It is to any University of San Diego community member’s benefit to find a reason to call or to visit the Office of the Registrar to speak with Administrative Assistant Maria Estrada.
Just read an excerpt from the anonymous person who praised Estrada, a USD employee since 1987, in a nomination letter for the 2011 USD Women of Impact Award in the staff/administrator category to know why:
“For the past 10 years, Maria has been the face of the Office of the Registrar. She’s the person who greets students, parents and faculty who are coming in or calling or emailing with problems to be solved and anxieties to be allayed. If you call Maria on the phone, you hear her friendly voice and can just imagine her big smile while she helps you. The combination of her sweet disposition, knowledge and compassionate service helps all. She conveys to students and parents that USD is an institution where concern for the individual is not a slogan, but a practice.”
Estrada, chosen for the award at the Dec. 9 annual luncheon hosted by the USD Women’s Center, is a model employee. Estrada, who began at USD as a temporary employee in Facilities Management’s General Services Department, is a study in positivity, hard work, loyalty, dedication to others and, best of all, perseverance.
She spent the majority of her time at USD performing custodial, housekeeping and other chores in residence halls, Camino and Founders halls and the Manchester Family Child Development Center, working days and, for a time, night shifts, keeping her assigned buildings clean.
“I’d be on one of those little golf carts, going around the whole campus to pick up papers and to keep the campus beautiful with no trash,” she said.
The personable smile, cheerful attitude and loyal work ethic remained, even when a series of personal life events — divorce, a personal battle with breast cancer that required multiple surgeries and her adult son’s current third battle with cancer — could have sent many others into a tailspin.
“I thought it amazing that she maintained her upbeat outlook on the world at a time when I imagined it would be hard for me and others to do so,” said the anonymous Woman of Impact award nominator. “Maria, with her generous heart and spirit, is always there to offer support to others who face difficulties. She is that rare person whose presence among us helps us all to be better at what we do.”
A divorce from her husband and with three children between the ages of 9-15 was an initial setback, but Estrada’s determination to improve her education status quickly filled the void.
“When I was married I never had time to go to school and I didn’t speak much English,” she said. “When I got divorced, I told myself, ‘now is the time for me to go to school and learn. I told my kids this and I told the oldest that I needed him to watch the girls when I was at school.”
Estrada worked a morning shift at USD, spent time after it on homework, take the trolley home and go to adult school at night. She’d get a short break at 8:30 p.m. to call her son, Jesus, to check in. “When I called him, I’d ask if he took care of everything and he’d say ‘yes.’ For me this was very important because it helped me relax and concentrate in class. I took computer classes and English grammar.”
It wasn’t long after this that women in the Registrar’s office became aware of Estrada’s academic work, which, in addition to her already strong work ethic and positive attitude, seemed a good fit for an administrative assistant opening.
“They’d heard I was taking classes. I was trying to prepare myself because I didn’t want to be in my fifties and continue doing this hard (custodial) work. I wanted something better,” she said. “They said I should apply and they encouraged me. ‘We know you can do it,’ they said.”
She applied and interviewed. Nervous at first, she quickly got comfortable because she knew the people who were conducting the interview. She got the job. The transition from General Services work to working behind a desk means a lot to Estrada. She said several colleagues in General Services expressed not only happiness for what she’s accomplished, but it also serves as a visible motivator for them, too.
“I always tell Sue (Bugbee), my boss, that she changed my life for giving me this opportunity,” Estrada said. “Working with the students gives me a lot of satisfaction knowing that when they feel lost, they can come to me for help. They’re like my children. I want them all to do the right thing and that’s how I guide them in person or on the phone.”
— Ryan T. Blystone