Room 103 of the Novatney building at University of Alaska Southeast is nicknamed "the dungeon" because it doesn't have windows. But the mood is far from dark as laughter erupts from behind a partition in the corner, where Administrative Assistant Karen Cummins sits.
"We converse through the wall," said Administrative Clerk Veronica Shaffer, whose desk is at the front reception area in the office. "She surprises me sometimes because she'll sneak out without my knowing. I'll talk to her but no one will be there."
Cummins joined the UAS staff in August 1984 as a receptionist in the chancellor's office. In 1988, she became administrative assistant to Dean Sharon Cook in the School of Business and Public Administration.
Cummins has been in that position ever since, arranging class schedules, completing faculty book orders, and serving as support staff for the Teaching, Learning and Technology Roundtable, a group that decides how to use the student technology fee.
Many Juneau residents know her from their years as students or staff at UAS.
"It seems like no matter where I go or who I see, people see me and think of the university," Cummins said with a laugh. "Maybe I'm an institution within an institution."
In the 18 years she has worked for UAS, Cummins has seen many changes. The university during her early years was called the University of Alaska Juneau, and it had its own basketball team, the Humpback Whales.
"They were a lot of fun to watch and pretty good, too," she said.
Over time, Cummins completed her own education, graduating in 1999 with an associate of arts degree.
"Never in a million years did I think I would ever have a college degree," Cummins said. "But when you work here it's kind of hard not to get involved with so many interesting courses."
Although UAS still offers courses in business and public administration, the School of Business and Public Administration is now called the Novatney Support Center. Assistant Dean of Faculty Shirley Grubb said it provides administrative and clerical support for some of the faculty.
Grubb said Cummins' disposition and work ethic are vital to keeping students and faculty happy.
"The most valuable thing Karen brings to the job is her can-do attitude," Grubb said. "Sometimes the work all hits at the same time, but instead of getting caught up in what all needs to be done, she prioritizes and does the work."
Cummins also is a link between faculty and students enrolled in UAS's distance education program.
People throughout the state and even the nation can attend classes via satellite, computer, mail, CD-ROMs, videotapes and audio conferences. Students can tune in to the university's cable channel, AK3, and watch their instructor broadcasted live from UAS. The program serves 38 towns and villages throughout Alaska and the Yukon.
Site coordinators call Cummins when they need help or need to be directed to someone on campus. Distance students frequently call her for information or to be connected to their instructors.
Jonathan Anderson, coordinator of the Master of Public Administration Program, teaches courses via satellite and believes Cummins is the hub of the wheel that is distance education.
"Karen is essential to the MPA program and the university because she holds all the administrative pieces together," Anderson said.
"She acts as the central coordination point for all AK3 distance delivery courses. Her enthusiasm and dedication help hold together the strings of this widely scattered program. She is just invaluable."
Cummins also works in the community. She organizes a UAS bowling team for the Bowling for Kids Sake event every year, and started the Glory Hole Holiday Donation Drive shortly after starting at UAS.
The donations increase dramatically each year, she said.
"This past year, UAS Student Government joined in our efforts and we broke all records," she said. "We had the university van filled, plus two cars."
There are frequently tears and smiles at the Glory Hole, the downtown homeless shelter and dining hall, for the university volunteers, she said.
"One experience I will never forget is a few years ago a lady pulled me aside, held my hand and said, 'Thank you and God bless, my child,' " Cummins said.
"That is what makes it all worthwhile. I don't get any extra pay or anything for this. This is not in my job description. This is something you cannot put a price on."
Emily Wescott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.