Listening to Tammy Nohren explain the logic behind her ever-changing, self-created, multilayered office-organizing system, one quickly senses she's right at home working in the College of Engineering.
Think da Vinci meets email.
Nohren, an administrative assistant who has helped coordinate the functions of the dean's office for more than five years, serves as the main conduit for administrators, the college's 10 academic departments and four research units, university administration and nearly 400 faculty and staff members.
"Everyone wants to see the dean," she said. "I could interact with just about any employee at any level on any given day. Any miscellaneous questions come to me and I have to make a decision on how to proceed."
To keep track of it all, she has become a master of prioritization.
"I pride myself on being organized and as efficient as possible; everyone knows they can come in here and I can locate most of the materials they're looking for. I have things in (non-virtual) files, but I'm very electronic and use the email system to categorize and flag a lot, and it works pretty well.
But, just when someone thinks they have figured out Nohren's systematic Mona Lisa, she becomes bored with it and, with a stroke of the brush (rather, the click of her keyboard), she re-categorizes everything all over again - and usually with a completely different color code.
She chooses from a plentiful email markup palette that most can only aspire to.
"I get made fun of for it," she said.
Her penchant for organization and near-encyclopedia memory of campus contacts has earned her the nickname Rain Man from office co-workers, whom she calls "the best staff I have ever worked with."
"These are people who work hard and who want to be a part of being ranked one of the top engineering programs in the United States and worldwide," she said. "They are proud to be a part of this college. There's a lot of pressure, stress and volume, but there is always someone here who can provide a positive spin on any issue, no matter how daunting it looks. It's a breath of fresh air when everyone works well together. That's really hard to find."
Nohren, who in January will have been at the university for 17 years, started her career here as an entry-level secretary for Government Relations. She spent eight years at the U. of I. Foundation and a year in the Office of the Chancellor before settling comfortably in the engineering dean's office.
"I've worked in some really good offices with some great people who have given me the opportunity to grow," she said. "I've worked my way up, but have never looked for another job. Someone has always called me with an opening and I've had to think hard every time I moved because I've enjoyed everything I've done here."
But there's little doubt the College of Engineering has become home.
"This is the greatest position I've ever been in," she said. "It's also the most challenging."
Nohren's varied experience has given her that elusive institutional knowledge -something that has proven to be invaluable in her work for the dean.
"Over time you become more knowledgeable of the different colleges and their staffs, and that information is a very useful tool," she said. "In a typical day, this office interacts with people from all over campus. It's amazing how many connections we have; I like being that extra voice that gets things where they need to go."
Nohren has been married to Grant, who works for the university as a financial reporting coordinator, for 13 years. She said she enjoys being a mom to an 11-year-old son, Logan, and twin 27-year-old stepsons, Matthew and Tyler.
She said sports dominate family life, from watching Illini football and basketball to participating in activities themselves. Grant has been an Illinois High School Association referee for 30 years. Logan plays baseball, basketball and football in school and the twins are athletic trainers in the Chicago area.
"We love going to all of Logan's sporting events and we love rooting for the Illini," she said.
Nohren said her ideal vacation involves more relaxation than athletic activity and that the family likes to travel to the Florida Gulf Coast when they want time away.
"We love to travel," she said, "and any location with a beach or a pool makes me happy."