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Natalie Dorrell, former Director of Public Relations and Institutional Advancement at Cerro Coso Community College, holds an award she received for her 40 years of service. / Laura Austin Photo

Dorrell retires from Cerro Coso after 40-year service

By Laura Quezada News Review Staff Writer–  On December 30, 2020, Burroughs graduate Natalie Dorrell retired from her position as Director of Public Relations and Institutional Advancement at Cerro Coso Community College (CCCC).  “It’s really kind of with a heavy heart that I retire but there comes a point when it’s time to turn things over to the next generation and new ways of doing things.” 

 In a career that spans 40 years, there is a lot to talk about. We talked about the highs and the lows, the many hats she wore, the biggest changes, her greatest satisfaction, the greatest challenge, and what is next.

   The one thing she wants us to hear is,  “Make Cerro Coso College your college of first choice.” Not everybody wants to earn a 4-year degree but there are other benefits to courses offered at the college. “ Whether it’s job skills, improving your job, wanting a promotion.” Many job opportunities only require a certificate, and you can earn those at Cerro Coso.

Dorrell tells us of the many hats she has worn saying, “ I had to apply and compete for every job promotion I ever got.” And she had a few. The story of her different positions also ties together with the biggest change on campus – technology. “ I actually started working at Cerro Coso in March 1982 as a temp employee for a woman who was sick. I was a Clerk Typist. We didn’t have computers on desks in those days, the only place that had computers on campus was in a very small computer lab and that was it. The rest of us all typed on Selectric typewriters. They also had memory typewriters that would store 50 documents. There were only two of them on campus.  Everything has changed from light tables for graphic design to everything being done by computer today. 

“That’s probably the biggest change I have witnessed over the years, the advent of technology and how it has taken over. We don’t need file cabinets anymore because everything is saved on a file in a cloud or a server somewhere. I remember we had those big printers. That’s how we did our budgets. Now we use fancy software for those kinds of programs.

   “When I first started there was just one building. We used to operate out of trailers. And when we did class schedules, it was all hands on deck. It didn’t matter whose job or what you did. Everybody, including the president of the college, was out there stapling, collating, and folding class schedules to be sent out to everybody. For registration, it was lines and lines and lines. To get their financial aid checks there would be lines in the hallway all the way back into the student center. With technology now all that’s just automatically deposited in their accounts. They don’t even come to the college to do that anymore. You register online. You don’t have to stand in line and register and that’s where technology has improved things a lot for everybody. 

   “And I will say that because of our association with the Naval Base, CCCC has been cutting edge for many years. Including in the online world. CCCC  was one of the first colleges to offer an entire degree online. I remember back in 1997, even Bill Gates said at a conference that we were cutting edge. I remember when we offered our first online classes, and today, it makes up more than 50% of our enrollment. It is amazing. The things that we can do today.”

   Back to those hats.  “I started out as a Clerk Typist. Then I was taking college classes and raised a family and working full-time as the Coordinator of Information Development and Alumni Relations. I had just finished my bachelor’s degree and a position opened up in the bookstore for a Bookstore Manager. It really gave me an opportunity to use the skill set obtained earning a degree in business administration.” She stayed in that position for 15 years. “When I worked in the bookstore, I’d send books to Taiwan, and England, right after some of the major earthquakes, we would be trying to get books to students and the Philippines. We have students from all over the world. And mostly it’s because they are military students.”

   She enjoyed the work, however, “I’d always said when I was in the bookstore if they ever charged $300 for a book, ‘I’m out of here. I’m not doing that.’ We had a four-semester physics book that came in at $300. Then the district decided to outsource. That’s when Barnes and Noble came in.”

   Joann Clark, the woman who hired her and became a lifelong friend, retired. Dorrell applied for and accepted the position of  Director of Public Relations and Institutional Advancement. “That included the CCCC Foundation and all of the work of the Foundation that raises funds for scholarships and college programs and facilities. I served on the Foundation board for many years.”

   Even as an administrator, Dorrell was able to get to know students.  Her work with the Foundation put her in the classroom. “ I would go into classrooms and talk about scholarships and the Promise Program.” She explains, “The Promise Program is for full-time students. They get $1,000 a semester for four semesters which is two years. $1,000 cash to help pay for tuition and books and it has nothing to do with income, just full-time on a path to completion. You have a goal and you’re heading toward that goal.

   “I was at all of their award ceremonies. I was at all of their graduations. I was at all of their activities. As the photographer, I was right there with them a lot. I didn’t work with them as much as I wanted to but I got to know them.

“My favorite part about working at the college is definitely celebrating the successes of the students. I’ve seen students or young people walk through our doors who had no idea what they wanted to do and no idea what they were interested in or what they would be good at.  I could watch them find their passion for life in their career choices. They walk out as police officers, nurses, whatever it is, and they find their life passion. It’s wonderful to see and be a part of that.”

Dorrell went through tough times along with all of CCCC. “ I will tell you the most troubling situation I’ve been through with the college has been COVID. With everybody so isolated and working from home, it was hard to keep the focus on what our mission was. We weren’t seeing the students. We weren’t getting that personal touch.  It was hard to stay connected. And it was hard to stay focused. It was hard to stay and realize that you still make a difference. You still make an impact even though you don’t see it because we’re not together. And that is probably the worst time I have been through in my 40 years, and I’ve been through some things. 

“I’ve been through asbestos abatement where we all got kicked out of buildings and had to work out of trailers. We were supposed to be there for a year, I think, and we were there for almost three years.  I’ve been through construction, but the absolute worst was the pandemic.

“Even the clubs are suffering because people don’t just want to come; they don’t want to stick around because they fear the COVID thing, and you know, we’re getting around that. We’re getting around all of that.

   “I think that’s probably true for many places. Bringing everybody back was a challenge, and getting them all back. But, man, once we were back, it was great. That’s probably the biggest challenge to the college right now – getting people back to normal. And they’re doing it and doing a good job because enrollment is up.

“It has changed the way we operate a bit, so instead of giving us desktops, they are giving everybody laptops so that if you get COVID or get sick, you can work from home. Because you take your computer with you.” She clarifies that sick folks are not expected to work, but if they are one of the lucky folks whose symptoms are mild, they may prefer to keep working. “We’ve learned how to adapt and be a little more flexible and make changes.”

   What is next for Dorrell? She wants to stay involved with CCCC as this year is the 50th anniversary of the college, and she plans to participate. There is talk of leaving the area, but her husband still needs to be retired.  “I have the grandkids to consider. I’m not going anywhere till they don’t need me anymore or they’re willing to go with us. The politics and taxes of California are just getting overwhelming. And so we’ll see what happens in the last part of our lives, but we have no plans to do anything right now.”

    On Friday, February 10, she was among the staff who were presented with a commemorative plaque during the Annual All Staff Convening. Her plaque honored her 40 years of service.  This meeting brings staff members from all of the CCCC campuses. “It’s an annual event, but we haven’t had it for many years because of COVID. This is the first one we’ve had with Dr. Hancock; it was nice for him to get to do that. One year we drove to Bishop and had the convening. We all took buses of staff up to the Bishop campus.”

   In parting, she tells us, “I want to be remembered as a strong woman of faith, with a servant’s heart, blessed with an amazing life in Ridgecrest and career at the college.  I have so much respect for this community and the people who work hard at making it the wonderful place to live it is. Many don’t recognize how much work goes into making Ridgecrest great. We may be small but close, friendly, caring, and resilient. We have so much to offer, and I have been incredibly honored to be allowed to be a part of it all.”