By Irene Hannagan
"A live person answering helps people feel better. They feel like they can see and communicate better," said Scott Bradley, director of telecommunications. USU is an institution created for students and is here to help them, he added.
Switchboard operators are employed by the university and are provided a good environment and job. Where do they work? Not anywhere students will know or find out soon. For safety reasons the placement of operators is not made public. There have been problems in the past and we like our employees to feel safe, said Bradley.
"Our charter at Utah State is based on students and for students," Bradley said. "At the switchboard, operators can study in between calls. It's a student-friendly workplace."
A workplace that has provided careers for many of its former callers. Amy Kitchen, switchboard supervisor, graduated from USU in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in family and human development. She worked a few years at the switchboard and upon graduation Bradley recognized her hard work and wanted her to stay on board.
"For some it is a career path," he said.
For others, such as operator Melina Tew, a senior majoring in international studies, it's a job for the final year of college. She started in August after her sister had worked there for four years.
"It's a great job," she said. "They work around my schedule and my classes."
As a student employment opportunity, Kitchen does post the openings but it's so popular the cards stay up for only a few hours. Most find the job through personal connections.
"My sister worked here for a long, long time," said Tew.
The switchboard can only work each employee 20 hours a week. They are open from 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Friday, Saturdays 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 7 p.m. When classes are not in session the switchboard still is. University holidays don't always mean a day off for callers.
"During Christmas break we're only off for the 24th, 25th, 31st and 1st," said Kitchen.
Just because the university is not holding classes doesn't mean people don't need to know who they can talk to about tuition, fees and registration.
"I've walked kids around campus before on the phone," said Tew. "Turn right here, 'k, turn left here, 'k, you should be looking at the building now."
The questions and services requested by callers are sometimes rude, often hysterically funny but most of the time easy to deal with. Madsen had a unique and rewarding experience just last week on a call.
"He told me where he wanted me to direct his call, and I said hold on a minute, and then he shouted, 'I love this number!'" she said.
Most people have no idea what goes on at the switchboard or how it all works. The eight females currently employed come in for their shifts and sit in a room locked to the outside, with two, state of the art Dell computer screens. The room is silent other than the polite "Utah State?"'s they say every few seconds. Each call is answered and connected within a few seconds. A separate directory holds numbers, names and addresses for departments and faculty.
"We use the computers but I have a lot of them memorized now," Tew said.
Numbers are updated daily, along with department name changes. Questions range from what time is it, to what the weather is like outside. Madsen laughed when she started to tell about one woman who called asking for information about the social life of USU for her incoming freshman.
"She kept saying, 'I don't want him to party too much or live in a party atmosphere', but I didn't know what to say. I tried to help her out," she said.
Operators are trained to be professional and courteous at all times. Pet peeves and favorite calls alike, the operators understand people have questions and need somewhere to get them answered.
"We are the first point of contact for the university," said Kitchen.
Tew's pet peeve is explaining to callers USU phones are based on a network. When someone calls from Old Main and they don't leave a message, the number on the caller ID is the same as if someone had called from the Education Building, 797-1000.
"When I pick up the call and they say, 'Hi, you called me?' It just gets difficult sometimes to explain that it wasn't the operator but someone else." She added, "Sometimes I just want to pretend to be Jill or whoever and say yes, I called you, how are you doing?"
Although callers can be sometimes ignorant, and operators a little frustrated, that is the purpose for the switchboard and one of the reasons Bradley does not plan on ever changing to a voice-activated program.
"I called one university in the state with voice activation and asked for the telecommunications department," he said. "It responded by asking me if I wanted to buy alcohol."
Most rude and annoyed callers are frustrated with the voice messages they reach in each department -- press 1 for this person, 2 for this person -- and they press zero immediately to talk with a real person. Operators at the switchboard are the zeroes they press.
"People are already frustrated with the directories for each department," said Bradley. "Do you think they'd be any happier if they reached a machine first?"
Madsen and Tew have both worked at the switchboard for a short time but grown accustomed to callers who are a little frustrated.
"My pet peeve is when people say um a lot. They're slower and they don't know what they want," said Madsen.
She loves being there to help but when the phones are busy and people aren't quick with their requests she gets a little nerve-wracked.
"There's only two operators working at one time," said Kitchen.
Switchboards are at most universities and networked numbers but USU's continues to run and change with the times. Operators make up a key part of USU's community. They direct calls, find addresses and tell callers where they can get more information. Kitchen is proud of the work her operators do for USU. She knows the important role they play for USU's student body and the public. Although they are not plugging the calls, like in 1920, they are still human and grateful to be a help to students like themselves.
"If I could tell students anything," Kitchen said. "It's that [we] don't know everything but [we] can find someone who does."