When Kerry Thao is sitting in class, his eyes often wander to the floor and he guesses when it was last mopped. He sometimes instinctively runs his fingertips over his desk to check for dust, and on the way out he glances at the trash basket and makes a mental note of when it will likely need to be emptied.
It’s not because he has a fixation with classroom cleanliness. It’s because Thao, who is on track to graduate with a degree in psychology this spring, has worked as a custodian on campus for the last seven years. After starting his custodial career in University Housing and now working full time mostly in Yolo Hall, Thao is a rare member of the campus community who gets to see Chico State from both an employee and student perspective.
“It’s been an interesting experience for sure,” said Thao of his dual roles. “As a custodian, I don’t have to be super formal so I often get to talk to students throughout the day. And, of course, I do see students from my classes while working—and those interactions have been extremely positive.”
Thao, a first-generation student from Oroville, originally earned a bachelor’s degree in computer animation and game development from Chico State in 2012. Facing a competitive job market, saddled with student-loan debt, and struggling with a realization that his chosen degree might not be his passion, he started to consider his options. After coming very close to enlisting in the US Navy, he landed a job as a temporary custodian within University Housing 2014. After becoming a full-time employee in 2017 he learned of the California State University employee fee waiver program through a Facilities and Management Services coworker who was taking advantage of the program.
The program allows eligible staff employees to take CSU courses at significantly reduced rates with the goal of supporting employees in improving current job skills or in preparing for a new career. Maybe, Thao thought, this could help him on his path to a new career.
“I racked up student loan debt that took me almost 10 years to pay off,” said Thao. “I would have never contemplated a second degree without the fee waiver program. I can only take six units at a time, but that actually makes it manageable with my work schedule.”
And what a schedule it is. Thao typically studies between 7 and 10 a.m. in advance of his morning classes. After grabbing a quick lunch, he reports to work for the 1 to 9:30 pm swing shift. During the 40 hours a week he spends mopping, sweeping, and dusting, he often re-listens to recorded class lectures on his headphones or gets mentally prepared for upcoming assignments as he sweeps his mop back and forth across the tiles of Yolo Hall.
While taking classes for a fraction of the tuition cost seemed like a job perk worth pursuing, Thao wasn’t immediately sure which direction to go. Intriguingly, it was a kinesiology class in 2017, “Foundations of Exercise and Sport Psychology,” that pushed him toward pursuing a psychology degree. The course covered topics like motivation, goal-setting, stress, and anxiety, and matched perfectly with the types of conversations Thao had been having with students while he cleaned the residence halls.
He eagerly embraced the curriculum, which felt like a complete shift from his studies in computer animation. Taking classes like “Capstone Seminar” (PSYC 401W), important contemporary issues and problems in the discipline of psychology, he was sure he’d finally discovered his passion.
“I first met Kerry back when he was a student custodian working on this first degree. It’s just so impressive how he has stayed focused on both his academic and career goals. He’s well-liked and an inspiration to our department and we can’t wait to see where his career will take him,” said Tammy Bassi, a current grounds worker with Facilities Management and Services who served at Thao’s custodial lead and custodial supervisor.
Now on the brink of graduating with his psychology degree, Thao aspires to become a collegiate academic advisor. Because he’s from Butte County and has been already been an employee for seven years, he would love to stay at Chico State if he gets the opportunity.
“I struggled as a student and ended up on a path that wasn’t right for me,” he said. “In talking with students, I know many aren’t sure about what major is right for them and are also worried about their career opportunities after getting their degree. I’m one of those students who graduated and said, ‘Now what?’ I want to help others figure things out a little faster than I did.”