Every day, hundreds of staff members work on the front lines and behind the scenes at Chico State to support student success and carry out the University mission. From tackling small and large obstacles to handling campus and community crises to supporting and helping others, these individuals exemplify what it means to be a Wildcat.

This year, Staff Council recognized five employees with the 2021 Staff Excellence Awards to honor those whose contributions have greatly improved and impacted the campus community.

These awards are made possible through funding by the Division of Business and Finance and the University Foundation.

Outstanding Staff Employee of the Year

Staff Employee of the Year recipient Ben Duarte holds their award.

As outreach specialist for the MESA Engineering Program (MEP)/Chico STEM Connections Collaborative (CSC²) since 2005, Ben Duarte’s support for his students and his dedication to their success are emblematic of Chico State’s culture of caring. With laser focus and deep humility, he has helped transform the lives of hundreds of students, especially those from underserved backgrounds, and his work in service of diversity is one of the few reasons why our campus has an Hispanic-Serving Institution (HSI) designation.

Duarte actively recruits students from all walks of life for MEP and CSC², reaching out to those from low- to middle-income backgrounds and figuring out how to help students cut costs and graduate in four years. If a student is out of food, he is there to provide resources or even a bag of groceries. If a student is out of money, he is there to connect them with a job. And if a student needs a ride back home during break, he is there ready to offer a ride or find someone who can help.

In addition to helping students find jobs and internships after graduation and teaching students how to develop the confidence to interview successfully with potential recruiters, Duarte has also helped the MEP and CSC² Technical Career Fair grow into one of the most successful fairs on campus. Not only does Duarte organize it and make sure that visiting companies have a wonderful Chico experience, he also arranges all meet-and-greets for potential hires with our students, facilitating meetings and ensuring that students receive a fair offer. Under his care, the Technical Career Fair has grown from 35 participating companies to over 100!

“His experience in the real world has made him the career counselor/brother/father all students need at some point,” said nominator Eri Roman, administrative coordinator for WellCat Services.

When recognized for his extraordinary efforts, Duarte is known to respond by saying that he merely “shows his students the door to opportunities” made available by the campus community and students’ own hard work. But according to MEP participant Javier Tavera, “Duarte shows up earlier than asked, works incredibly hard, puts in extra hours, and is exceptionally gifted at making students feel comfortable by treating them with respect and always maintaining a positive atmosphere.”

Customer Service Award recipient Bethany Pinegar holds their award.

Customer Service Award

For Bethany Pinegar, attending an in-person recruitment fair in the morning, answering emails from applicants worldwide and instant messaging with staff to coordinate application files by lunchtime, and then managing a virtual recruitment fair in a third time zone later that afternoon is just another day at the office. Imagine coordinating all of these efforts across three time zones while working from Latin America—she’s done it. For these efforts and so much more, Pinegar deserves celebration.

International Admissions and Outreach, within International Education and Global Engagement (IEGE), serves applicants from over 100 different countries, each with their own specialized education system, and Pinegar meets with these future Wildcats virtually—with enthusiasm and great care—regardless of the hour or day of the week.

She brings years of personal and professional overseas experience and a deep understanding of the varying views, belief systems, and cultural norms of our diverse student applicant pool to her role as the University’s primary international student recruiter. Her respectful nature and genuine desire to contribute has cultivated a unique connection with students, embodying our campus’s distinct student-centered approach from the initial point of contact.

Pinegar also provides extraordinary service to her entire IEGE team, often working outside traditional 8–5 work hours and covering for her colleagues when help is needed the most. Her keen understanding and foresight of office procedures enables team members to more efficiently and complete their work, and her sense of professionalism combined with a sincere desire to help have gained her a strong reputation as a reliable partner for any project.

“Bethany is friendly, kind, patient, compassionate, and generous with her time and energy,” said Jennifer Gruber, associate vice president of IEGE. “She has repeatedly proven that she is flexible, creative, and eager to support all students from various cultures, countries, and life experiences, and she is truly dedicated to Chico State.”

Making a Difference Award

Making A Difference Award recipient Kylee Sharp holds their award.

Kylee Sharp’s integrity and compassion serve as a model for those in the student services profession. Sharp is committed to serving the underserved, and she works diligently to create positive change for every one of her students. Her ability to adapt, improve, and innovate as the first and only professional academic advisor for the College of Humanities and Fine Arts (HFA) is remarkable.

