Derek Parker completes his degree and starts a new program at Sac State

Derek Parker ’10 (Career and Technical Studies) had two problems. Sacramento State helped solve both.

First, he was running an adult education paramedic program at the Sacramento school district’s Old Marshall School, a program he had built up from a single EMT class, and the program couldn’t be accredited unless its director had a bachelor’s degree. So Parker, who had left Sonoma State years earlier before graduating, enrolled in Sacramento State’s Bachelor of Science in Career and Technical Studies (BSCTS) program, one of several degree completion programs run through the College of Continuing Education (CCE).

Then funding for the program suddenly dried up.

“I had put all this work into creating this paramedic program that I believed in,” said Parker, who is also the battalion chief for the Sacramento Fire Department’s Emergency Medical Services (EMS) division. “I’ve got students who are in the program. I’ve got a whole slew of students who want to get into the program. I can’t just let this thing go.”

He contacted Jill Matsueda, director of academic programs with CCE, to see what could be done. The college was receptive, the school district signed off on a transfer, and, in 2009, the CSU’s first and still only paramedic program was born.

“We went to Sac State first, and they jumped on it,” Parker said.

Today, the paramedic program has made a tremendous impact on the fire department where Parker works: He estimates around 20 percent of the department’s employees have gone through it.

Parker’s path to a degree, and a job as a battalion chief, has been a little circuitous. After graduating from Merced High School in 1994, he enrolled at Sonoma State and played football there until the university cut the program in 1996. When he left school and prepared to enter the workforce, his grandmother suggested firefighting.

The entry level position in the industry was as a firefighter/paramedic, so Parker went to paramedic school and got a job with a local ambulance company.

“It’s the closest thing I could find to sport competition. When you’re addressing a sick patient, you have a limited amount of time, so there’s a little bit of pressure,” he said. “Can I complete all these tasks in a short period of time for the betterment of the patient? That’s what drives me. Pushing myself. I’m competing against myself.”

As a battalion chief for the EMS division, Parker is responsible for all of the division’s day-to-day operations. That means overseeing the individuals who work on ambulances, handling EMT and paramedic certification, ensuring that ambulances and other vehicles are in good working condition, and managing the budget. He also still responds to fires, and spends much of his time during the summer on incident management teams working to contain the state’s now-prevalent wildfires.

In addition to the project management skills he uses regularly in his current job, the BSCTS program included students from a wide variety of career backgrounds, something Parker says gave him a broader perspective he continues to find useful. For example, meeting people in the culinary industry provided insight that can come in handy when responding to a grease fire or other emergency at a restaurant. Interacting with students from a law enforcement background allowed him to better understand their perspective on emergency situations.

“You always think your kingdom is the most important kingdom, and I realized that it’s a neighborhood, not a kingdom,” he said.

A photo of Derek Parker, in uniform, at a Sacramento fire station
Derek Parker earned his bachelor’s degree from Sacramento State while at the same time starting the University’s paramedic program. (Sacramento State/Jessica Vernone)

With the paramedic program, Parker has taught close to 500 paramedic students who since have found jobs at fire departments, ambulance companies, hospitals and other employers throughout California and beyond. Students in the program receive hands-on learning experiences in a variety of areas, including advanced training in life support and terrorism preparedness, and leave with 30 units of academic credit.

Students in the paramedic program consistently rank higher than the national average when taking the National Registry Exam, a cognitive test required for paramedic certification.

The University runs two cohorts of paramedic program students each academic year, with 40 students admitted to the fall 2018 cohort and another 40 admitted to the spring 2019 cohort. According to the latest data from CCE, 90 percent of paramedic students became licensed after completing the program, and nearly the same number were employed within six months of graduation.

“Derek saw the untapped potential for Sacramento State to offer a paramedic program,” Matsueda said. “Traditionally, these programs are offered at the community colleges and from private providers, but Derek saw the potential for a level of quality and professionalism that would come with the academic oversight of University faculty.”

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Henry Garcia embraces change and lands at Pixar

Why would Pixar hire a guy on track to become a physics professor to work on animated films? Let Sacramento State’s William DeGraffenreid explain.

“Henry and I decided to get together and watch a football game,” recalls DeGraffenreid, referring to his former student and current Pixar Animation Studios technical director Henry Garcia ’05 (Computer Science and Physics). “During commercials, he was telling me what he could about his work. I remember him asking me if I had seen Wall-E, and I said, ‘Yeah, it was a good movie,’ though it had come out before Henry had joined Pixar.”

