a screened doorway at the Grill. As we go in, the staff seems surprised to see a student following Rice around but greet me with the same smiles they have in the Marketplace.

The frenzied state of OSL radiates on other parts of campus. Facilities staff members are hustling to set up tables for the day’s events while prepping the vehicles and going about their usual activities.

MacIver has come in, saying that a speaker does not work. Before panic can erupt, Rice’s demeanor eases the whole office as she coolly makes suggestions on how to get out of this particular jam.

Cabrera comes in. “Is that speaker going to be used by Common?”

“No,” Rice responds. “Common’s requests were just a little bit bigger.”

We return to her office, where Rice silently answers a portion of her daily email deluge. “I already have 59 unread emails,” she says.

She looks up. “Things will pick up a bit just after lunch.”

Springfest is a half-day, once-a-year affair, but the mixture of stress, fatigue and hordes of aggressive, intoxicated students crowding the Greek Bowl’s entrance make the event one of the most challenging of the year for Rice and her team.

Rice arrives at the Greek Bowl at 7:30 p.m., where dozens of alumni are already waiting for the concert. We await the arrival of students for about half an hour of relative calm.

At 8:30 p.m., students start trickling in as the show is set to begin in half an hour. As 9 p.m. passes without any sign of the opening act, a few unruly alumni in attendance demand an explanation for why the show has not started yet. Rice holds her own as she explains that all alumni received emails with the show’s details. The alumni corner her and tell her that she does not display the “Oxy spirit.” Rather than retaliate, the Director of Student Life coolly sizes up her three tipsy would-be-aggressors and ends the argument with “Enjoy the show.”

The opening act, Sound FX, takes the stage at 9:07 p.m., but Rice’s work is not over yet. Common is still at least an hour away from going on stage.

Rice said she never imagined she would work on a college campus one day. “You’re in college, and you never think that you could actually work at one.”

Rice originally wanted to be a biologist, and at age 18 she left her woodland home in Northern California to pursue a degree in Wildlife and Fishery Science at the University of Arizona.

After graduating, she embarked on a cross-country wildlife research adventure, studying Peregrine Falcons along the Colorado-Utah border, the Northern Goshawk in the Kaibab National Forest in the northern rim of the Grand Canyon and the Ferruginous Hawk in central Colorado. “After college I literally chased birds of prey,” she said.

Her dreams of becoming a biologist were hindered by unremarkable GPA and GRE scores. As a result, Rice says she especially loathes standardized testing requirements. “I’m a sucker for the common-sense answer,” she said.

Her final research study with Peregrine Falcons led to a soul-searching adventure where she analyzed her life goals. Being alone in the middle of the unparalleled beauty of the Peregrine falcons’ habitat inspired her to reconsider her career as she pondered her future.

“I’d be out there, looking at the Peregrines by myself, and you just start thinking about things: what do I want to do with my life, is this my path?” she said with a faraway look in her eyes.

She made her life-changing decisions after remembering how she enjoyed working in the recreational department of Arizona as a part-time student-employee. Her athletic background encouraged her to participate in the management of intramural sports in her undergraduate studies.

Rice, tall and lean, had her sights fixed on playing volleyball for a Division I school. In the end, she was not quite tall enough. “Those girls in Division I are like trees,” she said, laughing. “The shortest one is six feet tall.”

She continued her education at the University of Wyoming, earning her Master’s Degree in 1997 in Physical and Health Education. Afterwards, she was hired by Purdue University as an assistant director of the recreational sports programs before being promoted to Assistant Dean of Students in 1999. Later, she earned her doctorate degree from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, focusing on higher education and administration.

A deep resentment of Midwestern winters convinced her to move back west after 14 years away from California. “I like snow for one day, but then it needs to be gone because I don’t like it for months and months and months,” she said.

Although she had various job offers throughout Southern California, Rice chose Occidental, she said, for its honest claim of being in Los Angeles. “I appreciated that from Oxy,” she said, con
trasting it with the Claremont Colleges, “you say you’re in Los Angeles, and you are in Los Angeles.”

During her campus visit, she was convinced that Occidental was the right fit for her. After living in the Midwest for so long, she said she welcomed Occidental’s diversity. But she was also sure that her interviewers did not find her an appealing candidate.

After being questioned by a group of poker-faced students, Rice said she walked out the door thinking, “They hate me.”

But when the job offer came, she enthusiastically accepted it and waved goodbye to large school campuses. “I had colleagues telling me, once you go small school, you won’t go back. You will totally fall in love with the small school setting,” she said.

Around 9:50 p.m., the concert security check faces an onslaught of students clamoring to enter the Greek Bowl. Several fans quickly rush toward the water coolers along the entrance. Two Campus Safety officers chuckle at the thirsty crowds. “Must be all the beer they had,” one mutters.

Male students toss cigarettes, lighters and other contraband into trashcans or try to circumnavigate the security checks. The Campus Safety officers unblinkingly face more than one angry fan. Female students still caught in the lines are reminded, not for the first time, that they cannot bring purses into the concert. They desperately toss their handbags on the small shingle roof over the entrance line and hurry to enter the concert.

Rice’s assistants do their best to hold the line and not let overzealous fans enter without swiping their cards. Some students have forgotten their ID cards and attempt to go around the line entering through the side of Keck Theater but to no avail. Some refuse to be turned away, and their loud pleas fall on deaf ears.

Around 10:45 p.m., Common finally goes onstage, almost an hour late, to the loud cheers of the audience, and by 11 p.m., the lines are gone, and Rice and her staff relax.

“It’s finally over!” MacIver exclaims.

By 11:15 p.m., when I leave Rice for the night, her staff is visibly exhausted. Rice, though, remains easygoing and her eyes do not suggest the long day she’s had. She will stay until after the concert ends to help tear down the stage and then dismantle Common’s green room. Afterward, she will coordinate Common’s transportation back to his hotel. Finally, when the Bengal Buses arrive back at Occidental after midnight, she will go home.

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