On a sprawling campus like UC Irvine, staff members can spend years cleaning dormitories, tending to landscaping and performing other key jobs without ever venturing outside their work areas. As a woman employed by Student Housing put it: “I’ve been here 10 years, and I still haven’t seen an anteater.”

“These are the invisible workers of UCI,” says Prany Sananikone, director of diversity relations & educational programs. “We wanted to recognize and reward them.”

Realizing that these staff members knew little about the university’s ranch-land roots or important research discoveries, he and other administrators recently created a new program called Understanding Your Campus from the Inside: Orientation & Professional Training.

“UCI is decentralized. This is a way for staff to reconnect to the core of the campus,” says Patricia Bras, associate landscape planner with Campus & Environmental Planning, who helped develop the program with Sananikone and Lucinda Kessler with the research development office.

“We want to make them feel more visible — like they’re part of the university community and they’re appreciated,” Bras says. “And we want to show them parts of the campus they haven’t seen.”

The eight-week program will be offered to groups from different departments — primarily housing, hospitality & dining, and facilities management — and employees will receive paid time off from their usual duties to attend each 1½-hour session along with a certificate of recognition after they complete the course.

On a January afternoon, the inaugural class of 30 Student Housing workers attended an “informal personal journey” by Liz Toomey, assistant vice chancellor for community & government relations and daughter of UCI’s founding chancellor, Daniel G. Aldrich.

“In December 1961, my dad brought his three kids here from our home in Berkeley,” she told the group, pointing to a photo of an old ranch house surrounded by barren land. “He stood there and said, ‘Hey, can you see it?’ I looked at my two brothers, and they looked at me, and we thought, ‘Hell, no!’ He saw something we didn’t: a robust, energetic campus for the University of California.”

Along with Toomey’s talk, the sessions included a discussion of student culture by  Rameen Talesh, assistant vice chancellor of student affairs; an overview of campus security issues by UCI Police Chief Paul Henisey (“Staff are the eyes and ears of the police department,” Sananikone says); a talk on ergonomics and safety on the job by Belinda Manalac and Jesse Wallace, Environmental Health & Safety specialists; and a campus tour led by Richard Demerjian, director of Campus & Environmental Planning.

During the last session, Bras says, “we took them to Ring Mall and asked them to spot the largest anteater on campus. They looked around but couldn’t find it. It turns out they were standing on it — it’s the anteater mosaic in Gateway Plaza that was designed by Gregory Jue, associate director of Campus & Environmental Planning.”

Leonel Castañeda, a senior building maintenance employee at Mesa Court housing, has worked on campus for 18 years; he says the program’s teaching him a lot about UCI.

“Many of us come here at 7 a.m., work all day and leave at 3:30 p.m., and we don’t know anything about the place,” Castañeda says.

“This is something we’ve needed for a long time. Now I feel like part of the university.”

The curriculum for the Understanding Your Campus from the Inside program will be tailored to staff interests and departments. Toomey, for instance, had a special message for her class, which included several landscapers.

“My dad loved landscaping; he loved dirt. His academic background was in soil chemistry, so landscape was as important to him as the buildings,” she told them. “Every single one of you would have been important to him. You make UCI a world-renowned institution every day you come to work here.”