Garcia mentioned a scene featuring a pile of garbage in which papers were fluttering randomly. In the real world, he pointed out, they would move in patterns. In Wall-E, they didn’t.

“He said, ‘But they do now,’ and he gave me a smile,” DeGraffenreid said. “He had already made a contribution to Pixar and contributed his knowledge.”

Garcia’s first project with Pixar, creating that realistic paper fluttering effect for Toy Story 3, was ultimately cut from the film. But since then, he has made his mark at the animation studio – and on some of the most beloved films of the past decade.

The rain in The Good Dinosaur? Garcia’s work. He helped a red hooded sweatshirt come to life in the short film Lou. He’s also worked on Up, Inside Out, Coco, and currently is the simulation supervisor for the highly anticipated Toy Story 4. And, in what he considers his favorite achievement, he helped create Merida’s iconic, curly red hair in Brave.

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Henry Garcia gives notes during a Toy Story 4 simulation review on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

“That was 18 months of my life dedicated to building that simulator, with the rest of my team,” Garcia said. “When I look back at that film and I look at her hair and how much it brought that character to life, there’s a lot of pride.”

It’s hardly what the Citrus Heights native envisioned when he transferred to Sacramento State in 2001 after a couple of years at Indiana University. He had followed his girlfriend halfway across the country, run low on money, and was unenthusiastic about having to return home and enroll at the local university.

“In hindsight, it was a huge blessing,” said Garcia, a first-generation college student. “What Sac State did for me was amazing, and I can’t say I would be at Pixar if it wasn’t for that.”

Having been fascinated by computers and graphics since playing video games in middle and high school, he enrolled at Sacramento State as a computer science major. Then, while taking the calculus-based physics courses required for that degree, he fell in love with physics and decided to double major, with the ultimate goal of obtaining his doctorate.

Two internships helped him get into the physics doctoral program at UC Berkeley – located less than four miles from Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters. The studio recruited at Berkeley, and Garcia was fortunate enough to land an interview.

There was just one issue: Despite his computer science background, he hadn’t touched a computer in almost three years.

“After the interview, the room kind of split in half a little bit,” he said. “Half were thinking, ‘What are we doing? We can’t hire this guy. He doesn’t know anything about computer graphics.’ And the other half was saying, ‘Yeah, but he’s so passionate, he’ll figure it out. Let’s give him a shot.’ And luckily, one of the people on the positive side was the head of Toy Story 3 at the time.”

Garcia landed a one-year residency, left Berkeley, and hasn’t looked back. As a technical director, he uses computer software to animate effects like fire and smoke as well as “simulations,” such as hair or clothing, generally handling between two to 10 shots per week (a full film has around 1,600 shots total). Once the work is ready, he takes it to his supervisor for feedback, and then ultimately the director for final approval.

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Henry Garcia works on Toy Story 4 on March 13 at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville. (Photo by Deborah Coleman/Pixar)

On Toy Story 4, Garcia has assumed a supervisory role, working with a team of about 13 to make sure the film comes in on time and on budget – and is up to Pixar’s high standards.

The work is relentlessly collaborative. For example, the Toy Story character Bo Peep wears a cloak. Technical directors like Garcia have to work with the animators to ensure that, when Bo Peep moves her arms, the cloak moves with them realistically.

That’s where Garcia draws upon his experience at Sacramento State, where he found small class sizes, engaged professors who put students first, and a highly supportive and collaborative environment he didn’t have at other schools he attended.

“That’s something I’ve taken with me,” he said. “I think part of my success at Pixar is because I have the skills to bring a team together and be a positive voice in the room, while also having good ideas. I attribute that to Sac State.”

DeGraffenreid, now a special assistant to Sacramento State President Robert S. Nelsen, remembers Garcia as incredibly talented academically while also bringing a sense of humor and caring to the Department of Physics. Garcia was heavily involved in the student physics club and spearheaded the group’s efforts to provide after-school science programming to local homeless K-12 students. And he has returned to campus several times to speak with Sacramento State students and share his knowledge and experience.

“Anytime I’ve asked, ‘Hey, we’ve got this opportunity, would you like to come to speak to our students and tell them your story,’ he’s ready to do it,” DeGraffenreid said. “As a Latino, he understands that he can serve as an example of what’s possible, and that by being present and showing himself as an example, he can inspire other Latinos as well, because unfortunately it remains a marginalized group in physics.”

