An Interview With Our Fund Manager Tanja Hrast

It may seem natural that when you have a question for the administration of the Cotsen Institute you go to Tanja Hrast, the most familiar face in the administrative offices. After all, she has been there the longest and has held several positions, all of which served the needs of the wider community of the Cotsen Institute. Although she was recently appointed fund manager, her experience as office coordinator, then program coordinator and assistant to the director, have required that she perform overlapping duties while other administrative positions were in flux. The welcome addition of Bronson Tran as the manager of the Cotsen Institute has helped, but she still “has way too much on her plate,” according to Willeke Wendrich, director of the Cotsen Institute, who singled Hrast out for special recognition in a recent Message from the Director. “I want to recognize and thank her for doing a three-person job for such an extended period of time,” Wendrich said in her commendation. In the following interview, Hrast discusses her current job and her personal path to the Cotsen Institute.


Roz Salzman: What is the primary focus of your new job as fund manager?


Tanja Hrast: I manage the funds for the Cotsen Institute, for both the Interdepartmental Program in Archaeology, chaired by Greg Schachner, and the Interdepartmental Program in Conservation, chaired by Glenn Wharton. That means budget analysis, budget projections, the managing of grants, monthly fund reconciliations, payroll reports, and much more. I also work with students and faculty who are interested in applying for grants. Together, we try to figure out if we can manage their grants through the Cotsen Institute or if we need to go through the Office of Grant Administration or utilize Social Sciences Grant Support. A big part of my job is payroll, which with the implementation in September 2018 of UCPath—the new payroll system of the University of California—has become even more time-consuming than it already was. I work very closely with the manager of the Cotsen Institute on anything related to funding and payroll. Additionally, I process and reconcile complex travel advances, which can take quite a bit of time to complete.


RS: How do you help put together the budgets?


TH: Formerly, our previous manager Teresa Sanchez and I split the duties in fund management. I handled the funds of the director and she did the rest of the funds within the Cotsen Institute. Gradually, just before she left, I started to take on the balance of the fund management duties from her. With Bronson as our new manager, he and I are working very closely together on analyzing all of our funding. Especially now, we have to be prepared for the short-, medium-, and long-term financial implications of the Covid-19 pandemic. Currently, we are also working on a comprehensive spreadsheet that will have all our financial information in one place, tracking all the expenses, projected income, and multi-year projections for the most impacted funds. With Bronson’s extensive IT background, we will make it very adaptable to perform custom queries. Hopefully, this information will also help create more efficient and effective communication with our director and the two chairs, as well as other professors who have their funds at the Cotsen Institute. As far as student funding goes, Bronson is working with our two student affairs officers, Shaharoh Chism for conservation and Sumiji Takahashi for archaeology, as well as with both our chairs. However, I do help with money transfers for student funding and provide Bronson with any information he needs to work on the budgets with the chairs and the student affairs officers.


RS: What about payroll?


TH: Payroll has become a two-person job since the implementation of UCPath. No transaction can be processed by only one person. You must have an initiator and an approver on the department level. Both Bronson and I can do either side of the transaction. After departmental approval, most of the transactions also need to go through the approval process of UCPath, which can take up to three business days. The UCLA payroll system used to be self-contained and very efficient, but now it is all under UCPath, and things have changed substantially. Everything now takes much more time and planning. It also takes longer to hire a new employee. Now, when you want to hire someone, a position needs to be created, which requires initiation and approval. Then the hire transaction needs to be initiated by one of us and approved by the other. Then it goes to UCPath for final approval. After that, we need to assign the funding, which again requires the initiator and approver. Additionally, if UCPath suffers a backlog, then we also suffer a backlog. So, if a professor wants to hire a graduate student researcher, a teaching assistant, or a student assistant, the sooner we know about it the better. We need to start the whole process at least two weeks ahead of the intended start date of the new employee, but preferably even earlier.


RS: Can you tell us something about travel advance reconciliations?


