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Darlene Hunter: A seasoned pro at admissions, chili-judging

By Amy Agronis on April 18, 2003 in University

Late winter and early spring find Darlene Hunter helping to evaluate thousands of applications, trying to find just the right mix of qualities in prospective UC Davis students to complement the campus. But one day in May each year the associate director of admissions turns her attention to evaluating how well the right ingredients combine to flavor a wholly separate campus cause — Military Science’s annual Chili Cook Off.

The cook-off celebrates its 11th anniversary May 22 outside Hickey Gym. Hunter has been involved each year as a judge — the last half dozen years as “chief chili judge.”

The potluck lunch is open to all members of the campus community, and this year the contest also will host its first team-competition category. Co-workers are encouraged to sign up together and vie for a perpetual trophy for their department. Attendees also are invited to enjoy the competition from the sidelines and instead of chili bring salads, corn bread or desserts.

About a dozen entrants compete for best-chili bragging rights, plus prizes including jackets, hats and shirts, Hunter said. Good-natured bravado is welcomed, and past winners have kept their chili secrets close to the vest, hoping for repeat victories. “No one has ever given away their recipe,” she said.

The cook-off started as part of open house festivities to build awareness for Military Science, an academic unit in the College of Letters and Science. Housed in Hickey Gym, it is the largest Reserve Officers Training Corps unit in the state. It also has the distinction of contributing some $485,000 in scholarship funds to campus — making it the largest scholarship contributor on campus, Hunter said.

Hunter believes the event brings Military Science and the Army ROTC program much-deserved positive attention. That, plus the old-fashioned, festive picnic atmosphere of the cook-off has kept her involved, she said.

“It’s fun. You get to see a lot of people on campus that you only get to talk to during the year yet don’t really get to enjoy in a non-work environment. And it’s a wonderful way to give back,” she says, serving up one of the principles Hunter’s mom, a former UC Davis employee, taught her.

Hunter has lived in Davis all of her life, straying from campus only to earn a bachelor’s degree in physical education and biology and teaching credential from CSUS. Her parents, Milton and Edie Silva, worked for plant pathology and the chancellor’s office, respectively. He had 35 years on campus; and she reached the 26-year mark before retiring. Hunter now falls between, with 31 years. “Together, we almost have a century of service to the campus,” she said.

An avid campus and Aggie supporter, she said, “I bleed blue and gold.” And, appropriately, her license plate reads “2WK4O1” — “To Work for No. 1.”

Hunter oversees three units in Under-graduate Admissions and Outreach Services. She manages the technology involved with gathering and processing student applications; the application, selection and admission process itself; and notification of prospective students. “When I started, we’d only receive 13,000 applications (a year). Now that number is closer to 40,000,” she said, noting for fall 2003 UC Davis sent some 22,000 letters of acceptance to enroll 6,765 students — 4,880 freshmen and 1,885 transfer students — from a pool of more than 39,500 applications.

Her fellow judges in the chili competition will include men’s track coach Jon Vochatzer and psychology professor Al Harrison. They’ll line up with two others — armed with a bowl, spoon and tall glass of cool water — to rank entries on a scale of 1-5, 1 being best.

“I prefer the hot and spicy meaty chili with a lot of texture,” Hunter said. But other judges prefer milder varieties, and hearty vegetarian creations have ranked well in the past, she said, noting: “With five judges, there’s always a good balance of palates.”

And a good balance of discerning palates. One year, as a joke, a Military Science lieutenant tried to slip canned chili by the judges. Hunter and the other four judges agreed — something seemed fishy. “We knew it wasn’t right. We thought maybe it was military rations, and we weren’t that far off. It didn’t rank well,” she said with an easy laugh.

What foodstuff do you always have on hand at home?

Popcorn — I use an old air-pop machine — and salads and vegetables. I’m famous with my friends and colleagues for my ability to get more food on a salad plate than anyone would think is possible.

What’s something people would be surprised to find out?

That I actually can sit still — though not for long periods (chuckling). I’m a super-A-type: warp speed all day long. Also, although I love to bargain shop and dress nice for work, I am most comfortable in jeans and a T-shirt.

What’s your guilty pleasure?

Taking quiet time by myself — grabbing a cup of coffee and just reading the Sunday newspaper all by myself.

What’s do you like best about your work?

The students. Helping them reach their educational goals provides a lot of fulfillment. Of course, as application numbers grow and campus goals and admissions rules change, we face more challenges. But those challenges help keep me intrigued.

What do you like least?

Telling prospective students that they can’t come to UC Davis. It’s heartbreaking.

What’s your work/life philosophy?

Treat people with kindness and respect and don’t set standards for others you wouldn’t set for yourself. It’s important to build a trust. When people know that you appreciate and respect them and believe they can do it, the outcome is always positive.

Who inspires you and why?

My mom and dad. They taught me by example the values I live by today. They also taught me to be service conscious, and, above all, when doing anything to always offer 1,000 percent of your attention and abilities.•

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,