Garcia – whose path has taken him from Sacramento to Indiana and back, from computer science to physics, from graduate school to a dream job at one of the world’s most famous movie studios – hopes current students will see him as an example of someone who wasn’t afraid to alter course when necessary.

“I’ve seen a lot of people get tripped up on being so focused on their plan that they’re not open to changes in that plan,” he said. “So as you’re progressing through your major, as you’re applying to internships, as you’re setting up and planning the rest of your life, recognize that there are a lot of twists and turns along the way, and be open and embrace them whenever they seem like a positive step.”

Journalism helps Melissa Dahl embrace awkwardness — and then write the book on it

Melissa Dahl ’07 (Journalism) didn’t necessarily go into journalism to break out of her childhood shyness, but when she’s working on stories such as what it’s like spending a week talking with strangers on the New York City subway – well, it certainly can’t hurt.

“I was a really shy kid,” Dahl said. “I recently read an essay about how having to go up and talk to people could make a difference. I read that and was like, I would love to be able to do that, because I was such a shy kid.”

Mission accomplished. Today, Dahl is the senior health and science editor at The Cut, a New York magazine section that focuses on human behavior and psychology. She’s also the author of the book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, which explores moments just like those that occur when a stranger approaches you on the subway. The book was published in February 2018, and Dahl returned to Sacramento State in the fall to speak about it.

Prior to working at New York, Dahl was a health writer and editor with MSNBC. She also worked at the Sacramento Bee and the Lodi News-Sentinel while attending Sacramento State, and was a member of the State Hornet student newspaper staff.

“At the Sacramento Bee, another writer gave me some advice: Find your niche. Find something you do better than anyone else,” Dahl said, adding that her focus at both The State Hornet and the Bee was feature writing. “I always was drawn toward stories about behavior, about why people do the things they do.”

When she became interested the concept of awkwardness, however, she was surprised to discover that very little research had actually been done on the topic.

“What I’ve always loved about this job is this idea that most questions I have about human behavior, I can just look in the literature and find stacks of papers on it,” Dahl said. “But these questions about, why do these things make me cringe, why does this make me feel awkward, what does that mean, what does that say about me, what does it say about other people and how other people are perceiving me – I could find satisfying answers to those.”

Dahl spent two years researching for the book, including meeting with neuroscientists in Germany. The “theory of awkwardness” referenced in the title, Dahl says, is that so-called awkward moments “illuminate the fact that there’s a difference between the way you think you’re presenting yourself to the world and the way other people are actually seeing you.”

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Sacramento State alum and New York magazine editor Melissa Dahl speaks on campus about her book, Cringeworthy, in October 2018. (Sacramento State/Andrea Price)

Although it’s not unusual to hear someone – particularly a teenager or young adult – self-effacingly refer to themselves as “awkward,” Dahl’s book focuses on awkwardness not as a characteristic but instead as a feeling.

Consider Michael Scott, the bumbling boss on The Office portrayed by Steve Carell. Despite his constant inappropriate comments or actions, Dahl says, Scott never feels weird or self-conscious about what he has said or done. The awkwardness is how those words and actions make the people around him feel.

“I think we use the word as a stand-in for self-consciousness or social anxiety,” Dahl said. “I feel awkward all the time, but I don’t think I’m a particularly awkward person. I hope not.”

After moving frequently as a child, Dahl’s family settled in Sacramento when she was in high school. When it came time to apply for college, she chose Sacramento State in part because she wanted to remain in the area and in part because of the strength of its journalism program.

Joining The State Hornet her freshman year, she says, “changed everything for me.” It allowed her to put into practice all of the concepts she was learning in the classroom. It provided a collaborative environment in which she could grow and gain new skills. And it’s where she met people she still considers some of her closest friends.

The State Hornet, combined with her work at the Bee and the News-Sentinel, also provided her with the practical experience needed to succeed as a professional journalist.

“When I graduated, I already felt like, ‘I know how to do this,’ ” Dahl said. “I was 22 and I had worked in two newsrooms at that point. Right out of the gate, I felt like, ‘Oh, I got this.’”

For Sacramento State students aspiring to be journalists, joining The State Hornet is “mandatory,” Dahl said, and a way to not only learn about what you want to do but to actually start doing it.

“This is the place to make mistakes and try different things and hopefully, by the time you’ve graduated, you’ll have some experience under your belt.”