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‘One of a kind’: Allen School administrator extraordinaire Jennifer Worrell receives College of Engineering Professional Staff Award

Portrait of Jennifer Worrell wearing a black and tan patterned shirt with a black scarf around her neck and draped over one shoulder, smiling and leaning with her arms folded against a concrete wall inside the Gates Center atrium. The atrium is softly lit, with black and metal railings of two floors of the building visible behind her.

“There is not one area of the school that she does not touch in some way.”

“She” is Jennifer Worrell, the Allen School’s director of finance and administration. And that observation was made by a colleague advancing her successful nomination for a 2023 Professional Staff Award from the University of Washington College of Engineering. Each year, the College of Engineering Awards honor faculty, research and teaching assistants, and staff like Worrell whose extraordinary contributions benefit the college community.

Now approaching two decades of service at the Allen School, Worrell started out as an office manager and moved into successively more complex roles — event coordinator, grants manager, lead grants manager — before stepping into her current position in 2017. In highlighting her achievements since taking over as the school’s first new DFA in more than 30 years, the College noted that Worrell’s “combination of warmth and organizational know-how contributes to a culture that benefits her team and the Allen School as a whole.” 

That combination makes Worrell so effective at her job, some in the school are convinced that she possesses special powers. 

“Jen is like the great and powerful Oz,” said Kellus Stone, operations analyst at the Allen School and author of the aforementioned letter. “She’s the woman behind the curtain who makes sure everything runs smoothly as folks go about their business without giving a second thought as to how it all works.”

“How it all works” has only become more complex in recent years owing to the roll-out of new systems for managing everything from payroll to print jobs that coincided with a period of rapid growth. That growth has led to the school doubling its degree production, doubling its physical space, and surpassing $75 million in yearly expenditures — with roughly half going toward research.

“Jen has been a key contributor to the Allen School’s success and why it is thriving and growing,” said Megan Russell, assistant director of human resources. “Any time there is a need for someone to fill a gap, Jen raises her hand and says, ‘I’ll do it.’ When an employee says they’re overwhelmed, she responds with, ‘What can I do to help?’ 

“She will never take any credit for it, but she deserves it,” Russell continued. “We are all better for her presence here.”

Despite her can-do attitude and willingness to fill any gap, Worrell would have been forgiven for questioning her presence here after enduring a trial by fire immediately upon ascending to her position. When she took the reins of the school’s Business Office, her first task was to implement and train her team on a new online payroll system, Workday, that was being rolled out across the University. If that wasn’t sufficiently daunting, her second task was to fill two open positions responsible for entering Allen School payroll into this same system after the incumbents left shortly after the big roll-out.

There were times, in those early days, that Worrell wasn’t sure how she would make it past lunch, let alone to the end of the day. But make it she did, repeatedly rising to the occasion while overseeing not only the Business Office, but also Research Administration and Human Resources. Two more teams, Facilities & Operations and Events, would be added to her portfolio later. Each time she was called upon for advice or assistance in response to a crisis, she would answer with a genuine smile on her face — and a genuine concern for the wellbeing of her colleagues.

“Jen leads the entire business administration team, and yet when I have meetings with her, she is fully present and engaged, offering helpful solutions and encouragement,” said Amber Cochran, assistant director of events for the Allen School. “She has the ability to make each staff member feel seen and valued.”

She also leads by example as the de facto head of the Staff Executive Committee, a group that comprises staff directors and assistant directors responsible for various functions that make up the administrative and operational side of the school. This group, which encompasses not only Worrell’s functional teams but also Undergraduate Student Services, Graduate Student Services, Technical Support, External Relations and Communications, engages in high-level organizational planning and develops unified policies and procedures along with consistent messaging across the entire school.

The role is challenging enough on a good day; it reached a whole new level when COVID-induced remote working scattered those directors, assistant directors and their teams across the region — and sometimes even farther afield. And yet, Worrell worked with her colleagues to quickly adapt, taking steps to ensure staff maintained a sense of connection and had the resources they needed remain both agile and resilient in the face of uncertainty.

“Jen is the linchpin — she is the central pillar of our school,” said Magdalena Balazinska, professor and director of the Allen School. “She has very deep expertise and can answer any question on almost any topic. We couldn’t have achieved our current growth without her help and leadership.”

Worrell is extending that help and leadership to assist with the latest overhaul of campus-wide systems known as the University of Washington Finance Transformation (UWFT). Her colleague Debbie Carnes, who serves with her on the Process Transformation Team, has witnessed firsthand how Worrell has employed her professional skills and personal empathy to assist UWFT program staff in understanding how changes to the administration of research grants and other fiscal processes are likely to impact operational staff college-wide.

”Jen’s longtime service to the College, ability to come up with innovative and creative solutions, resourcefulness and positivity are an asset to us all,” said Carnes, administrator for the UW Department of Chemical Engineering. “I cannot think of anyone more deserving of this award than Jen.”

Aside from her well-earned reputation as a skilled leader and a veritable fountain of knowledge about how the University works, perhaps the greatest endorsement Worrell has collected is that of colleagues who point to the time and care that she gives them — even when she is busy. Make that especially when she is busy.

“Not long ago, I ran into Jen in the hallway as she was rushing from one meeting to the next. Despite that, she stopped and asked me how I was doing,” recalled Stone. “I started to answer and then stopped myself and apologized, as I could see she was in a hurry. ‘It’s okay,’ she replied with a smile. ‘You are important, too.’

“I believe that encapsulates who Jen is at her core,” continued Stone. “She is one of a kind.”

Members of the Allen School will gather to celebrate Worrell’s recognition, and that of UW Distinguished Staff Award recipient Chloe Dolese Mandeville, at a reception on June 14. 

Learn more about the College of Engineering Awards here.