Sharp (Psychology, ’13) was only two weeks into her new position when Chico State made the sudden transition to virtual teaching and learning due to the COVID-19 pandemic. She hit the ground running, fielding calls for assistance from faculty and staff while reaching out to students who were struggling with online classes. She also initiated dozens of wellness checks and helped students navigate personal difficulties including mental health issues, personal and family responsibilities, financial stress, homelessness, and food insecurity by helping them connect with appropriate resources.

In the two years that she has held her current position, her contributions to University-wide service have been vast—she works closely with the College Advisor and Retention Specialist (CARS) group; she serves on the Chico Graduation Initiative Advisory Team; she is a volunteer staff mentor for the Promoting Achievement Through Hope (PATH) Scholars Mentor Program; she is a member of the English Department Equity-Minded Programs working group; she created a virtual alumni panel and career workshop series for the Career Center; she opened the popular HFA Success Studio, and applied for and received Student Learning Fee funding to pay for music theory tutors—all of this in addition to her work as a college advisor and retention specialist.

“One of the things that impresses me about Kylee is how she continually seems to be coming up with new ideas, and then following through to make those ideas a reality,” said Zanja Yudell, chair of the Department of Philosophy. “And everything she does is aimed at helping our students succeed.”

Wildcat Spirit Award

Wildcat Spirit Award recipient Omar Diaz holds their award.

Described as having a genuine smile, a love and respect for his job, and a commitment to everything he does, Omar Diaz stands out among the crowd. As custodian for Facilities Management and Services, Diaz is at the heart of consistently shifting challenges on campus, especially in a time when the COVID-19 pandemic changed so much. He embodies Wildcat values and traditions by radiating positive energy and working hard to fulfill the needs of staff and faculty while making sure all safety protocols are still being met, leaving no stone unturned.

“I have seen Omar going around wiping, disinfecting, and scrubbing every surface to help stop the spread of COVID-19,” said Pete Austin, scene shop foreman for the School of the Arts. “Wildcat spirit is about performing unselfish acts not just once but all the time—Omar exemplifies this spirit. He is always wearing a smile and never has a bad attitude. I think we could all stand to learn something from Omar.”

Megan Glyn Zollinger, associate professor in the Department of Music and Theater and only one of two teachers on campus during the early days of the pandemic, recalls Diaz often being the only friendly face she would see all day. He eventually began helping her regain her fluency in Spanish during their daily interactions, challenging her to work on the language while kindly correcting her when needed.

“It is rare to come across such a kind soul. Omar really listens, cares, and respects those around him,” said Zollinger. “He genuinely cares about everyone in our building, and I always feel seen.”

Staff Safety Award

Staff Safety Award recipient Pete Austin holds their award.

Pete Austin has worked on campus in the Department of Theatre and Music (MUTA) for 23 years, and in that time his first priority has always been to create a safe environment for staff and student employees. He spends hours training every student who works in the Scene Shop how to use each tool and piece of equipment, and he doesn’t allow anyone to use the equipment until he knows they can operate it safely and with respect.

Austin (Theatre Arts, ’95) encourages his students to take an active role to improve safety standards, priding himself on his shop’s safety record and the students’ abilities to assess potentially hazardous sceneries and make critical decisions themselves.

“Part of supervising these student employees is not just teaching them to operate the power tools needed to achieve these beautiful sets, but instilling in them essential safety practices, leadership skills, and problem-solving,” said administrative support coordinator Mary Bowman, formerly of Staff Council. “These compound into lifesaving critical thinking skills that every student uses from the moment they step into the shop.”

As an employee of the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, Austin operates in a wide range of venues, and his proactive commitment to safety can be seen through meticulous safety inspections of all spaces and equipment under his care. Whether replacing outdated safety chains, fixtures, and tools or catching overlooked slashes in a fire curtain, Austin’s understanding and adherence to University safety standards are unparalleled.

“I cannot praise him enough in the efforts and improvements he has made in the working lives of everyone in the Performing Arts Center,” said nominator Carmen Gomez, production manager for the School of the Arts. “He saves the lives of his student employees every day because he is there to train them how to work safely.”