TH: Travel reconciliations can be quite a time-consuming job. When faculty and some students go on a longer field project, they apply to receive their funding in a travel advance. After returning from their trip, they bring all their receipts and documentation to me, which are usually in a foreign language and currency. A few of these reconciliations, mostly those of  students, can be pretty simple, but some travelers come back with between 200 and 600 receipts in foreign currency, and all the expenses need to be reconciled to the last penny. Fun fact, I am currently reconciling approximately five pounds of receipts from Ethiopia. I also work with Travel Accounting during both the initial application and reconciliation processes, to make sure that UC Travel Policy is being followed for all travel expenses.


RS: Are there any new issues working remotely?


TH: I had already worked remotely from Slovenia when visiting my sick mother, who had some serious medical issues. The big difference now is that I spend a lot of time on Zoom every day, which in my past experience was not as common. Additionally, the university wants us to track all of the Covid-19 related labor and expenses, such as the work required to set up Zoom meetings and help professors and staff with their Zoom issues, including preparing lectures in that format, such as helping them transition from PowerPoint to Zoom. The university even wants to know about purchasing the equipment and supplies required for working at home and the time spent scanning documents in preparation for remote work, and so on. As fund manager I also need to track my time spent tracking all Covid-19 related expenses, processing Covid-19 related personnel transactions, or updating projections due to the Covid-19 pandemic.


RS: You started with the Cotsen Institute in 2015. What did you do before?

TH: I went back to college when I was in my late 30s. I first went to Santa Monica College where I received an AA Degree in Business Administration, then transferred to the Department of Geography at UCLA, where I studied and graduated in the spring of 2011. I started working at UCLA in the summer of 2010, when I worked for Gregory Okin at the Department of Geography and managed his soil research laboratory. I analyzed most of the soil samples, which provided the data for the research project. I even got an article published on soil carbon and nitrogen out of that work. Which I think is pretty cool. When we finished the project, and the grant that funded my position expired, I volunteered for a little while and worked on a different project in the laboratory, then got a part-time job as administrative assistant in the Department of Geography. But I was not there long before the Cotsen Institute snatched me up in January 2015.


RS: Before going back to college, you had a very interesting career.


TH: Yes, I was a make-up artist doing film, television, photoshoots, fashion shows, and things like that. I continued to work on a freelance basis while I was in school and until I got my full-time position with the Cotsen Institute. I have actually found that many of the skills I developed doing make-up were applicable to my work here. When doing make-up, you have to adapt to the changing demands of the directors, photographers, and producers who often come up with creative ideas that need to be executed without prior notice. For example, the director or photographer would decide that a character needs a wound or special body make-up all of a sudden. We would then have to improvise because we did not have all the necessary supplies since nothing had been mentioned in the original script or when discussing the make-up design. So you always had to be ready to improvise and be creative. A lot of problem-solving and working with different personalities really proved very useful and very applicable to my work at the Cotsen Institute. A lot of people here come to me with different problems and questions, and together we try to find a solution, or at least get them pointed in the right direction.


RS: What activities do you enjoy when you are not working?


TH: Truthfully, wearing so many different hats at the Cotsen Institute over the past few years has really limited my free time. A lot of work follows me home, and my mind is constantly preoccupied with everything that needs to be taken care of. I used to be a serious runner and even participated in marathons. But I got injured about five years ago, and it has taken until recently to get a correct diagnosis for the injury. Running is the best therapy for me. If I could pull a “Forrest Gump” and just run and never stop, I would be very happy. But my body disagrees. Now I ride an indoor bicycle and hope to recover, so I can run again. I also listen to a lot of audiobooks and enjoy gardening on my balcony. I currently have strawberries, and I grow tomatoes, hot peppers, garlic, lavender, and just bought a new rose plant. I also have a lot of succulents. My balcony is not very big and the plants have definitely taken over. It is my little sanctuary, from where I get to enjoy many beautiful sunsets.

Published on May 14, 2020.