Merced College employees learning to ‘Reset, Reconnect, Renew’
By LUCIANA CHAVEZ
Merced College News
Almost everyone on the planet, to avoid the coronavirus, spent two years learning to avoid other humans. Running into that protective wall over and over kept people healthy, but it also created a kind of stress or tension that robbed people of their joy.
When the Merced College team returned to in-person work in 2022-23, the residual effects of pandemic isolation could still be felt. So Merced College President Chris Vitelli dedicated this academic year helping employees “Reset, Reconnect, Renew,” outlining the year’s theme in his annual Convocation address in August.
While Vitelli studied employee engagement for his doctorate, the theoretical took a sharp turn towards the practical during the pandemic. First, he made himself available to anyone who needed to talk back in 2020. He encouraged his leadership team to do the same, and to be flexible with employees as they adjusted to remote work.
That focus on people and relationships has become more tangible this year. Monthly “Fri-Yay!” events kicked off in September. Employees have started their own clubs. There are workshops on topics like the science of happiness and the power of gratitude.
“Research says that happy employees have higher engagement at work,” said Professor Jonae Pistoresi, who oversees Merced College’s Well-Being Institute and has been studying that connection for three decades. “But also that employees with the highest engagement are the happiest.”
Gently pushing employees toward both is the priority.
“We had to wait two years to be amongst each other,” Los Banos Campus Dean of Instruction Jessica Moran said. “We were stuck in ways we could not have imagined. All these events we’re having now have been so well received because of that.”
Fri-Yays happen monthly, as the campus does a soft close on a Friday afternoon so employees can take a break and enjoy each other’s company.
“When we started the semester, it was so wonderful to see our students on campus,” Moran said. “But we were all so busy that we didn’t have even a moment to say to a colleague, ‘Hey nice to see you.’… Fri-Yay is a time for us to do that.”
The September Fri-Yay began with a noon potluck for 150 people in Merced and most of the 75 employees in Los Banos. They played “get to know you” bingo and a competitive game of local trivia.
In Los Banos, the first Fri-Yay was the perfect opportunity to flood the room with sunflowers to honor the life of instructional support technician Pam Gomes, who died in November 2021. Gomes loved sunflowers.
“We’re getting to know one another again,” Moran said. “And once we got together, we were talking about life. It was time to be human.”
New employee clubs also kicked off in September. Tables with signup sheets were set up in the Merced College cafeteria. In Los Banos, employees gave short presentations about their clubs.
There’s the “Desk to 5K” Running Club, the Weightlifting Club, the Dog Club, the Table Tennis Club, the Book Club, the Walking Club-Los Banos, the Hiking Club, the Board Game Club, the Yoga Club, the Crafting Club, the “What You See Is What You Get” (WYSIWYG) Club and the Gardening Club-Los Banos, which will grow sunflowers as a memorial to Gomes.
Rachel Gray, an Outreach & Inreach Specialist who specializes in photography, crocheting, and pen work, leads the crafting club in Merced.
“I felt like crafting would be simple and therapeutic,” she said. “I feel in my gut we’ll get a lot out of the clubs themselves.”
Crafting club members shared photos of their recent work during the club’s October meeting. They decided to gather at a club member’s home to make giant paper flowers in early November.
“Someone will host in the evening or on a weekend,” Gray said of future meetings. “We’ll see each other’s faces. Maybe we can develop deeper friendships.”
The college also offered an Orange Frog Workshop on September 20-21. The workshop breaks down how “happy workers are productive workers,” the premise behind bestselling author Shawn Achor’s book “The Happiness Advantage.”
The takeaway for Francisco Tostado, Merced College Director of EOPS, CARE, NextUp, and CalWORKs, was realizing that expressing gratitude and celebrating small wins can make a big difference.
“We’ve been pushing this semester to bring in 1,000 new people into the EOPS program, and we brought in 1,025,” Tostado said. “I thanked our people at a weekly meeting, but then realized we were making progress at 600, 700 — we never celebrated those milestones. Now we’re talking about our progress at every meeting. We’re better at sharing gratitude. We’re changing mindsets.”
Pistoresi presented a workshop on the science of happiness during the second Fri-Yay on October 14 and will be presenting a workshop on gratitude at an upcoming event. (Both workshops are also offered to the public through either Merced College’s Well-Being Institute.)
In the workshop, Pistoresi had participants find photos that brought them joy, and then share the stories behind those photos with three different partners. Afterwards, everyone said they felt lighter and happier. That small intentional effort generated more contentment.
“When we are happier, we are healthier,” Pistoresi said. “Research says that 50% of happiness comes from genetics, 10 percent comes from life circumstances, and 40% comes from acting intentionally to be happier. We can choose to be happy.”
As the academic year continues, the college will focus on promoting employee engagement and happiness by creating space for more meaningful interactions.
“It’s hugely important to break down those silos,” Gray said. “We found out how easy it is to be reclusive. This initiative is a great beacon of light for us.”